A wonderful new Off Broadway musical stole the hearts of audiences and activists alike this season. Max Vernon’s “The View UpStairs”” turned the Lynn Redgrave Theatre into the UpStairs Lounge, a 1970s gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This forgotten community comes to life in all its gritty, glam rock glory when a young fashion designer from 2017 buys the abandoned space, setting off an exhilarating journey of seduction and self-exploration that spans two generations of queer history. Inspired by one of the most significant yet all-but-ignored attacks against the LGBTQIA community, “The View UpStairs” examines what has been gained and lost in the fight for equality, and how the past can help guide us all through an uncertain future. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “‘The View UpStairs’ is a moving homage to LGBT culture, past and present. The show swells with heart.”
In honor of Pride Month, I had the honor to chat with musical director James Dobinson (“Fancy Nancy The Musical,” “Clinton: The Musical”). James is a New York-based, Australian-born music director, conductor and orchestrator. The Off Broadway veteran explains the legacy of this show and the power of solidarity.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: “The View UpStairs” is based on a true story about a tragic anti-LGBTQIA attack. We’ve been experiencing an uprising of attacks on diverse communities across the U.S. and the world. How does this musical reflect not only the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but the hate rhetoric spilled against other communities?
James Dobinson: The show emphasizes the need for community and looks at how that need has changed – and how it has stayed the same – between 1973 and now. “The View UpStairs” is about a young gay man from 2017 who lacks awareness of that need for community, who travels back to a place where community meant safety in “outness.” Over the last year of development, Max [Vernon] has been constantly updating the show to reference the things we’ve started to see recently, including the Pulse attack. I’m stealing his joke, but over the show’s five-year development there’s one lyric that changed from “Gay marriage will be legal” to “Gay marriage now is legal” to “Gay marriage now is legal (but in four years, who can say?).”
There’s a line in the final scene of the play (I’m paraphrasing – sorry, Max!) that says, “The people in charge want to take us back to how things were back then. Well, guess what? We won’t let them.” Although I can’t speak for other marginalized communities and their experiences of hate, I think there’s something universal in acknowledging that our ability to defend ourselves from discrimination derives from our communities and our collective action. The power to resist attacks that marginalized communities gain with solidarity and intersectionality, with empathy and kindness for one another, is the point of the play for me.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: As a Puerto Rican woman, I must say that I agree completely: resistance, solidarity and intersectionality are key. Now, as you said, the musical examines LGBTQIA culture from the 70s to nowadays. What has been the progress on socio-political LGBTQIA issues and what issues do we still need to overcome?
James Dobinson: Visibility, and representation, I think! Most of the play is set in a time where being actively gay was illegal, so the progress we’ve made to get from there to legalizing gay marriage 40 years later is profound. I think that those two words are the key to universal acceptance, and there’s still work to be done within our own community on that front, especially with representation and recognition of the issues facing transgendered people, gay people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people who don’t find themselves represented by the overly neat identity categories of that acronym. Side note: gay marriage is still not legal in Australia, where I grew up, so there is basic work to be done even in liberal Western countries.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Visibility and representation are also crucial for us to grow in the arts and entertainment industry. We have a huge problem with diversity. I’m glad you brought that up. As a musical director, what do you find most challenging about this musical?
James Dobinson: It is difficult to disengage with the emotion of the piece enough to do my job well! The last 15 minutes of the show are very affecting, but I still have to play and conduct. Finding a way to stay in it enough to read the drama, but still be able to make the music consistently is a balancing act. Other than that, what’s challenging is playing left-hand B3 palm glisses with right hand moving clav figures! Who orchestrated this? Oh, right…me!
Marlena Fitzpatrick: And that brings me to the next question. As a musician, what’s the most challenging number of the entire piece and why?
James Dobinson: “Endless Night.” There are meter changes and tempo fluctuations, and it begins with an extended keyboard sonata that’s dependent on the pace of dialogue. But mostly because the song – which is beautifully performed by Taylor Frey – needs to be flexible based on the acting, and the acting needs to be flexible based on the show as a whole, and somehow Taylor, the band and I have to sync all of this without the possibility of direct connection, as he is on stage and the band and I are in a soundproof room in the back of the theatre!
Marlena Fitzpatrick: As a musician and a member of the LGBTQIA community, how important is it to engage in this conversation through an artistic piece?
James Dobinson: It feels good to be working on something with so much to say at this time, and to watch audiences be so moved by it. Being present in the conversation is the first step towards change, and it’s not something that we, as primarily theatre musicians, get to do very often.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: Being present in the conversation is definitely the first step towards change. That’s why our communities must continue to create artistic work reflecting our realities. Thank you for being part of that creative team!
“The View UpStairs” ran from Feb. 28 to May 21 and garnered rave reviews. Local 802 band members included James Dobinson (musical director), Paul Heaney and Michael Pettry (guitars), Tristan Marzeski (drums, percussion), Yuka Tadano (bass), Christopher Gurr (conductor). In celebration of its 100th performance on May 19, “The View UpStairs” donated 30 percent of proceeds to benefit Point Foundation, the nation’s largest scholarship-granting organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students of merit.