In 2012, after conceiving the idea of creating a musical theater company telling only Bay Area stories, Tony Asaro was sitting at his computer searching for alluring, culturally relevant stories for the theater's first musical production. Gazing at the Google search bar, he typed: "san francisco ghost stories," "san francisco political scandals," and even "playland accidents." Finally, he searched for "san francisco sex scandals" and found a top 10 list in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. His eyes drifted to a headline that caught his attention. He read a short blurb about "The Cable Car Nymphomaniac," a story about a 29-year-old woman who sued Muni for $500,000 in 1970 for a cable car accident that injured her six years earlier. She claimed that after she hit her head on a pole, she developed an insatiable sexual appetite that prompted her to have sex with more than 100 men. The woman eventuallywon a settlement of $50,000.
As Asaro stared at his screen in disbelief, he thought, "That's a musical."
Asaro, Aimee Miles, and Carey McCray, co-founders of FOGG Theatre Company, are trying to shake up traditional musical theater by following the tenets of the local foods, farm-to-table philosophy. The founders envision a company where the "produce was the stories that we had to tell here in the Bay Area that aren't getting told elsewhere," says Asaro.
To that end, FOGG, for "Focus on Golden Gate," keeps things as local as possible: It tells the stories of Bay Area heroes, histories, communities, concerns, and ideologies; all the actors, writers, directors, and sound technicians are from the Bay Area; and the company uses the local crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, to raise money. They wanted to create a ripple within the theater community that could be felt on their home turf. "It goes back to the roots of theater in Greece. Theater that comes from the community, that reflects the community and that features members of the community," says McCray.
The idea for FOGG was hatched when Asaro and McCray decided to move back to San Francisco from New York in 2011. Graduates of New York University's theater program and deeply embedded in the musical scene there, they thought leaving the nation's industry hub at first seemed unwise. When they announced their departure, their friends assumed that they were leaving the industry altogether. McCray says that there was a misconception that "leaving New York was indicative of the end of your life in legitimate new musical theater."
Miles also felt her hometown calling her back after she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. For more than a decade, she racked up credentials in the L.A. acting scene through film and television appearances, but her passion remained in new musical theater and in returning to S.F. "It felt like career suicide to leave Los Angeles as a working actor, but ironically, coming back has been the best thing artistically that's ever happened to me," says Miles.
But once back in S.F., they realized that the shows that they were seeing were by New York playwrights and starring New York actors. There was a void in Bay Area-based musical productions acted out by San Franciscan staff. Asaro continued to wonder, "What about our voice?" They wanted San Francisco to be a city that generated respected theater. "Without New York attached to it, it didn't have any pedigree, so we wanted to change that," says Miles.
Sykes sued Muni after the 1967 Summer of Love, so the court case reinforced the notion that the city was full of hedonists. "It's really indicative of this schism between how sexuality is embraced in this area and how different that is from a lot of the rest of the country," says Asaro. He felt that the story exemplified San Francisco because instead of Sykes being chastized for her sexuality, she was taken seriously. "Her being sexual wasn't something to demonize," he says.
Asaro was captivated by the provocative drama that he read in the newspaper clippings. Psychiatrists and lovers testified in court, sharing their perceptions of Sykes' actions. One clipping even detailed an unexpected marriage proposal to Sykes. Asaro consulted Kirsten Geunther, a native San Franciscan writer based in New York, to write the book for the musical while he focused on composition and lyrics. They incorporated the psychiatrists' and the lovers' testimonies into the songs and lyrics in the show.
The Cable Car Nymphomaniac is told from the perspective of those testifying, singing their version of events with funny, raunchy lyrics (in one, Sykes' lovers sing, in unison, "So clear the tracks 'cause here comes Gloria/Adjust your slacks 'cause here comes Gloria"). Upbeat, flirty piano strokes and intricate melodies remind the listener of the absurdity of the whole thing.
Monica Turner, an actress at FOGG who works at Google during the day, thinks that the musical is a pro-girl statement. Turner plays the feminist Esther. She admits that her character's song, "A Woman Shouldn't Want," is tongue-in-cheek, but aims to expose the illogic of double standards. "[Esther's] flushing out this narrow perception of a woman's place in society, which is essentially in the home and not the workplace," she says. "Ultimately, she's equating women who actually want things to social upheaval."
In keeping with the farm-to-table philosophy, FOGG has also partnered up with a local chef and alcohol distributor for the musical, which is expected to debut during the summer. The founders hope their efforts to create a Bay Area-based musical theater will inspire the city to celebrate the anecdotes and talents that are distinctly San Francisco. "We have so many stories that we want to tell," says Asaro.