After two viewings of Max Vernon's The View UpStairs, I couldn't get this story out of my head. It has stayed with me for months. I keep wanting to learn more about this time in gay history when the UpStairs Lounge was burned to the ground. Additionally, I have been waiting for this cast recording to get released. I loved the music! Nathan Lee Graham, Michael Longoria, and Frenchie Davis, are just some of the vocal powerhouses that have stayed with me.
When it was announced The View UpStairs cast recording was being released by Broadway Records on August 11, I knew this was the right time to call Max. Luckily, he answered! I loved learning about the recording of the album, why he wrote this show, and what he learned from this run.
To download or purchase your copy of The View UpStairs, click here!
1. On August 11, your show, The View UpStairs will be releasing its cast recording. What is it like to know that something you wrote the book, music, & lyrics for is getting a digital/CD release? Who is the first person to get a signed copy? Ever since I first started writing songs, I dreamed of having an artifact of my work that was beautiful from start to finish, but never had the resources to create something of that caliber. It took 15 years for the dream to become reality, but I really believe we have created one of the all time great rock musical records. Growing up I was that weird kid wearing kimonos at 14, watching David Lynch films, and listening to Kate Bush and Roxy Music. I hope for all the queer/glam/arty/weirdo kids coming up that this record means something to them.
First signed copy goes to my grandma!
2. What was the recording process like? What song took the longest to record? What song was recorded in a matter of "minutes"? I already love recording studios because they tend to feel so suffused with musical ghosts and memory, but our room at Avatar felt particularly magical. Being in the console room with the engineers playing back the mix while looking into this giant space filled with our band and incredible cast - I felt like I was on the Starship Enterprise, overseeing this army of fierce glam rock warrior divas.
I think "Some Kind of Paradise" took the longest, because it's our opening song so you *have* to get that exactly right to set the tone for the rest of the day. People needed that to know - are we gonna phone it in, or are we here to make one of the great cast albums of all time? It's 10am, people were just waking up like "Can I have a sip of this coffee?" and I said "Yeah, after you wail that high F# for Jesus!" Hello!
Michael Longoria did essentially a perfect straight through take of "Sex on Legs." It was on FIRE. When he finished, everyone around the room looked at each other in silence 'til I said, "Well damn! Okay." He went back to overdub some crazy melismas and screlted dolphin sonar high notes, but the entire song was done in less than ten minutes.
3. Can you share with us any funny stories that happened during the recording session(s)? Only one thing, but it's rated NC-17 so I can't say!!! Take me out for a drink first :)
4. Let's talk about the show itself for a minute. What initially made you want to write this show? Why do you think this event is not as widely known about as say The Stonewall Riots? Before I went back to school for the financially savvy grad degree of musical theatre writing (ha), I was a gender & sexuality studies major undergrad. I was going pretty deep down the rabbit hole of queer theory - you know, Foucault, Butler, Cyborg Feminism, Disability as Queerness, etc - but none of my professors had even heard of the UpStairs Lounge Fire, which before Pulse was the worst attack on the LGBTQ community in history.
I knew I wanted to shine light on the event, but I really wrote the show with the intention of speaking specifically to my generation of the queer community - to the experience of feeling disconnected from one's history; wanting to reclaim that past to help us navigate through all the bigoted bullshit going on right now with Trump, etc. What I was not expecting was that some of the most emotional responses came from audience members in their sixties and above who had lived through the 70s and everything that followed. So much of queer theatre is centered on the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, that we don't often celebrate the raw sexuality of the 70s because it seems tainted in some way. I think for some of the older audience members, watching a piece created by a younger author that attempted to reclaim and honor their sacrifices was moving.
I think The UpStairs Lounge Fire is not as widely known as Stonewall for a variety of reasons: It happened in the South, where gay rights and gay lib politics were essentially non-existent. Many patrons at the UpStairs Lounge refused to give interviews on camera for fear of being outed, which could lead to being fired or denied housing. The police, media, churches, and local government officials all essentially ignored the attack, which helped it lapse from public consciousness. Finally, the likely arsonist, Rodger Dale Nunez, was a gay hustler who'd been thrown out of the club by his own community for harassing patrons at a glory hole in the bathroom. That doesn't fit a clean, convenient narrative of a hate crime for our community.
5. What did you learn from the Off-Broadway run that might inform future runs to those who mount The View UpStairs? Our midnight Friday and Saturday shows were always the best because the audience came with a drink or two already in them and ready to go on a muthaf*ckin time travelin gay glam rock VOYAGE. The actors could feel that energy and they would go wild and start improving crazy, insane bits that had everyone in stitches. That kind of freedom and wildness is so crucial to what this show is all about. Our superfans (we call them "voyeurs") who saw the show anywhere from 10 to 34 times, started coming with glitter already on their faces, ready to get cruised, dance, and flirt with our actors. I think future theatres need to embrace that spirit and cultivate that cult following as a means of generating community!
6. What was one of the most memorable things you heard from audience members about the show? Did you hear from any of the survivors or their family/friends? One of the most incredible things was actually, one night after a show, I went out with some friends to Odessa Diner for some midnight pierogis. We started joking about my show's glowing dildo chandelier, the drag queen's confetti lactating breasts, how my dad wishes I would stop talking about fisting in my interviews, etc. I notice there's a very butch lumberjack kind of a man sitting in a booth behind us and he starts to tense up. I'm thinking any minute he's going to come over and assault us for our very public display of art-faggotry. He walks over with a grimace on his face and bellows "Are you talking about that show about the UpStairs Lounge Fire!?" And then the butch all melts away, and he proceeds to tell us he's actually a gay poet who went to all these clubs in the 70s and remembers the fire firsthand. A month later he sent me a collection of his poems.
7. Which character in the show most resembles you? "Wes," the main character, is somewhat autobiographical - a bit of a satire of all my worst qualities x 100.
8. Since the title character in the show is a young fashion designer and you certainly seem to have an eye for fashion. Do you have aspirations to have your own clothing line? What designers inspire you? Thanks! It was all just kind of borne from necessity. When I was 18 and first starting to perform my songs around the city I wanted to be dressed head to toe in Alexander McQueen couture, but didn't have $20,000 for a blazer, so I bought a glue gun and started making my own sh*t instead and cultivating an eye for all the strange, colorful, sequined power bitch blazers that the grannies of the upper east side were throwing away. Recently I've started tricking out looks for other artists - I just finished stoning a shirt for Charles Busch's Fire Island Cabaret to give a kind of Marie Antoinette trompe l'oeil necklace effect. All of my favorite designers are dutch: Iris Van Herpen, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester. I'd love to do a Max Vernon inspired capsule collection if anyone cool wanted to collab...call me!
9. The View UpStairs takes the audience on a journey of seduction and self-exploration. What is one seductive tale from your life you can share with us? Last week, while waiting for the Q train some guy came up to me around 9 am and said "Hey can I ask a question? Are you single? Cause you know I wanna fuck you in the park behind a tree right?" He was barefoot and seemed probably insane but he was kinda cute actually! That mighta been my soulmate right there! Hey, if any of you boys are feelin' thirsty who knows, he might still be at Prospect Park.
10. After The View UpStairs finished its Off-Broadway run, you got hit with a wave of Brooke Shields post-partum emotions and you took some time to go deal with that. Now that you are back, why do you think you got to depressed after the show? What was it like to take those months to yourself? How do you feel this rejuvenation made you stronger? Imagine spending 5 years creating a show with a cast full of characters you deeply love, and then having to watch them die every night for three months! That's a lot. And to have such a political show hit NY right after the election, there was so much catharsis happening with the audiences as well who would come up to me after the show because I dress like Bea Arthur on acid. I loved connecting with those people and all the fancy 2am cocktails at Noho Star spending up that royalty money, but once the show ended I kinda collapsed from exhaustion. I just stayed in bed for three weeks doing snail mucus face masks, eating gelato, and watching reruns of Two Fat Ladies.
My next show, KPOP at Ars Nova, was in pre-production only a month later. So, after a mini-hibernation and a few chemical peels, I shook off the post-partum blues and got pregnant again. Now I have pink hair, a floor covered in teal rhinestones, and a 32-song all electronic half Korean score ready to go. We start performances Sept 5th!
Max Vernon is a composer/lyricist, playwright, and performer. Described by the New Yorker as "equal parts bohemia and Broadway," Max's work has been performed and developed at Ars Nova, Actors Theatre of Louisville (Wondrous Strange, Humana Festival 2016), Berkeley Rep, Dixon Place, Disney Creative Entertainment, Goodspeed Opera House, Keen Company, LaMaMa, Naked Angels, New Dramatists, Ma-Yi, Pride Films and Plays (Chicago), Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Theatreworks USA, and Two River Theater (NJ), among others.
He is a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Grant, New York Stage and Film's Founders Award, New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, and the JFund Award from the Jerome Foundation. He has been a Dramatist Guild Theatre Fellow, and an artist in residence at Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat and the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony. He is currently a member of Ars Nova's Uncharted, and former member of the Civilians' R&D Group. He has performed over a hundred concerts in New York City, including sold out shows at Joe's Pub (Frisk Me: The Songs of Max Vernon), Lincoln Center (LC Originals) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Civilians' Let Me Ascertain You).
His musicals include The View UpStairs (NYU, Pride Films and Plays, Invisible Wall Productions), 30 Million (Keen Company) and WIRED (Ars Nova) Developing: KPOP! (Ars Nova/Ma-Yi/Woodshed Collective); Co-Op (Ars Nova, Naked Angels Radio); Show & Tell (Jerome Foundation, Civilians R&D Group); Nincest (Berkeley Rep Ground Floor); Better for Night (Weiner Theatricals/Randy Weiner). He hopes to one day dismantle patriarchy and steal your grandma's sequin blazer. MFA: NYU - Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.