Out Front Theatre Company is presenting Max Vernon’s musical play “The View UpStairs,” running through Nov. 10, directed by Paul Conroy. Mr. Vernon wrote the book, music, and lyrics. The play is based on a horrendous event that took place in New Orleans in June of 1973. You may recall that Out Front is Atlanta’s only all LGBTQ theatre.
William Faulkner once said, “The past is not over; in fact, it’s not even past.”
Everyone who is of age remembers the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, 2016. 49 people perished, the worst attack on gay people in American history.
But you may not know what occurred in New Orleans’ French Quarter on June 24, 1973, at a funky little second floor gay bar called the UpStairs Lounge. An arsonist using lighter fluid deliberately set fire to a stairwell leading to the Lounge and the gate to the main exit was locked. Someone opened the door upstairs and the backdraft instantly set the place ablaze.
About 60 people were enjoying drinks; almost half escaped through a rooftop exit. But 29 died at the scene, with three more perishing later from fire and smoke inhalation—32 people in all. There were iron bars on many windows, preventing escape. The details of their deaths are too sickening to describe here.
Although no one was charged at the time, this was a hate crime. The suspected arsonist later confessed to friends and committed suicide a year later. There wasn’t much in the local news about the disaster; one radio station reportedly made a joke about the whole thing. No local or national government officials made mention of the crime nor offered condolences. The New Orleans newspaper reported it; NBC-TV mentioned it in a 15-second report. You see, gay people, by and large, didn’t count in 1973.
I have nothing but admiration for Out Front Theatre for their attempt to pay tribute to those massacred 45 years ago by presenting “The View UpStairs,” which had an Off Broadway run in 2017. ABC-TV New Features released “Prejudice and Pride” last summer, a 30-minute documentary that recounts the fire and its aftermath.
The idea here is to present some characters who were in the bar that night, sing some songs, and, in effect, humanize the patrons of the lounge. The play is a valiant effort, but it pales in comparison to the horror that happened; and in watching the show, that’s about all I could think about. The idea of a musical about this event is jarring to me.
But these thoughts are not meant to impugn in any way the actors or the music direction (Nick Silvestri) or any of the production crew. However, I must say that some of the singers’ words get lost because the music overpowers them. Miking the theatre’s large stage for sound (even before Out Front was based there) has often been a problem—but not always.
There are fine performances by Kyle Larkins, who plays Wes—a fledgling fashion designer who purchases the UpStairs building in 2018; then there is an immediate flashback to 1973, where the action stays. Also in the show are Justin Dilley, Tony Hayes, Felicia Hernandez, Quinn Xavier Hernandez, Keena Redding Hunt, Trevor Perry (a particularly fine singer), Jamie Smith, John Henry Ward, and Byron Wigfall. The assistant director is Brady Brown.
The play definitely establishes the down-home humanity of these 1973 gay folks, although the plot is not particularly compelling. As mentioned, the event itself (the coming fire) is where one’s attention is focused. But “The View UpStairs” reveals a tragic moment in gay history that has been sadly ignored. For that I am grateful.
For tickets, visit outfronttheatre.com.