You wouldn’t think that a real-life tragic event could make a great musical, but The View Upstairs manages to do just that. The play is loosely based on a horrific hate crime that took place in the 70s. At that time, the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. On June 24, 1973 an arsonist set a fire that caused the death of thirty-two patrons. Adding to the devastation, victims were mocked and ridiculed by the community. In some cases, bodies were not claimed by their family members for fear of people learning they had gay relatives.
In 2013, playwright Max Vernon created The View UpStairs, paying homage to these people lost in the fire. It would go on to be staged Off-Broadway, around the US, and overseas.
In the musical, Wes, a young self-centered designer/entrepreneur/influencer, purchases the building that once housed the UpStairs Lounge. After snorting a good amount of cocaine, he’s suddenly transported back in time to when the bar was open in 1973. Once there, he meets the regulars. Patrick, a good-looking hustler; Buddy, a closeted 50-something piano player; Willie, the optimistic matchmaker; Richard, a priest who holds services for the gay community at the bar; Henri, the tough but motherly lesbian bartender; Freddy, a fabulous drag queen; Inez, Freddy’s accepting mother; and Dale, a bitter resentful outsider.
Over the course of the show, Wes gets to know and love the people he meets at the UpStairs, especially Patrick who he quickly falls for. He loses his callous edge and begins to feel like he’s part of a family. Unfortunately, as in real-life, things take a tragic turn.
I saw a production of the show at the New Conservatory Theatre here in San Francisco and was quite entertained. The premise can be hard to digest, but after awhile you go with it no matter how off-putting the time travel hijinks can be. You can forget about that and let the music take you on a journey. Some song standouts are “Are You Listening, God?”, “World Outside These Walls”, and “Theme Song”. That last song in particular moved me with its intensity.
It’s hard to single out one actor because they are such a strong ensemble, building off each other. Everyone is given a song and an equal chance to shine. I will say that Coleton Schmitto, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Linda Dorsey, and Jessica Coker gave particularly strong performances.
I also have to point out Devin Kasper’s impressive scenic design. The theatre is quite small, but he was able to do so much with such little space. You feel like you’re transported back in time, along with Wes, to 1970s New Orleans. Big points for the nude Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan poster.
The show overall is a nice mix of fact and fiction. So, it provides a history lesson without hitting you over the head with it. It honors the victims of the tragedy and celebrates the LGBT community. The main message is that of acceptance and finding your chosen family. Something that most everyone should hear and take in.