When social media influencer and up-and-coming couturier Wes buys a dilapidated New Orleans building, he sees only its future potential as home to his planned fashion business.
His smartphone is of no help, though, when he’s transported back in time to the early 1970s to meet the structure’s past inhabitants in “The View UpStairs,” a musical by playwright, composer and lyricist Max Vernon. It's now being presented by Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Set in the UpStairs Lounge, a real-life French Quarter gay bar destroyed in a 1973 arson attack, the musical is directed by SpeakEasy founder and producing artistic director Paul Daigneault in a production marking its New England premiere.
“The UpStairs Lounge was a bar where men went to meet other men. But it was more than that, too. It had regular piano sing-alongs. It had drag queens, a church that operated out of the bar, and amateur theatrical productions,” explained Vernon by telephone recently from his home in New York.
“And when you put all that together in the South in the early ’70s, where it was straight up illegal to be gay and a man could be thrown in jail for holding another man’s hand in public, you realize that it took tremendous bravery just to go there.”
Wes’s journey back in time also becomes one of self-exploration as he finds himself among the bar’s regulars – a group of colorful characters and close friends.
The playwright’s own journey began in childhood.
“Maybe because I’ve always been comfortable with eye shadow and women’s clothes, I grew up extremely bullied – even before I knew what my sexuality was. The AIDS epidemic left a huge break in the chain of gay history,” says Vernon. “I didn’t have a mentor, so I had to learn who I was on my own.”
Vernon did just that while an undergraduate at New York University, where the idea for the musical was born.
“I was a gender and sexuality studies major at NYU, and I randomly came across mention of this fire that took the lives of more than 30 people at a gay bar. I asked my professors about it, but even some of them had not heard the story.
“I went to the library and found some coverage from the Times-Picayune newspaper, but it was only front-page news for a couple of days. For the most part, there was radio silence. No one really talked about it because it involved gay people in an undesirable part of the city.”
Until the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, the arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge was the deadliest attack on a gay bar in U.S. history.
“It was almost willfully ignored. Three of the bodies were never even identified, because no one came forward to claim them. I want people to know, first and foremost, that these people existed and their lives mattered. We know about Stonewall, but not this.
“It’s so weird to think that 32 people died in this club, and we don’t talk about it. To me, it’s a seminal moment in gay history, and our nation’s history, too, so from that perspective, I wanted to shed light on the story with this show,” says the New York native.
To achieve that goal, Vernon opted not to use the real names of the deceased or other patrons in the bar that fateful day.
“The characters are hybrids of the actual people. I wanted to honor and respect the memories of the people who were in the bar when it burned without compromising their privacy.”
To provide a fuller picture of the characters’ lives, Vernon – a winner of both the Richard Rodgers and Lucille Lortel Awards for co-writing, with Helen Park, the music and lyrics for the 2017 musical “KPOP” – composed an original score inspired by some of the era’s biggest hit makers.
“I grew up on ’70s rock. People like David Bowie, Jim Croce, Elton John, Laura Nyro and Stevie Wonder are all part of my DNA.
“The show opens with a song called ‘Some Kind of Paradise,’ describing elements of gay life in the ’70s,” says Vernon. “Gay bars could be raided by police and you could be fired from your job, but in the face of that oppression they were still pockets of a vibrant community where people were able to go to create family and find love.”
The show’s creator believes that the significant progress made over the last 45 years has come at a price.
“When gay bars disappear, a lot is lost culturally. There are fewer and fewer places where gay people of all types can connect. With dating apps, we meet only the people we want to meet and we filter everyone else out. That not only limits our personal growth potential, it also makes us a more fractured community.
“While some of our external oppressors have waned in power, my fear is that we’ve started to become our own oppressors. There is a lot to be learned from the ’70s era, in terms of how you survive and create community in the face of people who think you’re not really deserving of the same rights as everyone else.
“For a while now, we’ve been sold on the idea that it’s better and now it’s actually getting worse. And it won’t get better if we don’t push back. I want this piece to be a call to action to continue to fight for equality,” says Vernon.
Although inspired by a tragic incident, the 31-year-old believes his musical has a broader message.
“The thing that’s hard to explain is that this show is not 100 minutes of tragedy. It is not a funeral, but a celebration. It’s meant to be a hopeful, uplifting experience for audiences. There’s some weeping for sure, but lots of laughter, too.
“The biggest joy of this piece is that for a month at a time, in whatever cities we play, we’re bringing new gay bars into the world – like 'Brigadoon,' ” says the show’s creator.
"Brigadoon's" mysteriously reappearing village in the Scottish Highlands is one thing, but how exactly does Wes get from 2019 to 1973 New Orleans and back again?
“It’s not like someone getting into a DeLorean, but it’s time travel nonetheless,” says Vernon with a laugh.