A Conversation with Max Vernon, Playwright and Performer, Creator of ‘The View UpStairs’

By Jonathan Spira on 27 November 2017
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One of the most moving and powerful musicals of the past season was “The View Upstairs,” which ran for 105 performances Off-Broadway at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre. Written by Max Vernon, it tells the story of a contemporary man who finds himself back in 1973 immediately before the anti-gay carnage that was the fire bombing of UpStairs, a bar in New Orleans, and received a surfeit of awards and nominations. The original cast recording was recently released on Broadway Records. A friend of the family happened to be a friend of Max’ father and put the two of us together while he was collaborating on yet another successful musical, KPOP, which made its Off-Broadway premiere at Ars Nova.

The prolific amount of material that Max has generated in his career thus far – he’s set to turn 30 next year – reminds me of a comment the musical satirist Tom Lehrer made about how much Mozart had accomplished in the course of his brief lifetime: “It’s a sobering thought to think that when Mozart was my age,” Lehrer said when he himself was 45, “he had been dead for ten years.”

Here’s what Max had to say when we sat down for a coffee.

Max on Max: “Before I went into musical theater I was a visual artist. I’m a performer. I’ve done over 100 concerts as a singer. I’m a playwright, a composer, a lyricist.”

Max on being “visual”: “It’s very hard to write music for specific characters if I don’t know what they look like, if I don’t have an idea of the world in which they’re existing…. even if I know that I’m going to get like a designer and a costume designer, when I’m writing the thing, I still have a very intense visual in my head of what it should look like.”

Max on what he does: “Everyone wants to put you in a box. It’s like, are you a playwright? Are you a lyricist? Are you a composer? But for me, with every work, I’m actually trying to expand further out of the box and take on more things.”

Max on the idea for “The View UpStairs”: “I don’t exactly remember how I encountered that. I found it online. But it was one of those things I think where you start out and it’s midnight, you can’t sleep and so you’re on Wikipedia looking at a biography of David Bowie. And then all of a sudden, an hour goes by and you’re looking at the chemical breakdown of broccoli. And then another hour goes by and you’re in a weird chatroom. I don’t know. I think it was one of those things where it’s like the tabs kept taking me further.”

Max on why “The View UpStairs” is important: “Once in the information black hole, I got stuck on this: ‘In like five days it’s the anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire where 32 people died.’ And so I thought I knew everything about human history and the fact that there was something that was so glaring in our history that none of my professors ever talked about was really shocking to me. And so I had this desire to tell the story.”

What influenced Max: “I’m really influenced by Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder, and Laura Nyro, and Paris is Burning. And, I don’t know. I feel like a lot of times when theatrical writers, all their influences are from theater, you start to get kind of a snake eating its own tail thing.”

How Max sees himself: “I think of myself a little bit as like a fashion designer. I release my fall collection, and then I release my winter collection, and then I release my spring collection. So I’m working on all of that. And I think constantly writing keeps me from focusing on the postpartum depression”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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