The 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans remains one of the largest mass murders of LGBTQI people in US history. It took less than 20 minutes for the deliberately lit blaze to rip through the gay bar in the city’s French Quarter, killing 32 people and seriously injuring many more.
But, unlike the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge was not the subject of global media coverage and did not become engrained in the country’s memory. In fact, the event’s lack of notoriety prompted American documentary filmmaker, Robert L. Camina, to create a film in recent years aimed at educating contemporary audiences about what happened in New Orleans 45 years ago.
Last February, The View UpStairs, a musical penned by writer and performer Max Vernon, opened Off-Broadway and similarly sought to remember those who lost their lives in the devastating fire that destroyed The UpStairs Lounge. Less than 12 months down the track, Sydney audiences have the opportunity to see the Australian premiere production at the Hayes Theatre.
The View UpStairs tells the story of Wes (Henry Brett), a young gay fashion designer who’s just purchased an abandoned space that was once home to The UpStairs Lounge. After entering the space, Wes is displaced in time to 1973, not long before the deadly fire, where he finds the bar in all its glory, populated by a colourful cast of characters.
The bar’s regulars include Patrick (Stephen Madsen), a confident, pretty boy hustler; Dale (David Hooley), another hustler and a man who struggles with his difficult life; Buddy (Anthony Harkin), a charismatic piano player, living a closeted existence with a wife; Richard (Thomas Campbell), a priest from a local community church; Henri (Markesha McCoy), a tough but caring bartender; and Willie (Madison McKoy), a lively but somewhat enigmatic patron. Later on in the show, Freddy (Ryan Gonzalez), a construction worker who performs at the bar as drag queen ‘Aurora Whorealis’, and his mother, Inez (Martelle Hammer), a Puerto Rican immigrant who readies her son for every one of his performances, are introduced.
Other than Wes, we don’t get to know the characters in any great depth. What we do know is that the politics and prevailing attitudes of the day have forced them to seek sanctuary in the UpStairs Lounge. The bar fosters a sense of community and provides an opportunity for each of its patrons to express themselves openly, without fear of judgment or reprisals. It’s indicative of a world in which LGBTQI persons are struggling for mere survival, and it’s a far cry from the world that offers the freedoms and the ease to which Wes has grown accustomed.
The View UpStairs doesn’t re-tell the story of a gay hate crime; while no one was ultimately held accountable for the arson, the most likely suspect was a gay man thrown out of the bar on the night of the blaze. Instead, this piece is a powerful reminder of the importance of looking back, in order to be able to meaningfully move forward. The tragedy of the events that transpired at the UpStairs Lounge were compounded by the response, or lack thereof, to the attack. It’s alleged that authorities were slow to respond to the fire because of their contempt for the gay community, some of the survivors lost their jobs when employers discovered they were attending a gay bar, and many churches were said to have refused to hold funerals for the victims simply because of the venue in which they had perished.
Rennie’s production of The View UpStairs compels us to care about the men and women who lost their lives in the UpStairs Lounge fire, to appreciate the resistance they faced to any desire to live openly, and to never take hard won gains for granted. While much of the content of the show is light and even laugh-out-loud funny, Rennie has succeeded in weaving that content together with moments of real poignancy. All of the action is propelled along by an infectious 1970s glam rock-inspired score.
In the role of Wes, Brett is outstanding. At the outset, he convinces in creating a recognisable modern-day character, who is judgmental, intelligent but superficial, and who is more concerned with interaction and validation in the digital space than the physical world. His Wes believably lets his guard down to reveal a young man detached and hugely insecure. When Wes is forced to find a way to make sense of the events at the club, Brett’s delivery of the title track is a stirring call to arms for personal change.
As the man who becomes the object of Wes’s affection, Madsen is a strong player. The glimpses he offers Wes of his own struggles evoke pathos and his powers of persuasion in revealing to Wes the reality of seventies social stigma are convincing. As in his recent performances in Muriel’s Wedding, Heathers and Rent, his pop tenor seems effortless.
Vocally, however, it’s McCoy as the gutsy bartender who impresses most. She takes the lead on the standout number of the evening, ‘World Outside These Walls’, which explicitly spells out for Wes the battle to survive in which the bar’s patrons find themselves. It’s a knockout scene.
As Freddy and his drag alter ego, Gonzalez is sassy and entertaining, and makes the most of brief opportunities to shine. Playing his mother, Hammer brings the right combination of warmth and anxiety. She becomes an emblem of racial disadvantage as we learn of her upheaval of her family from Puerto Rico in search of a better life.
Harkin makes Buddy the showman he should be; McKoy lends energy and authenticity to his portrayal of Willie; Campbell’s Richard is an aptly steadying influence when conflict arises; and Nick Errol is effective as two police officers, each speaking to the climate of the day.
And as the deeply troubled Dale, Hooley is laudable. His is a difficult character to like, but his performance accomplishes what it must, conveying the pain the hustler has suffered in life, and bringing home the crucial need in everyone to feel that they have somewhere to belong, to be seen, to be heard.
Isabel Hudson’s recreation of the UpStairs Lounge is impressive, looking like a time capsule of the 1970s. Direct from the Off-Broadway production, Anita Yavich’s costumes further enhance our trip back in time, while Trent Suidgeest’s lighting choices are excellent (particularly during the show’s dramatic climax).
Nicholas Griffin’s five-piece band reproduces Vernon’s catchy score with wonderful energy. But while it’s exciting to have a rock vibe enlivening the intimate theatre, the sound design on opening night was problematic. There were times when performers were forced to shout above the band and others when lyrics were lost in the mix. It’s a problem that will hopefully be ironed out quickly, in order to maximise the impact of important storytelling.
The world that we occupy is far from perfect, but The View UpStairs and the event by which it was inspired demonstrate the strides accomplished in sometimes deadly struggles over four decades. This is progress that should never be taken for granted, and progress that could be undone with frightening ease if it’s not fiercely protected. The march forward happened through the strength of community – something that can be lost in the alienating unreality of the digital world. There is a responsibility the wider community owes not only to itself, but to those who have lost their lives, pursuing courageous efforts to take the world to a better place.
THE VIEW UPSTAIRS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 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