Thanks to interview enabler and Outwrite Books owner Philip Rafshoon, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears graciously agreed to chat with us while he was in town last week.
This was between his and photographer Tim Hailand’s sold-out book signing for “One Day in the Life of Jake Shears” and a Scissor Sisters show at the Tabernacle.
Shears is currently sweating the songwriting details as part of the creative team responsible for the upcoming “Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City A New Musical” currently in rehearsal with a world premiere set for May 18 at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Shears co-wrote the music with band mate John Garden while “Avenue Q” Tony winner Jeff Whitty has written the musical’s book. “Avenue Q” and “Shrek” Tony nominee Jason Moore is directing the project. The musical is based on the material in “Tales” and Maupin’s first sequel, “More Tales of the City.”
Was it daunting coming up with musical material for iconic literary characters beloved by generations of “Tales” fans? “It’s still a daunting process!” Shears told us laughing. “Production rehearsals start in three days! I’m very involved. It’s a massive undertaking but what makes me breathe a little easier is that the team is so amazing. Everyone is so good at what they do and we all get along so well.”
Maupin is also involved in the latest “Tales” offspring that has already produced eight novels and three television mini series in the franchise’s 35-year history. But Shears says Maupin’s personality immediately put him at ease.
“There is nothing intimidating about Armistead Maupin,” the singer says. “He’s the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet and just a lovely soul.”
Scissor Sisters has always embraced the glam rock theatrics and disco dance music of the 1970s so Shears and Garden were logical go-to guys for the musical. But don’t expect a strict period score, Shears says. “I recorded most of the demos for the show and it’s very different to see what happens when the actors take on the songs. I of course put my own stamp on things but a Broadway veteran is going to deliver it differently. I often like that different spin a song can take when someone else sings it. But I didn’t go for period directly with the songs. There’s some disco in there for the club scenes but I didn’t want to go out of my way with that. Stylistically, I automatically kind of write in that vein anyway. I wanted to write music that was kind of timeless instead of super pointed in the 70s.”
Perhaps the most anticipated number in the musical is “Letter to Mama,” where Shears took the contents of the book’s central gay character Michael Tolliver’s coming out letter to his parents. It’s a missive that generations of gays and lesbians have cut and pasted to their own parents. The number will be performed by actor Wesley Taylor in the musical.
“I didn’t really have an emotional reaction when I was writing it,” Shears concedes. “But in the hands of an actor? It’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredible number. It’s a real tribute to Armistead’s words. I just edited them down and turned it into a melody. It’s an incredibly moving number. I’ve never seen it without crying. Thank God it’s followed up by the funniest number in the show!”
And that is? “It’s called ‘Ride ‘Em Hard,'” Shears previews laughing. “You’re not sad for too long [after ‘Letter to Mama’] let’s just say!”
While the show might be a no-brainer for Broadway, Shears maintains modesty on the show’s future and realizes work remains.
“Seriously, I can’t even envision that right now,” he says. “Sure, it would be amazing. When I saw it [in read throughs] on stage with music stands at the Eugene O’Neill [Theatre], I remember thinking, ‘If I never see this performed again, I’ll still be happy I was able to do this. It was such a joy to watch. Just that was worth it to me. There’s still major work to do and we’ve got to make this show [expletive] amazing. I want to make this a great show for San Francisco. I can’t allow myself to think past that right now.”