Written by Max Vernon, The View UpStairs rocked Off-Broadway’s Lynn Regrave Theater at the Culture Project this past spring. Set in a ’70s gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the show is a rollercoaster of seduction and self-exploration as the show’s main character, Wes, gathers the community to refurbish the abandoned space.
Click here to order the original cast recording.
Here, Vernon breaks down the inspirations behind his kaleidoscopic score and the performances that can be heard on the album released August 11:
Some Kind of Paradise
One thing two of my favorite musicals—Hair and Rocky Horror—have in common is that their opening songs are these iconic and anthemic pieces of music that don’t really tell you anything about character or story, but they get you excited for the experience you’re about to have. When the audience walked into the Lynn Redgrave Theatre, they were suddenly surrounded by mountains of dive-y queer kitsch—shrines to Dolly Parton and Judy Garland, a chandelier made of neon, light-up dildos, a giant naked torso hanging from the ceiling wrapped in chains, mardi gras beads, images of black power and gay liberation, etc. There was a 15-minute pre-show where some of the characters walked around and cruised, flirted, and gossiped with the audience. You’re just starting to make sense of this world, when suddenly, Buddy (Randy Redd), this disheveled, would-be Elton John type comes out and takes a shot of whiskey and sits down at the piano and sings. The second the song starts the lights all shift and the space comes alive.
Once Wes (Jeremy Pope), this bitchy fashionista from 2017, enters the room, all of the lights cut out and we abruptly transition to the burned out dilapidated shell of the former UpStairs Lounge. The staging of this number was my favorite in the entire show. As Wes ran around the room snorting blow and singing about his plans to tear the space down and turn it into this flagship clothing store, all of the ghosts of the past continued to dance around him; both time periods co-existing without being aware of each other. In the middle of this strange rock musical we were serving you a touch of Follies realness.
Lost or Found?
Buddy introduces Wes to the tight-knit community of regulars at the UpStairs—a construction worker/drag queen, a gloryhole troll, a queer priest, the bulldagger bartender, and a demented former ballet dancer. Eventually he finally introduces himself:
Buddy: Then there’s me stuck here playing for tips
But one day you’ll see me on Johnny Carson, out and proud,
Unlike that closet case Elton John.
I’ve got more talent than ten of these queens combined
And the truth is I love my life.
I’m at peace with who I am —
Willie: But you’ve never told that to your wife.
(Hard to imagine today but circa 1973 Elton John was still closeted!)
What I Did Today
In this song, Wes meets his will-be star-crossed lover for the rest of the show, Patrick (Taylor Frey). Patrick is a hustler (unbeknownst to Wes) who tells all these fantastic stories full of adventure and whimsy, and it’s often hard to know what’s true. We stripped some of the dialogue out of this recorded version of the song so people could just enjoy the breezy New Orleans-y rock vibe, but all you have to know is that the first half of the song is all lies, and the second half is true... kinda.
Are You Listening, God?
The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded by Troy Perry, was the first church to cater to a queer congregation with openly gay clergy. The New Orleans chapter of the MCC hosted many of its services at the UpStairs Lounge. Our gay priest, Richard (Benjamin Howes), who our cast behind the scenes renamed “Daddy Dick,” uses this song to conduct his own sermon. He asks the patrons what they’re praying for, and the answers range from sex, to a sequel to Cabaret, self-love, freedom from danger, and fame. I have to say I’m very proud of how flaming gay this lyric is:
Wes: Oh! Is that your patron saint?
Nude Burt Reynolds — that’s really quaint.
Perfect to go with the magic man you think’s hovering in the sky.
But if prayer worked I’d be on the cover of Vogue,
Attract more twinks than Kylie Minogue
World Outside These Walls
Right before this song, Freddy (Michael Longoria) has been caught outside by a cop (Richard Waits) wearing women’s clothing, which was illegal in 1973. In the aftermath of the cop trying to shake down the patrons in the bar, this song examines the divide in the queer community of how to best affect change and progress. Do you keep your head down and survive? Do you riot? Do you try to buy influence? Do you make allies and inroads by doing good deeds? The bartender, Henri (Frenchie Davis), is someone who has endured quite a bit of abuse and hardship in the world outside of the bar. She perceives Wes’ contemporary attitudes about visibility and pride as naive and dangerous. She believes the best revenge is to simply stay alive and preserve the precarious but vibrant community they’ve created for themselves at the UpStairs. Also all of the applause emoji’s for Frenchie wailing that high F eight shows a week!
This is the first song we meet Inez (Nancy Ticotin), Freddy’s mother, who has over the years morphed into something of a backstage show queen for her son’s drag act. We see her covering up Freddy’s bruises with rouge and them arguing about what the drag “look” is going to be for the night: innocent ingénue or streetwalking slut? Slut obviously wins out. Meanwhile, on the other side of room, Wes is having a Project Runway moment, creating a new drag outfit for Freddy using only knickknacks from the bar.
The Future Is Great!!!
This is the song where Wes finally tells Patrick about his “fabulous” life in the present. Of course we learn via the song that his life is actually pretty vacuous and unfulfilling, and that maybe the future kinda sucks. During the choruses of this song, the other patrons of the bar reappear in his imagination as “fantasy backup singers” wearing matching psychedelic neon orange and pink flow-y caftans, because why not?
One thing interesting to note is how the lyrics of this song had to evolve over the last five years. “Gay marriage will be legal any day, now that I’m sure / What’s better—you can shop online for discount haute couture” became “gay marriage now is legal, though in four years who can say / When you get depressed, you shop online for discount Gaultier.” (Hopefully for the Encores at City Center revival ten years from now the lyric won’t have changed to “Gay marriage once was legal, now we live in prison camps.”)
Waltz (Endless Night)
I knew this was going to be the song in which Patrick finally told the story of some past traumas: sexual abuse, electroshock therapy, homelessness, prostitution, etc. But I could not figure out how I was possibly going to musicalize those things in a way that wasn’t absurdly melodramatic and stupid. It seemed impossible and I was stumped. A couple years earlier, John Cameron Mitchell had gifted me this set of “Oblique Strategies,” a deck of cards designed by Brian Eno, filled with these wildly enigmatic phrases and ideas. So I laid the cards out in front of me and said, “What the F do I do???” and I drew a card and it said, “Use unconventional instruments.” So I pulled out a glockenspiel, and everything clicked. Whenever the song starts delving into those dark subjects, the toy piano sounds come out and Patrick reverts into a childlike state. It’s super unsettling and walks a very fine line, but the orchestrations are quite sensual. In the show during this number, our director Scott Ebersold had this brilliant idea to have the cast drape scarves on all of the lamps in the theatre at the top of the song. When this happened, the lights in the venue suddenly shifted to dark blues and purples, and we were thrown into this strange fantasy limbo that existed outside of the bar. While Taylor Frey sang, the other patrons waltzed around him, and Nathan Lee Graham gave astonishingly good “painful memory” face. Obies for everyone!
Sex on Legs
This is the big drag number in the show when Freddy reemerges as “Aurora Whorealis.” We see Wes’ crazy outfit for the first time, which our costume designer, Anita Yavich, created out of duct tape, mardi gras beads, and red plastic cups. At the climax of the song, Michael would pull the switches in her jack-in-the-box cone bra which made confetti and glitter ejaculate out while the dildo chandelier spun above her triumphantly. Michael Longoria was on fire in the studio when he sang this. It’s essentially a one-take vocal, with only a couple punch-ins for Mariah Carey melismas and some dolphin sonar high notes. Hallelu!
Better Than Silence
The likely arsonist of the UpStairs Lounge was a mentally addled hustler named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the night for harassing some patrons in the bathroom. It was really important to me that this character not come across as a mustache twirling villain, but to actually try and understand how someone could commit an act of violence against their own community. In my show Dale (Ben Mayne) is kind of a running joke in the bar, an outsider in a community of outsiders who desperately wants to connect with the other patrons but is constantly misunderstood and self-sabotaging. This song attempts to get into his head, and as a result it’s pretty dark, but I was surprised by how many people told me this song and very complicated character were their favorite.
Most Important Thing
Once Wes discovers that Patrick is a hustler, he has a kneejerk reaction and lashes out in a typically unattractive fashion. In this song, Inez teaches Wes about unconditional love by using her own story of being an immigrant and single mother raising a son with a lifestyle that forced her to challenge her preconceived notions. Since Nancy Ticotin is such a fabulous dancer, choreographer Al Blackstone threw a bunch of salsa moves and conga line into this number to allow for a star turn. (For the record, this is my mom’s favorite song.)
Wes does an absurd Martha Graham-esque interpretative dance and finally accesses his inner emotions to apologize to Patrick and confess a few feelings of his own. He does this by standing on top of the bar’s piano and having a lil’ karaoke moment. Fun fact: This was originally two separate songs from the show: “Crazy Notion” and “Impossible Mess,” which during rehearsals we realized were doing the same thing so we decided to mash them together into one epic “shady bitch” ballad.
The actual UpStairs Lounge had a theme song which was performed nightly: “United We Stand” by The Brotherhood of Man. On the night of the fire, the patrons sang that song shortly before the arson attack that claimed many of their lives. I wanted to pay homage to that history and create my own gay anthem of standing strong in the face of oppression, while looking forward to the future. Willie (Nathan Lee Graham) provides the comic relief for much of the show, always ready with the perfectly timed outrageous and clever quip. But I also knew that character had to go much deeper, so his solo song ended up being the emotional heart of this show. Also how damn fabulous does Nathan Lee Graham sound on this song? I dare you not to be moved when he sings:
“But I swear I’ve seen the future shining through the debris
And though we’ve known despair, we’re still standing there
Unbroken and free.”
The View UpStairs
The final song in the show. Wes is left in the destroyed space of the UpStairs Lounge and has to try to make sense of his experience and figure out how to become a more fully realized human being. He vows to find a family of his own choosing, realizing that “in a world full of darkness we create our own paradise,” and that the ending of the story is his to write. And—kust in case the show wasn’t gay enough—all of the spirits of the past come back out and walk a fashion runway dressed head to toe in couture from Wes’ debut collection. They all strike poses like they’re in a Vogue editorial as the space comes back to life and all the lights and colors glow brightly one last time. Jeremy Pope slayed this song every single damn time.
Bonus Track: And I Wish
This was one of everybody’s favorite songs in the show that we cut. It was after the fire sequence, when Patrick was saying his final goodbye to Wes and contemplating what their future might have been together. As much as I loved it I couldn’t figure out how to justify its existence, because having three slow songs in a row seriously messed up the flow of the piece. Lesson of the story: Kill your babies! However, we’ve restored it here for you, where it will live on forever! Taylor Frey was a good sport and learned the music only a couple days before we stepped into the studio.
Bonus Tracks: Dead Center & I Was Meant For More
For the “pre-show,” Henri turned on the jukebox machine and these songs started playing. They’re actually both from another musical called Co-Op that I’m currently writing. James Dobinson, our orchestrator and musical director, had heard these songs and fallen in love with them so gave them a ‘70s rock makeover to fit in with the world of The View UpStairs. It’s a cute little easter egg for the people who saw the show downtown during our Off-Broadway run.