The tragedy that took place at the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter in New Orleans in the early ’70s — when an arsonist set the gay club on fire — took the lives of almost three dozen individuals, but is not widely known about. The new musical “The View Upstairs” looks to introduce more people to the event.
Making its Southeastern premiere at Out Front Theatre Company this week, the musical envisions a fashion designer named Wes who purchases the abandoned building that the bar was in. He is transported back to the day of the tragedy in 1973.
“He learns the story of the bar, the people, and starts to care about them — then the tragedy happens,” says Paul Conroy, the company’s artistic director who is directing the show.
Conroy saw a production of “The View Upstairs” in 2017 at a queer theater company in Virginia and met the playwright Max Vernon. When Conroy expressed interest, the playwright confessed it would be exciting to have the play done in a red state during the midterm elections. It has been staged only a handful of times across the country, including off-Broadway in New York, and there are talks to get it produced in London’s West End.
The director stops short at calling the musical a tragedy. “There is a love story and a fair amount of comedy, moments that will make you angry but there are some places that will make you cry,” says Conroy. “It’s like a typical night at a gay bar. These are people we could all know. These people were at their favorite bar that night. It’s the same thing that happened at Pulse in Orlando. No one who went there that night thought it was going to be the end of their lives. They wanted to hang out with people they liked.”
The other characters include the owner of the bar, who is a black lesbian and is in charge of everything; a mother and son from Puerto Rico who are getting ready for the son’s drag performance; a closeted piano player who has a wife and son at home; a few hustlers, and more. “It’s a menagerie of people,” Conroy admits.
He finds that most people don’t know about the Upstairs Lounge tragedy. “I will admit I did not know about it until a couple of years ago,” he says. “That is one of the things the play talks about. The world that we live in — we are so quick to move on to the next thing that we forget about these events, these people. We remember all hugely horrific things like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but think about all the school shootings that have happened, like Sandy Hook. I’d be willing to bet people don’t remember dates they happened or the number of victims. Even with Pulse — even if you asked people how many died at Pulse, not many would be able to accurately answer that.”
Before last year’s shooting at Pulse, the fire at the Upstairs Lounge was the largest mass murder of LGBTQ people in the country. In all, 32 people died that night and the case is still unsolved.