Burning

How ‘The View UpStairs’ Recalls the Forgotten Gay Disco Inferno That Killed 32

In June 1973, an act of arson that torched the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans killed 32 people. A new play revisits an overlooked tragedy.

That was then, but is it now? We are invited to ponder that question by Max Vernon in the off-Broadway musical he has penned and scored, The View UpStairs, which centers on the deadliest attack on a gay venue prior to the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre.

Thirty-two individuals lost their lives on June 24, 1973, in an act of arson that torched the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a gay bar that also doubled as the home for the pro-LGBT Metropolitan Community Church.

The suspected perpetrator was never charged or successfully apprehended, nor did local law enforcement and politicians prove themselves very sympathetic to the victims owing to their being LGBT, and area churches declined to hold services for them. Even some of their families were reluctant to claim their bodies in what amounted to an open acknowledgement that they had frequented a gay establishment; three remained unidentified and were given a pauper’s burial.

The arson occurred on Pride Sunday, a still-fledgling observance that was itself inaugurated by the Stonewall riots gay rights watershed that had only come four years prior.

Audience members setting foot into the intimate Lynn Redgrave Theater will, in similar fashion to lead character Wes, find themselves transported from the present back into the kitschy, charming trappings of an early 1970s honky-tonk-turned-piano-bar.

The baby grand piano itself is lovingly adorned with a collage of the era’s pop cultural icons near and dear to queer hearts who also inform the soundtrack’s sensibility, from David Bowie to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross to Elton John, Nina Simone and even Bea Arthur’s Maude; a McGovern campaign poster also hangs here, as well as a snapshot of an anti-gay protest, emblematic of the intersection between rollicking music and tempestuous politics The View UpStairs delivers.

Holding court above it all is the celebrated nude layout Burt Reynolds had posed for upon a bearskin rug in Cosmopolitan magazine the year prior.

More than just a wink and a nod to eye candy the patrons would have favored, its inclusion is an example of the meticulous attention to detail Vernon demonstrates to the setting for his production, given that the centerfold is said by contemporaneous accounts to have been hung in the actual UpStairs Lounge.

It was this sort of research that led Vernon to learn of the attack itself, he relates. He stumbled upon this knowledge on the internet while a gender and sexuality student at New York University. “I thought it was made up or a prank, because I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that this awful thing had happened and no one knew about it—that such an important part of our history had been forgotten.”

Despite taking a course on pre-AIDS queer communities in ’70s, none of his texts mentioned nor did his professors know about the UpStairs Lounge fire.

While Vernon wanted to increase awareness of the tragedy through his craft, The View UpStairs takes the fire as a jumping-off point between eras, using the lounge as an example of the LGBT community’s coping mechanisms and kinship of the time.

In the conservative South, among evolving yet still resistant public attitudes with respect to gay identity and acceptance, the UpStairs Lounge brought together gay New Orleanians, both for good and, alas, ill, as when the fire struck.

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We are introduced to its engaging, archetypal patrons with the foreknowledge that they will meet their untimely end.

However, transforming this somber subject matter into entertainment did not prove challenging, according to director Scott Ebersold. “What is central to the storytelling is that the audience meets these fabulous people from the past and become endeared to them before they are taken away. It is this idea that sparked my desire to set the show semi-immersively.”

And these people are indeed fabulous. Along with Wes, a New Yorker who has in the present day come into ownership of the former lounge’s third-story building, played by an affable Jeremy Pope, the diverse and energetic ensemble cast features stern but warm-hearted lesbian barkeep and proprietor Henri(etta) (Frenchie Davis), as well as patrons Patrick (a dashing Taylor Frey), a romantic interest for Wes who has been scarred by a previous encounter with conversion therapy, and Willie, a larger-than-life diva devotee (Nathan Lee Graham).

Freddy, a Latino drag performer played by a versatile Michael Longoria, has a supportive mother Inez (Nancy Ticotin), and the cast is rounded out by Richard, a kindly preacher and spiritual leader (Benjamin Howes), and the conflicted Buddy, the bar’s resident mustachioed pianist played by the debonair Randy Redd, who clashes with outcast hustler Dale (a cagey and sinewy Ben Mayne), and who also resents Wes for his growing affections for his former lover Patrick.

Wes functions amply as a touchstone for today’s social-media-fixated youth, with his opening solo’s title even beginning with a hashtag.

We are never quite sure how he has come to interact with these 1973 characters—in both senses of the word—and this ambiguity is deliberate.

Vernon explains, “If you want to imagine it’s all some grandiose hallucination you can, or you can see it as a ghost story with a bit of New Orleans voodoo magic orchestrating this love affair between two different periods… The piece has kind of a Vonnegut-esque understanding of all times existing simultaneously.”

This is heady stuff, but very effective. What would, indeed, a gay person from 1973 make of today’s marriage equality world? And what would a modern gay young man such as Wes, who confesses that his mom “came out for me” when he was just ten years old, think of this bar that is regularly raided by its nemesis policeman, played by Richard E. Waits.

Its patrons feel under siege in their external lives, as they elegantly express in the song “The World Outside These Walls,” having come to view their beloved UpStairs Lounge as “some kind of paradise”? This clash in perspectives plays out in their disagreement about the best way to advocate for and express oneself as an LGBT person, as well as for their community.

“When I first started writing The View UpStairs, gay marriage hadn’t been legalized, Pulse hadn’t happened, and Trump hadn’t been elected,” says Vernon. “For each of these seismic cultural shifts, the piece has had to be rethought to some extent because the world around us had changed.”

Arguably the most disturbing aspect about the UpStairs Lounge blaze and the lives that it claimed among its patrons is that it seems to have been caused by one of their own.

Rodger Nunez was a disgruntled customer who reportedly admitted several times afterward to a friend that he set the fire out of spite following a dispute at the lounge; he took his own life the following year.

Since the fire, the LGBT rights movement has gone through its own evolution—embracing everything from stealth lobbying to direct activism, and the bravery of figures such as Harvey Milk, Larry Kramer, and Peter Tatchell. LGBT history is still being written.

As Wes muses, after he had already cited marriage equality as a settled accomplishment in his admittedly perhaps too-rosy declaration number “The Future Is Great,” “In four years, who can say?”

Vernon himself sounds this note of caution while discussing his opus. “If the past is written, the present is still ours to write; we have to be the ones who create new spaces of connection and cultivate community in 2017.”

This, ultimately, is the view from upstairs.

The View UpStairs is at the Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street; running through May 21st. Buy tickets here.