Interview: Max Vernon Talks Theatre, The View UpStairs & Upcoming Work

Having won over London audiences in style last year with The View UpStairs, Max Vernon can boast success on both sides of the pond. The show premiered off Broadway in 2017 and subsequently enjoyed productions in the US and Australia before landing in London for a run at Soho Theatre. As with previous work KPOP, Vernon wrote book, lyrics and music for the show and is continuing to explore important ground in their upcoming work, tapping into untold stories very much worth telling. Here Vernon talks all things theatre, The View UpStairs and that upcoming work – settle in!

When and how did your connection with theatre begin?

I was born in New York City in 1988, which was the era of Phantom, Cats, Les Miz, etc. So as a precocious faggot of 6, I was well rehearsed and ready to go in for Cosette. As I grew older my musical tastes became a lot more varied- not just in musical theatre (falling in love with shows like Rocky Horror, Hedwig, Hair, etc.), but in punk, disco, soul, R&B, jazz, EDM, etc. My favorite era of music however, has always been 70s Rock and R&B, because it was how I bonded with my father- listening to the classic rock radio station during car rides. 

You wear many hats when it comes to your work. What led you to take on all elements across writing book, score and lyrics?

I tend to write book for musicals when it feels like the story I’m trying to tell is very specific to my personal experience, and that there isn’t anyone else out there who could attack the subject matter in the same way- I love collaboration though, so when the content calls for other voices, I love working with dope playwrights.

And let’s talk The View UpStairs, because that’s the show that well and truly put you on my radar. How did you first come across this story of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge and what drove you to write a show about it?

I got my undergrad degree in gender/sexuality studies, and had delved pretty deep into queer theory history. They teach you about Stonewall and the riots at Compton Cafeteria, but none of my professors had ever mentioned UpStairs Lounge Fire, in spite of it being at the time the largest massacre in LGBTQ history. When I stumbled upon the story on the web (around 10 years ago now), I brought it up to anyone I could – no one else had seemingly heard of it either. It felt kind of like being in the twilight zone. So I knew that it was something I wanted to call attention to in some way, but I didn’t think to write a musical about it until I went back to grad school for Musical Theatre Writing at NYU.

The framework of the show is quite daring for something with this kind of sensitive subject matter. How did you arrive at the idea of having a brazen millennial like Wes defying time and space in this way?

For me, part of the desire in writing the piece, was to acknowledge that in spite of having an enormous curiosity about my queer history, I had no living connection to it. The AIDS epidemic severed a generation link of mentorship, and so I had to figure out what being a Queer Millenial meant completely on my own. Like many other people I encounter from my generation, I both feel a yearning love for and cultural disconnect from the gay community. If anything, I think the internet and technology have made the notion of a shared community/culture even more diffuse (as opposed to the community of regulars who went to the Up Stairs, in a time in which it was illegal to be gay- that’s a more specific type of community borne out of a shared oppression).

And so, I wrote Wes traveling back in time, because I so deeply wanted to travel back. I wanted to create a piece that felt like a bittersweet love affair between two eras, and I knew I could speak to that POV with lived authenticity. Also, it’s not a Max Vernon musical without a bit (or A LOT) of magic and spectacle.

It’s a show that covers a lot of key LGBTQ+ related ground. We’ve got the more stereotypical illustrations of the forceful ‘butch’ lesbian, the hustler looking for a lay, the drag performer and the exuberant, hyper-modern confident young gay. But there are some great characters offering narratives far less prominent; the supportive mother of the drag artist son; the married gay man struggling with the facade he’s built for himself; the gay man who is an outcast even within the community. Were you consciously aiming to deliver this cross-section of representation?

I take issue with the word stereotype because to me it has an association with lazy writing, when in reality all the characters in the piece were based on real people who were at the bar-  there were many hustlers, there were drag performers, there was a piano player, there were closeted gay men, and there was a mother there (with her *2* sons in fact), etc. The truth is, these are archetypes within our community because they exist full stop. Is Wes a stereotype of a cunty millenial fashionista? Yes, perhaps. I could also name 10 people who talk and act exactly like him, including myself, circa 2008. It’s impossible to depict the queer community in all of it’s infinite nuance, but I wanted to create a cast of imperfect humans we could fall in love with (even the shitty ones) to understand what had been lost with the fire. 

Wes’ use of reclaimed language and language filled with contemporary meaning in this 1973 setting provides some of the funniest and most shocking moments of the show. Is there a clear intent to educate the young and/or the unwittingly clueless in that element of your writing?

Yes! In 2020, we’ve reclaimed so many slurs (queer, cunt, fag, etc), but in other ways we’ve become so precious about identity and virtue signaling around sex and politics to the point of being incredibly uptight compared to 1973 cruise culture. I love what gets lost in translation.

The London cast gave your music one hell of a gorgeous outing. Where would you say your musical influences lie when it comes to The View UpStairs?

70s rock is my favorite – David Bowie, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Elton, Jim Croce, Laura Nyro, Fleetwood Mac, etc. 

And speaking of influences, are there shows and creatives who have had a lasting impact on you?

All the musicals my parents didn’t want me to see- Rent, Rocky Horror, Hedwig, etc. 

Other creatives who’ve hugely influenced me: Caryl Churchill, Joe Orton, Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Rei Kawakubo, Siouxsie Sioux, pretty much everything and everyone in Paris is Burning.

The Tattooed Lady is currently in development and it sounds just as gripping as The View UpStairs. Can you pinpoint what draws you to the stories you’ve written about to date – from KPOP to The View UpStairs and The Tattooed Lady, what do they have in common when it comes to subjects which grab you?

I think all of these musicals are essentially about journeys of self-actualization. I’m intrigued by the sacrifices people are willing to make in order to attain their dreams, no matter the cost. In the case of Tattooed Lady and The View UpStairs, I’m turned on by forgotten histories- I love when theatre allows me to be both an artist and archeologist.

And are we wise to hope for more of your work to arrive in London, or for a UK tour of The View UpStairs maybe?

God I hope so. I had such an incredible experience. I love London, and think there is enormous untapped potential in the UK for bold, new musicals- I think the new generation of audiences are starved for it. As for a tour- you’d have to ask my producers Brian Zeilinger and Jack Maple of Take Two Theatricals, though I think that’s a fabulous idea- given the current state of the world, I think a story about overcoming trauma from the past to create a better future is a pretty relevant message right about now. 

Are you pursuing anything in particular at the moment that we should look out for as we all stay socially distant and tied to home-based pastimes?

I just performed an online show called Signal (directed by UK’s Adam Lenson). Would love to do a few more things like that. You can check out the performance here (it starts at 1 hour, 53 minutes in).

And to close, do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ moment to share?

 Yes! I was actually working on a new immersive musical called “Scarlet Night” for the brand new Virgin Voyages cruise ship. Very shortly after we boarded the ship early March, we learned the show was postponed/cancelled because of Covid-19 and that they weren’t letting any other passengers on. In spite of that, our whole creative team made the decision to stay on board for another week and continue teching this show that original 150,000 people a year were supposed to see. Even though we no longer had an audience, we needed to do that for our creative spirit- to keep the fire of that dream burning. 

And then I came home, bought a ring light, and started making makeup tutorials like every other queen. Enjoy!

So there you have it! Keep an eye out for Vernon’s latest via Twitter, Instagram and website – and keep those fingers crossed for more of their work heading this way…

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