Michael's Letter to Mama

Michael's Letter to Mama

May 23, 2016
Categories: Seattle Men's Chorus

Longtime member, Paul Nelson, shares the history of "Michael's Letter to Mama," an SMC original that will be performed during the Encore! concert, June 24 & 25.


Tales of the City was first published as a book in 1978, as a collection of stories that had first appeared as a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, set originally in 1975. Serialized fiction was a format that had died out since the time of Charles Dickens, but Armistead Maupin somehow sold the concept to the newspaper management. They didn't want it to be a "gay" series, and for a time counted the gay and straight characters! Each day's episode ended with some kind of teasing hint about what might be coming next, so people would want to get and read the next day's newspaper. Maupin included many actual locations (restaurants, nightclubs, even bathhouses) with which readers were familiar. He also frequently mentioned the music that his characters were listening to, mostly contemporary pop tunes, to set them up emotionally.

It occurred to SMC that it would be delightful to create an entire show comprised of the music that's mentioned in Maupin's books. The concert, Tunes from Tales (Music for Mouse), opened in 1999 with special guest, Armistead Maupin. It included the original song, “Michael’s Letter to Mama.”

The central locale of the story is 28 Barbary Lane, an old Victorian house converted into half a dozen apartments, owned by Mrs. Madrigal. Her mostly-young tenants, all of whom are transplants from elsewhere, provide many of the adventures of the serial. Michael Tolliver, known to his friends as Mouse, has moved from Orlando, and has concealed from his uptight parents that he's gay. In the course of the stories, Michael is afflicted with a paralytic, possibly fatal, neurological disease, and is hospitalized. His neighbor, Maryann, brings his mail to the hospital, including a note from his Mom that they're involved with the Anita Bryant anti-gay campaign. Michael decides the time has arrived to come out, and dictates his letter to Maryann to type and send off. Maupin states that he wrote the episode with the letter in a single draft, the words just coming out, without having to go back and edit. Maddux had a big task converting the letter, with no changes, into a piece of music.

In 2004, when Maupin returned to Seattle for another concert featuring his writing, he remarked to the audience: "You know, writing is by its very nature a solitary profession, and very rarely does one get to climb out one's little hole and actually greet the world in a way that's satisfying. And I really have to thank Dennis Coleman, especially, and the Seattle Men's Chorus, for giving me this opportunity not once but twice, to hear my words set to music before an audience; it's a truly thrilling thing.”

The song is included on our Home CD, with a liner note stating it "features one of the most requested pieces the chorus has ever performed — “Michael's Letter to Mama” from Seattle Men's Chorus' groundbreaking collaboration with Armistead Maupin, author of the beloved Tales of the City series."