The UpStairs Lounge was once a vibrant gay bar tucked away in New Orleans’ French Quarter. But on June 24, 1973, it was the scene of a deadly arson attack that left 32 people dead and the bar closed forever. Prior to last summer’s Pulse nightclub shooting, which claimed 49 lives, the UpStairs Lounge fire was the deadliest attack on a gay club in U.S. history.
“The View Upstairs” is a new musical that provides a fictional take on this very real tragedy. Writer Max Vernon takes viewers on a journey through the eyes of Wes (Jeremy Pope), a modern-day fashion designer who buys the space where the UpStairs Lounge once stood and uses it for his flagship store. As Wes struggles to build his business and deal with his social media fame, he -- along with the audience -- is transported back to the 1970s. By traveling back in time, he must adjust his modern-day mindset to a different era.
“It’s about someone who thinks they need a following and by the end of the show realize they need a community,” Vernon told NBC Out. “Sometimes we mistake those [social media] followings for community, but it’s not the same thing.”
Vernon, who first heard about the fire while studying pre-AIDS-era gender and sexuality, said he started writing the musical because of the lack of knowledge surrounding the incident among fellow millennials.
“I would ask people in my generation if they had heard about the UpStairs lounge fire, and 95 percent of them didn’t know,” he said.
As Vernon wrote the script and as current events unfolded around him, the focus of “The View UpStairs” started to evolve. Eventually, it became something more than a tribute to the lives lost on the night of the attack.
“I started writing the musical about [UpStairs Lounge] before gay marriage was legalized, before Pulse happened, before Trump was elected, so the show has changed radically over the years,” he explained.
“Pre-Pulse, Wes started out as a character that only knew privilege,” Vernon said. “As the world became more complicated, that character became more complicated, because he started to know oppression.”
Vernon said Wes eventually realizes his relationships are just “transactional,” and he comes to the conclusion that he needs more “transformational” connections.
Director Scott Ebersold agreed, adding that Wes is “forced to put his phone down and deal with what is around him.”
“Wes meets a bunch of different types of unusual characters from all different parts of the gay community, and has a great experience for having met them,” Ebersold added.
The relationships among the powerhouse ensemble cast provide Wes perspective on how he fits into the LGBTQ community. “[The characters] are all at different stages of gay liberation, and that’s why they rub up against each other,” Vernon said.
Wes interacts with a range of bar patrons -- from a hustler to a priest –- who are all struggling with their own journeys. Glimpses of their lives are shown through song and barside conversation, all while serving as a tool for Wes to delve into his own life.
“Bars were very important spaces to find chosen families to mentor you. I wanted a community of people who would never be on stage together if it wasn’t for this show,” Vernon explained.
“With musical theater, you [often] see a lot of people who are the same, and then there is that one weirdo with one exciting number, and then they are gone. But I wanted to make everyone in my show that weirdo,” he added.
Before the show progresses toward the inevitable June 24 fire, Wes begins to feel a sense of hopefulness that community acceptance will lead to a better future. The hopefulness, according to Vernon, is representative of our social and political environment prior to the 2016 election.
“At least in our lives as millennials, we’ve seen the pendulum swing toward things getting better, and now for the first time the pendulum is swinging back, and that’s not new to history,” Vernon explained. “A lot of us are anesthetized, because we have a certain amount of visibility, but you never know what is going to happen, and we have to be united as a community to push the fight forward toward equality.”
The official cause of the UpStairs Lounge fire was never confirmed, and the musical reflects that uncertainty.
“If you read the script, the fire is very abstract,” Vernon said. “The fire starts, and 1973 starts to collapse. The stage is stripped away, and we are back in 2017.”
The connection Wes unexpectedly started to feel toward the gay community was quickly taken away from him by the fire. Through an interaction with a police officer, he emotionally urges the audience to be the catalyst that creates love and acceptance.
“In this time, we as a community need to come together,” Ebersold said. “I think it is very easy to section yourself off into little groups, but it’s better if we try to understand each other.”
“Often, it was tradition [at gay bars] to have a song to end the night, and you would be bonded through that. The real UpStairs Lounge had a song called ‘United We Stand’ by Brotherhood of Man, and they were singing that song 20 minutes before the fire,” Vernon said.
For united we stand
Divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We'll be together, together, you and I
“The View UpStairs” stars Michael Longoria ("Jersey Boys,” “Hairspray”), Frenchie Davis (“Rent,” “American Idol”) and Nathan Lee Graham (“The Wild Party,” “Zoolander”). The musical can be seen at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project in New York City until May 21.