In June 1973, an arson attack ripped through the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Thirty-two people died. While the tragedy has been largely lost to mainstream, hetero-centric history, it was the deadliest known attack on a gay club until the 2016 massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It’s a devastating story and the subject of a 2017 Off Broadway musical by Max Vernon called The View UpStairs, currently making its Australian debut at the Hayes Theatre.
We begin in the present with Wes (Henry Brett, in a strong debut). In a fit of millennial insecurity (and possibly while high) he buys an old building in New Orleans. It’ll be the flagship store for his new fashion business and could be a chance to reinvent himself after failed dreams in New York City. But when he gets into the space he realises it’s more decrepit than he thought (all that water and fire damage), and with a snort of cocaine and despair, the Lounge comes to life around him. He’s time-traveled back to 1973.
He meets the regulars at the bar: Richard (Thomas Campbell), a self-styled pastor of a gay congregation; Freddy (Ryan Gonzales), a drag queen whose mother Inez (Martelle Hammer) helps with his outfits; Buddy (Anthony Harkin), the piano-man with a wife and kids at home; Willie (Madison McKay), who is older than the others and loves to name-drop; Dale (David Hooley), a troubled drifter; and Henri (Markesha McCoy), the beautiful butch behind the bar. But most importantly to Wes, there’s Patrick (Stephen Madsen, direct from Muriel’s Wedding the Musical), a gorgeous hustler with a heart of gold; a spark of romance begins to blossom between them, even though Wes is sure he’s hallucinating the entire experience.
But, just as it does to Wes, the UpStairs Lounge feels alive at the Hayes. Isabel Hudson’s lived-in design is set up to encourage us to enter the theatre via the fire escape and buy a drink from Henri, letting us get a richer idea of the space. The nude Burt Reynolds cut-out, tongue-in-cheek posters and fairy lights (Trent Suidgeest uses these in his lighting design to clever and heartbreaking effect) summon retro camp and a strong sense of authenticity.
The musical’s time-travel conceit is a smart one, though if you’re not comfortable with the kind of blatant plot devices that drive story in sci-fi, fantasy and yes, musical theatre, it might feel strange. It allows us to explore the tension between older queer politics (of survival as a radical act of resistance) and the newer generations (that fight loudly for a future beyond tolerance into acceptance). ‘World Outside These Walls’ is a direct, musical examination of these differing opinions, showing Vernon’s strong insight into queer politics and how they’ve evolved over time.
More broadly, the musical explores the hard-won fights that have cost lives and the anxieties, disconnects and legacies of that suffering – particularly in the way that a loss of queer spaces turns gay identity and love into something more transactional. It’s never judgemental, but it does remind us that these trends are consequential of something bigger – of firebombs and raids and riots, of economic instability and safety and negotiating space to live and love outside, and around, a dominant culture that rejects queer existence.
But the musical is brimming with laughter, too. Everyone is quick-witted and when they deliver an insult or a read, they relish in it. Vernon’s lyrics merge wit with sincerity to create a self-conscious kind of sharing between new friends and crushes that feels recognisable, and there’s a fantastic drag number in the middle of the show that’s bursting with DIY camp joy.
The cast is excellent, and between them have created an ensemble of sharp edges that collapse into compromise for the sake of keeping this found family together. The music, which blends 1970s beats with contemporary pop, is well-handled by Nicholas Griffin and his band, though the sound mix has a tendency to drown out the performers, and this is a production in which hearing the lyrics is crucial; worlds are built inside them.
Shaun Rennie continues to move from strength to strength in his transition from performer to director; there’s a capability and sensitivity to his work that allows humour to come across as clearly as drama, and while some of the staging is awkward – Inez’s big number is staged in a corner where most of us can’t fully see her, and it does her story a disservice – this production is a great success; all empathy and momentum. Rennie frequently grapples with queer trauma– a strength he’s built directing shows like Only Heaven Knows, Rent,and I am my own Wife; he makes room for queer audiences to grieve, celebrate and connect with each other.
There’s catharsis in Rennie’s The View UpStairs, crafted for an audience packed with queer people and their allies who have recently been through the pain of the national postal survey on gay marriage. In a Sydney theatre only a stone’s throw from the city’s strip of gay nightclubs, and coming up on the 40 year anniversary of the Sydney Mardi Gras, which is now a celebration but began as a blood-soaked protest, this feels like a gift for all of us who are striving for a more inclusive world: it’s a space to acknowledge that while we’ve come a long way, it hasn’t been easy - and there’s still a long way to go, with many left behind. There’s a lot to be said for shaping a work with heart and humour to offer audiences both grief and hope, and Rennie has done exactly that.