Max Vernon is introducing a forgotten piece of gay history to a new generation.
His new off-Broadway musical The View UpStairs has taken New York by storm, drawing in influential queer icons like RuPaul who left the theatre applauding the show and its creator.
Inspired by one of the most significant yet ignored attacks against the LGBTQ community, The View UpStairs examines what has been gained and lost in the fight for equality, and how the past can help guide all of us through an uncertain future.
The production pulls you inside The UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant ‘70s gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. On June 24, 1973, an arson attack on the bar killed 32 people. Until the shooting at Pulse in 2016, it was the deadliest known attack on a gay bar in U.S. history.
Vernon birthed the idea for the play six years ago while still in college. So how did a college student discover the 1973 tragedy?
“I was in one of those black holes you get into on the internet where you have a cocktail and it’s 1 a.m. and you’re looking up David Bowie on Wikipedia,” Vernon recounts over coffee and french fries. “And then three hours later, you’re reading about the chemical composition of broccoli.”
“Somewhere along the line, I ended up on a chat board and someone was talking about the 40th anniversary of The UpStairs Lounge fire. And I couldn’t believe that 32 people had died and I’d never heard about it, that it was erased from our history.”
Studying for his bachelor’s degree in gender and sexuality at New York University, not even his professors knew about the tragedy. “I took a whole class on ‘70s gay life in pre-AIDS communities in New York City and San Francisco, and otherwise it was never mentioned.”
“As an activist, I always wanted to get the story out there into the world. And then I decided to write a musical about it. Immediately, [that] didn’t seem like a good idea because there are a million ways that could possibly go wrong.”
But Vernon played around with the use of music in his show, and added the idea of a central protagonist going back in time from present day. “It started to feel theatrical when I thought of it, not in terms of writing about the fire, but using the fire to have a conversation between 1973 and 2017, to talk about the differences between those generations.”
His work on the one-act musical began one year later after the idea’s birth. A lot has happened in the LGBT fight for equality during that time, which has constantly updated his work. While other playwrights may ignore current events as an impetus to revise their work, Vernon rightfully adapts.
“The world has changed so much over the past five years: gay marriage has been legalized, Pulse happened, Trump happened. So we have seen both progress and regression. And so every time one of these seismic world events has happened, the whole piece has had to be changed and re-conceptualized in a way.”
These changes specifically have re-conceptualized the main character of Wes, who goes back in time to 1973 from the present day. “Originally, the character of Wes was conceived as someone who had never experienced oppression. He had only grown up with things getting better. So he was kind of a shit-head because of that. He needed to go back into the past to encounter this tragedy, in order to see the world in a more complex way.”
“Whereas now, he is someone who has grown up experiencing things like Pulse. He does know that the pendulum is swinging back and so he is more complicated. It’s not as cut and dry. He sees those things and he chooses to escape them by focusing on social media and his following and all of that. I don’t feel like he is fundamentally as much as a bad person as he is misguided.”
Wes touches upon his own obsession with social media frequently in the piece. Vernon implies his thinking as, “It doesn’t matter if the world is blowing up, I just got 10,000 likes on Instagram so I am going to be OK.”
This viral obsession is just one of several of Wes’ characteristics that Vernon sees in himself. “Wes has a lot of qualities that I hate about myself. I am afraid of dying. I know a lot of people are. But to some extent, with social media, it will prove that we existed. But I critique all these things and then I am also on my phone. I sometimes don’t prioritize the right things in my social interactions with people.”
“I was starting that journey six years ago and now I have fallen through the other side of the tunnel and am a more fully realized person now: the shallowness, the surfaceness, the obsession with how people perceive you versus how you perceive yourself. We all have those qualities, right? I took those qualities about myself and magnified them in Wes.”
Vernon’s existential intensity is palpable during our hour-long coffee date in the heart of Times Square. He knows what he’s talking about and talks about it with purpose, not only when it comes to his work, but also when it comes to the issues that matter to him most.
As we walk through the congested streets, Vernon sticks out in a sea of tourists. Not only for his towering height, but also for his flamboyant sense of style that suggests he just traversed the deserts of the Sahara. He actually did, returning from Morocco a few hours prior.
Vernon’s unique character doesn’t go unnoticed, and cast member Nathan Lee Graham agrees. He tells us, “Max Vernon is one of those rare birds that comes along and leaves his stamp on the world in the most unique way … through spoken word and music that cannot be forgotten!“
Graham dazzles in his role as the campy, older queen Willie, channeling divas Eartha Kitt and Tina Turner with growls and high-kicks. Their shared fondness for such divas has bonded Vernon and Graham, another generation gap bridged by Vernon’s dedication to gay history.
“Max is the definition of modern classic,” Graham continues. “Someone who is firmly living in the present but constantly reaching back and pushing forward at the same time. The fact that he happens to be thoughtful, clever and self aware is a gift — so a rare bird.”
“Daring to ‘be’ in the truest sense in today’s society of looming conformity. Asking, posing the hard questions and maybe, just maybe getting closer and closer to the truth with a tune or a limerick that sounds real real good!”
While Vernon looks back, his nostalgia is based in resistance, looking towards the future to see what changes can be made in uncertain times. “Trump was an exclamation point to my piece. And he is a question mark that maybe shit really is not better.”
“I had so much anger about the way our election played out. I am still angry about what is going down in the world. So I wrote that monologue into the end of the show which is my raised fist, militant faggot moment where I’m asking people to go out there. Pick up the torch from the past and keep fighting. Because what is happening right now is not acceptable.”