“The View UpStairs”, a some-kind-of-paradise where 1973 meets 2017

Asya Danilova

OnStage New York Columnist

An OnStage Blog associate New York critic, Asya Danilova, sat down with the creators of the new musical “The View UpStairs”, the author of book, music and lyrics, Max Vernon, and the director, Scott Ebersold, to talk about the gay community in 1973 and now.   

“Gay marriage once was legal, now we live in prison camps” might replace the current line “Gay marriage now is legal but in four years who can say”, if “The View Upstairs” will be revived in several years. We laugh about it with the musical’s author, Max Vernon, and the director, Scott Ebersold. The laughter stops suddenly and Max’s face becomes dead serious: “Well, I am not going down without a fight”. Our conversation, much like the musical itself, swings back and forth between jokes and painful moments of the distant, and recent, history of gay rights.
“The View UpStairs”, the new musical that just opened at Lynn Redgrave Theater, takes the audience to 1973, to a gay bar called The UpStairs Lounge, in New Orleans. We first arrive to a gloomily lit, rundown place circa 2017, as Wes (Jeremy Pope), a young fashionista from New York, who is looking for a place for his hip boutique. Ignorant of the history of the building, Wes is only focused on his social media flock and obsessed with the idea of becoming famous. But we are about to be reminded of the glittery old days of the place and the tragic event that ended it. 

The musical is inspired by real events in a real place. The UpStairs Lounge was a vibrant gay bar in New Orleans in the 70s. It had piano sing-alongs, amateur drag queen shows, and even functioned as a house of worship for the Metropolitan Community Church, the nation’s first gay church founded in Los Angeles in 1968. A place for hookups, for many the UpStairs Lounge was also a safe haven and the only place where people could be themselves. But it all came to an inglorious end on a Sunday in June of 1973, when an arson attack took the lives of 32 people.

Max Vernon first came across these events about seven years ago, while majoring in Queer Studies at NYU. To his surprise, nobody among his professors or peers from this “liberal bastion” knew about the UpStairs Lounge, which made him feel obligated to tell this story. In 2013, graduating from Tisch School of Arts with a MFA in Musical Theater Writing, Max presented The View Upstairs as his thesis musical. It was important for the young writer to make a statement as an activist and an artist, but also to celebrate the 70s, with all the joys and sorrows of life within a family-like, gay community. 

Max met Scott Ebersold the same year he graduated, and Scott recognized the great potential of this story right away. Among the things that drew the director to the project was an endearing love story between Wes and Patrick (played by Taylor Frey), “a love affair between 2017 and 1973”, as Max puts it. But the other inhabitants of the UpStairs Lounge are not merely a background for the romance. Each of them is a unique individual with their own crazy story, which gets to be heard.    

To name just a few, there is a piano player, Buddy (Randy Redd), married to a woman while keeping the real reason for working at a gay bar secret. There is Willy, (Nathan Lee Graham), an aging queen, yet still a vibrant and radiant dancer. Pastor of MCC, Richard (Benjamin Howes) leads everybody to prayer, and the butch bartender, Henri (Frenchie Davis), straightens everybody up with her commanding voice. Some characters, like the mother-son duo of Porte-Rican Inez (Nancy Ticotin) and giggly drag queen, Freddy (Michael Longoria), won’t be seen on theater stages at all. Yet they were based on the real frequenters of the UpStairs Lounge, as were other characters.      

The casting was unexpectedly challenging because, apparently, so many graduates from musical theater programs have their individuality completely beaten out of them in order to fit into the commercially oriented Broadway musicals. But the team led by the casting director, Rebecca Feldman, was on the hunt for talent based on vibrant individuality. This resulted in a wonderful ensemble of ten, of whom I haven’t yet named Ben Mayne (playing Dale) and Richard E. Waits (playing a heartless pig in 1973 and a fatherly supportive cop in 2017).     

“I really believe that the actor directs the role and the director directs the play. Those are unique individuals. I helped them to shape their performances but I also allowed them to create the characters as they saw them”, comments Scott on his approach to working with the cast. And you can see just how much fun the actors have on stage. 

Dressed in sleek 70s outfits, designed by Anita Yavich, and groomed by the hair, wig and makeup designer Jason Hayes, the characters make you believe that it is you who just traveled back in time. The busy scenic design, by Jason Sherwood, immerses you in the homey atmosphere of the cabaret, with a bar, grand piano, and a few tables with audience members on stage. The ambitious, dynamic lighting design, by Brian Tovar, gave the production an extra kick by taking us in and out of reality and changing the set entirely at times.                

Coming from a place of truth, rather than doing things for the sake of the pure effect, is what the author of the musical, Max, and the director, Scott, have in common. The musical went through several rewrites since they started working together, due to the changing political situation. When Max first wrote “The View UpStars”, it had the line: “Gay marriage will be legal any day now, that I’m sure” in it. When gay marriage was legalized countrywide in June 2015, Max changed the line to “Gay marriage now is legal but I don’t see the allure”. 

After seeing a five-year old with a little rainbow flag marching alongside the Brooklyn pride parade, Max came to Scott with a concern: is the musical about the struggle of the gay community in the 70s still relevant? They agreed upon the importance of the acknowledgment of historical events, as well as celebrating the spirit of people on whose footsteps that five-year old marches. But then Pulse happened in June 2016, when a security guard of this gay club in Orlando shot 49 people to death and wounded 53 others. And then Trump got elected president and suddenly nobody in LGBTQ community felt safe anymore.

The lead character of the musical had to grow up quickly to keep up with the times, and, I must say, he feels very down to earth. I swear I saw him in a bar in Bushwick yesterday and I probably stumble upon him on Instagram multiple times. First he chooses to ignore reality and escape to his dreams about becoming famous, influential, and to act from a position of power. It takes him a night spent in 1973, and a lost love, to realize that in order to survive and hold on to his rights, he needs to act upon it. And not by building a social media following, but by being an active member of the more inclusive community. As Wes puts it towards the end of the show, no member of a gender, religious, or ethnic minority can rest assured of their rights. 

The song “Some Kind of Paradise”, which frames the show, perhaps sums it all up. The nature of the “Paradise”, created by the patrons of the UpStairs Lounge, as well as Wes’s generation, is fragile. Yet thanks to the dialogue between the past and the present, we can take the strengths of both on the march into the future. As Scott states, “One of the questions of the musical is what have we left behind on this journey forward, and what are the things that we can remember from the past?” 

Hopefully, in thirty years at the revival of “The View Upstairs”, the audience will say: “What a crazy time 2017 was”. And mark my words; there must be a revival! Because, besides being a history lesson, an incredibly touching love story, a socially self-aware piece, “The View Upstairs” is one hell of a party with glitter and dancing on the piano under a dildo chandelier. Believe me, you don’t want to miss it!      

“The View UpStairs” runs through May 21st in The Lynn Redgrave Theater, located at 45 Bleaker Street. Tickets start from $46.50 and are available at the box office, or by phone at (866-811-4111) or online. Photo credit is Kurt Sneddon.