William Faulkner once said, “The past is not over; in fact, it’s not even past.”
Everyone who is of age remembers the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June, 2016. 49 people perished, the worst attack on gay people in American history.
But you may not know what occurred in New Orleans’ French Quarter on June 24, 1973, at a funky little second floor gay bar called the UpStairs Lounge. An arsonist using lighter fluid deliberately set fire to a stairwell leading to the Lounge and the gate to the main exit was locked. Someone opened the door upstairs and the backdraft instantly set the place ablaze.
Although no one was charged at the time, this was a hate crime. The suspected arsonist later confessed to friends and committed suicide a year later. There wasn’t much in the local news about the disaster; one radio station reportedly made a joke about the whole thing. No local or national government officials made mention of the crime nor offered condolences. The New Orleans newspaper reported it; NBC-TV mentioned it in a 15-second report. You see, gay people, by and large, didn’t count in 1973.
I have nothing but admiration for Out Front Theatre for their attempt to pay tribute to those massacred 45 years ago by presenting “The View UpStairs,” which had an Off Broadway run in 2017. ABC-TV New Features released “Prejudice and Pride” last summer, a 30-minute documentary that recounts the fire and its aftermath.
The idea here is to present some characters who were in the bar that night, sing some songs, and, in effect, humanize the patrons of the lounge. The play is a valiant effort, but it pales in comparison to the horror that happened; and in watching the show, that’s about all I could think about. The idea of a musical about this event is jarring to me.
But these thoughts are not meant to impugn in any way the actors or the music direction (Nick Silvestri) or any of the production crew. However, I must say that some of the singers’ words get lost because the music overpowers them. Miking the theatre’s large stage for sound (even before Out Front was based there) has often been a problem—but not always.
The play definitely establishes the down-home humanity of these 1973 gay folks, although the plot is not particularly compelling. As mentioned, the event itself (the coming fire) is where one’s attention is focused. But “The View UpStairs” reveals a tragic moment in gay history that has been sadly ignored. For that I am grateful.
For tickets, visit outfronttheatre.com.