On June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old man walked into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and shot and killed 49 people, injuring a further 53. The shocking event made headlines around the world.
But 43 years before the Orlando shooting, a far lesser known incident, a deliberate fire at a gay bar in New Orleans, occurred. It took less than 20 minutes for 32 people to lose their lives and for many more to suffer critical injuries in the fire at The UpStairs Lounge. In a 2016 piece reflecting on the 1973 tragedy, Liam Stack of The New York Times reported that churches refused to bury victims of the fire, their deaths going largely ignored and, sometimes, even mocked. Three people who died in the fire were never identified and were buried in unmarked graves. And while evidence indicated the fire was deliberately lit, no one was ever charged with arson.
“It wasn’t actually a gay hate crime,” says Shaun Rennie, who is currently directing the Australian premiere production of The View UpStairs, a musical inspired by the fire at The UpStairs Lounge.
“The truth of the matter was that … the alleged arsonist was a hustler, who was kicked out and had a beef with the owners and burnt it down.”
Rennie says The View UpStairs is about the toxicity of a life lived in the closet.
“This event happened in New Orleans in 1973, and then went largely forgotten by history,” he says. “People watched their lovers [die] and then had to go to work the next day and pretend that they knew nothing about it, because to know anything about it meant that you were gay, and to be gay meant that you would be fired and kicked out of your home.
“What the show is really about … [is] what happens when people are oppressed and how that manifests. The fire is a tragic event that happens at the end of the show, but the show’s not necessarily about the fire. It’s about the people … [and] the lives they led in the seventies, compared to the lives we lead now in 2018.”
The View UpStairs will have its first Australian performance at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co on Thursday. With a book, music, and lyrics by Max Vernon, it tells the story of Wes, a young fashion designer who buys the abandoned space that once was The UpStairs Lounge. He is transported back to the 1970s, and meets the members of the bar’s community in its heyday and comes to learn precisely what the venue represented.
The View UpStairs arrives in Australia hot on the heels of its Off-Broadway premiere, which happened in the first half of last year.
“My friend Gus Murray, our producer, saw the production in New York and fell in love with it straight away and thought it would be a perfect fit for The Hayes,” Rennie says. “He approached the original producer of the New York production, who happens to be an Australian woman.”
The producer to whom Rennie refers is Jenny Ainsworth, executive director and producer of the Tony-nominated Invisible Wall Productions, which co-produced the recent Broadway revival of Spring Awakening.
“Gus Murray and Jenny decided to join forces and co-produce the Australian premiere.”
Rennie talks about the relevance of The View UpStairs to contemporary Australian society.
“I think the reality is, yes, we’ve come a long way, but suicide rates for gay teens are still through the roof, people are feeling more and more disconnected .. and sitting at home on dating apps, as opposed to going out to bars and actually meeting people the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We’re social animals; we desire and we crave community and communication with other people, and the show argues – and I think there’s a strong case to be made – that, as a society, we’re losing some of that, and that’s causing a different type of hurt to the queer community.”
The View UpStairs is the fourth production Rennie has directed for Hayes Theatre Co, following on from Rent, You’re a good man, Charlie Brown and last year’s Only Heaven Knows. In fact, he says he paused for a moment to decide whether or not to take on this project.
“I was concerned about it having too similar themes [to Only Heaven Knows],” he says. “But then, the plebiscite happened and I realised that it really is a natural evolution of the conversation … when it comes to LGBTQI rights.”
According to Rennie, that conversation includes consideration of the question as to what’s next, now that ‘equality’ has been achieved.
“I think it’s about going back and giving voices to people who never had a voice in their own time, and making sure that these stories and these people are honoured,” he says.
But while the themes at the centre of the show are substantial, Rennie stresses that The View UpStairs is also a lot of fun.
“The show is really light and fun and fast and camp and fabulous, and you have these amazing, larger-than-life characters,” he says. “The politics of it and the tragedy of the actual event underline everything, obviously, and give the show weight but, in actual fact, the show’s really fun and led by this 70s homage score.”
The music is an aspect of the show about which Rennie is especially excited.
“I love the score. To tell the truth, that was the thing that really got me across the line. The minute I heard the soundtrack, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great score!’”
Rennie also heaps praise on the cast assembled for the production, which includes Ryan Gonzalez, Stephen Madsen, Anthony Harkin, and newcomer Henry Brett.
“What’s so exciting is that the age range in this cast is really broad,” Rennie says. “We needed to find a young kid to play Wes … and we’ve found Henry Brett, who I think is a superstar, and it’s really exciting to introduce someone new to Sydney audiences.”
The production also has the benefit of being able to utilise the costumes designed by Anita Yavich for The View UpStairs’ Off-Broadway debut.
“With Jenny coming on-board, she was able to license the original Off-Broadway costumes,” Rennie explains.
Those costumes received prestigious Drama Desk and Henry Hewes Design Award nominations last year.
“It’s very exciting for us because it’s a great design and budget-wise, to be honest, we would never have been able to afford to create what was created for that production,” Rennie says. “It is incredible that we get to use those costumes.”
Rennie also talks about the staging of the show.
“We’re turning The Hayes into an actual bar,” he says. “We’ll be serving drinks on stage pre-show, so the audience will become patrons of the bar and … the cast will also blend with them throughout the night. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to getting a test crowd in so we can see how it works.”
So, what makes The View UpStairs a great night of theatre?
“Firstly, an incredible, exciting score,” Rennie says. “The score is really one of the most exciting new scores that I’ve heard in a musical for a long time. That, combined with fun, fabulous, camp characters … if you love Ru Paul’s Drag Race, you’ll love our show!
“At the same time, underlying all of that fun and fabulousness, there is a really strong, political message and a really loud – hopefully – wakeup call to all of us, but especially younger generations, to remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and those who died, and that we only live a privileged and easy lifestyle now because so many people had to fight to get there.”
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: 8 February – 11 March 2018
Times: Tue-Sat 7.30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 3pm
Price: $65 Adult, $60 Concession, Preview $60
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337