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‘The View UpStairs’ Revisits a Forgotten Chapter in LGBTQ+ History

June 28, 2018 by Kris Vire
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“The View UpStairs” at Circle Theatre. (Photographed by Cody Jolly Photography)

On the last Sunday in June of 1973 — a few days shy of the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York that kicked off the modern LGBT rights movement — a New Orleans gay bar was the site of an arson attack. The Big Easy was already a gay mecca, but the scene remained largely underground. But the UpStairs Lounge, as its name suggests, was on the second floor of a 19th-century French Quarter building, and when the fire was set in the wooden stairway that was the bar’s sole entrance and exit, 32 people were killed.

It was the deadliest attack on an LGBT space until the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016. But before news reports around the Pulse attack brought the UpStairs Lounge fire back into the public consciousness, many people had never heard of it. Playwright, performer and composer Max Vernon was one of those who had.

“I just had one of those weird internet wormholes where I started reading David Bowie’s Wikipedia entry, and somehow two hours later I have like 30 tabs going and I’ve got all the way from David Bowie to, like, the chemical breakdown of broccoli,” Vernon says of happening upon the story online, around the time of the incident’s 38th anniversary in 2011.

“It totally shocked me because I was a gender and sexuality studies major at the time,” says the composer, now 30. “We were hearing about really unknown riots that had happened in San Francisco in the ’60s. And yet nowhere in any of those studies had we talked about the UpStairs Lounge. I went to some of my professors at NYU and some of them hadn’t even heard of it.”

When Vernon returned to the university a few years later to pursue an MFA in musical theater writing, the UpStairs Lounge story had stuck with him. “I gave my professors a list of, like, 30 shows I could write. At the very bottom was this thing about the UpStairs Lounge because I knew I was interested in it, but I was like, ‘God, I feel like there’s something here, but I also think this would be a horrible, horrible musical and I definitely don’t want to write this,’” he says with a smirk. “And that of course was what my professors ended up making me write, because you should write the thing that scares you.”

His way into the story was through a present-day protagonist. In “The View UpStairs” — now receiving its Chicago premiere in a production by Circle Theatre, where it runs through July 22 — a self-absorbed millennial named Wes (played here by Kevin Webb) buys the abandoned building where the bar once stood with the intention of turning it into his design studio. Instead, Wes is magically transported back to the day of the fire, getting a glimpse of the community that called the bar home.

“Some people get really hung up on the time-travel aspect of it,” Vernon says of the responses to the conceit, in the musical’s early-2017 Off-Broadway premiere and in productions since in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Sydney, Australia. “I never intended for it to be time travel in the ‘Back to the Future,’ someone-gets-in-a-DeLorean sci-fi sense. I feel like we leave it very ambiguous: It could be ghosts haunting the space, it could be Wes’s cocaine is laced with something, it could be some kind of New Orleans juju that’s just floating in the air. It’s more impressionistic.”

While Circle Theatre’s production is the official Chicago premiere for “The View UpStairs,” director Derek Van Barham notes it’s not completely new to the city. While still in development, the musical was one of five finalists in 2014 for the Great Gay Play Contest, presented by Pride Films & Plays, where Van Barham is associate artistic director. “Max and Eric Hoff (“Hit the Wall”) had done a reading in New York, so it was coming to us with Eric attached as the director and I asked Eric if I could A.D. and just fell in love with it,” Van Barham says.

Now he’s staging Circle’s production at PFP’s Pride Arts Center. “I love that it’s at the Pride space, since we’re right next to Boystown, just down the street from Andersonville, and it’s very much something for Pride audiences,” he adds. “And in terms of everything happening in the country right now — it’s a show about chosen families. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about our history. It’s all things people right now need to hear.”

Vernon concurs: “It’s really easy to talk about the tragic elements because they’re of historical importance. but the show is actually really fucking fun too, until it’s not,” he says, laughing. “The piece itself is not a melodrama; it’s more of a celebration.”

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