(This interview is a transcription of the portion of the interview that appears in Vol. 806 of Broadway Bullet. It has been edited for clarity.)
Host, Michael Gilboe: I am sitting here with composer, lyricist and book writer, Max Vernon who is definitely on a roll. I do his show as we’re taping this, He is just closing up off-Broadway production of The View upstairs, which I got a chance to see. The cast album is coming out and will have come out probably at this point that we air and then K-Pop is opening in our Nova. Tour you’ve got a busy busy year here don’t you.
Max Vernon: Yes. It’s been a really exciting time.
Gilboe: How long has it been….
Vernon: I’ve been burning the midnight oil. I think my downstairs neighbors definitely think I’m schizophrenic at this point because my magical creative hour is like 2:00 a.m. So at 2:00 a.m. on any given night you either hear me singing songs that take place in a gay bar in the 19th century or you hear me singing in Korean and belting with electronic music and synthesizers. So I’m definitely a nightmare if you live with me in the same building. I apologize.
Gilboe: Well I’ve got several things I’d like to talk to you about. I’d love to talk to you about The View Upstairs; what it’s about. I’m sure you’re going to be wanting other theaters to produce it soon.
Vernon: I’m really excited. We have, I think, four productions of it happening next year in different theaters around the country. I’m hoping that will continue and it will go on to have a really healthy regional.
Gilboe: And then K-pop and the cast album from there. I’d also to talk about what you’ve done to build up your career and your education at the Tisch at the NYU musical theater writing program. So we’ve got a few things to talk about. Let’s first lay back and relax. So first, The View from Upstairs. I really thought the book was really well done. There’s kind of a genre of ensemble cast, one room, happens-in-one-day musicals; but I felt you brought a lot fresh structure to it with your book. The time travel… And the fact that you don’t get the program until the end. I was unaware this was a show that leads up to a tragedy and definitely unaware because you keep it so fun.
Vernon: Thank you so much. It’s interesting you say that about the book because I feel like the book breaks a lot of rules of what you can and can’t do in a musical and I love musical theater. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. But I’m someone who is very much interested in innovating with form and finding new ways to tell stories. Rodgers and Hammerstein had their innovation and Kandner and Ebb and had their innovations. And I don’t think there’s a lot of people who’ve seen my show who give me the benefit of the doubt. They think I just don’t know the rules and I don’t know what I’m doing. But it was a conscious decision to try to do something different and tell that story in a different way; and I felt like with anything that engages in a fantasy element of time travel or anything like that.
Vernon: It’s like when you see a great zombie movie. The best zombie movies don’t explain why there are zombies. There’s fucking zombies in it. Running away from zombies. So I feel that with the story that is about time travel and this love affair between two different eras of queer life… To get bogged down in the Back to the Future-esque- ness of it… of now we’re hopping in a door and now we’re going to go back and we need to get the plutonium in order to save this. Well, whatever… To me would have totally bogged down the story. It’s more impressionistic. It is almost like a magical seance that happens in an hour and 40 minutes.
Gilboe: I totally got that.
Vernon: Everyone gets their moments… but it’s definitely not a plot driven show. I would say it’s more it’s an ensemble piece. It’s about exploring who these people were falling in love with; the community and then the communities taken away from you. And you have to kind of wrestle with that, as someone living in 2017…what am I going to do to create more community like that? So I appreciate that. I’m so glad you dug it.
Gilboe: I have to say, I hate people who refer to things as “rules” in art. Now they are there. And they’re helpful. But because they are helpful, I prefer to think the correct word is tools. Yeah. You can build a house without a hammer. But if you haven’t started building a house with a hammer, you’re probably a little foolish to try doing it with something else. But once you know what’s going on, if you find a different way of putting in that nail…
Vernon: And I also believe that different generations of audiences are going to consume information in different ways. And I’m very much interested in writing for my generation.
I feel like my generation has grown up with these digital devices in which we have 10 tabs running at the same time. So we don’t need everything to bang us over the head. You know…like this has happened, so that happened, so that that happened… It’s like, we can deal with it.
We can multitask with information. And so it’s the kind of thing where 20 years from now, hopefully, there will be some kid who’s telling stories in different ways and they’ll be like, “why didn’t you do it like that?” You know? Oh. And then my shit will be old hat by then. And status quo and that’s the way of the world, I guess.
Gilboe: Now how much did you envision the audience kind of being literally inside the bar as you wrote it? And how much of that was done because of where you guys chose to stage it? Where the entrance is quite literally through the stage.
Vernon: So I was kind of open to the show being a proscenium show or being immersive. I love immersive theater, but it’s definitely a fad right now. So I didn’t want to do it as a gimmick, just to do it. I wanted to do it if it was going to enhance the text in the end.
Gilboe: It still could be done either way.
Vernon: Yeah, it could. It was the director, Scott Ebersold, who felt very strongly that we had to do with the immersive route, because he felt like he wanted the audience to essentially be the patrons in the bar. And sort of feel like this was their space. They fall in love with and then have it taken away away from them… This would accentuate the emotional impact; and I think that was the right decision. So we looked for venues for a really long time, and the show almost didn’t happen because we couldn’t find a venue that was going to allow us to have that immersive experience. And then, finally, we found the Lynn Redgrave theater which allowed us to do what we did. So that was definitely a part of the the concept. I think of the piece that way after a certain point in my collaboration with the director.
Gilboe: Do you know some of the theatres that have set up to do this show next year?
Vernon: At this point, I feel like I ought to announce… just like check back. They may or may not be a hundred percent. It’s all going to get announced in the next couple of weeks. So I guess I would say Check. Knock on wood that these actually happened! But one was just announced is happening at Richmond Triangle Players in Virginia which is, I think, the only LGBT theater in the Atlanta area region.
Then Celebration Theater, which is an LGBT Theater in Los Angeles. Boston Speakeasy Stage Company, which is a large equity house in Boston is going to do it… which I’m very excited about. There might be an Australian production happening. And I think a company in Chicago is going to jump out, we’re waiting to hammer that out.
I love doing it in New York. That is like a dream to have a New York theatrical production. But if it’s here in New York, that show is preaching to the choir a little. It’s preaching to the converted. It’s giving us hope. It’s giving us historical context, but if you were to take the show to Utah or Oklahoma or, you know, Mississippi, it would have a totally different reaction. And I think that would make it dangerous and kind of exciting.
Gilboe: And one thing I enjoyed about the book and the story and structure is, as in-your-face queer as the show is, I think that a straight audience would have a great time. I think it works on both levels. Because I think a lot of times gay theater either really panders to the inside crowd or really panders at trying to convert straight audiences over to their line of thinking. I think your show just lets it be. You tell the story, tell the characters.
Vernon: Yeah. What I think is interesting is, if you look at like 95 percent of queer theater art, it’s focused on the AIDS epidemic. Which, rightly, is important. But I was interested in telling pre-AIDS, which is something almost never talked about. And what THAT world was like. And then also now, which is happening before us, so hasn’t been talked about yet because it’s still unfolding.
And I think because of that it gives people a different perspective on those communities. And I think people can relate to the experience of being an outsider because that’s ultimately what it’s about. And in the show, you see that even in a community of outsiders, there are still outsiders within the group of outsiders. There are still those hierarchies and clicks and all these different things that I think people can relate to. And personally for me, I go to theater to learn shit.
I have no life experience really that puts me in an August Wilson play. But I love seeing August Wilson plays, you know, to find out about that experience. And that’s my hope, that people will have that feeling see when they see The View Upstairs.
Gilboe: Yeah. I like that you didn’t try to make them angels or saints or overdo the thing. The show definitely had stakes.
Vernon: They’re complicated. That’s another thing that a lot of people really don’t like. The people who don’t like the show, they don’t like that the main character is so unlikable. And I’m like, oh my god, that character is based on me!
People are like, “Oh, he’s a stereotype. People are not like that. But I’m working through my shit here. To me, you have to allow people to be complicated in order for them to go on a journey.
And there’s a lot of qualities in my community I see that I don’t think are likeable. You know? This is something that I also wrestle with. I feel like in my community, a lot of us are pursuing followings rather than community. And it’s not the same thing.
So that is something in my own life I’m trying to figure out. How do I engage more in that? So, I think in the show, the message is that it was not perfect in 1973. You could get your head bashed in by a cop. You could die in an arson attack like this and be totally ignored.
But there also was a beautiful, colorful, vibrant community. And nowadays we have all these rights, comparatively, and privileges. But some of that community now is very diffuse. So it’s like there’s something gained and there’s something lost.
I’m hoping you can talk about this because I think it might be a fascinating thing for composers and writers. I have one critique, and I don’t know how much of a critique it is… The one thing I was waiting for that didn’t happen. and usually does. When you get somebody who is bigger name than the others is, Frenchie Davis is rather known to a certain generation. So I was constantly waiting for her big solo, because we know she’s a singer. I applaud you for not altering your existing show for the sake of accommodating a star, but I imagine there must have been some pressure from other people, and I’m just wondering how much you wrestled with this idea.
Vernon: She does get a solo number. She has that song, “The World Outside These Walls,” which is kind of like Henry’s character’s big song. That’s the one where she’s like that’s just reality in 1973 and she’s got that big F sharp that she belts.
Gilboe: Yeah. But that didn’t feel like her solo.
Vernon: I mean actually that’s a legitimate critique and if you were to tell me.
Gilboe: But if it’s done in another theater and that’s not cast with the famous name, it’s not something.
Vernon: It’s not as big of a thing.
Gilboe: Yeah. I mean I. To me.
Vernon: I didn’t want to totally prioritize any one character over the other. I did want to give them all equal weight to some extent. But in general, with that character, I would like going forward to flesh that character out a little bit more. Part of the problem is this is one of those things where the economics of theatre sometimes dictate the storytelling you can do. Because it’s already amazing that we essentially got a Broadway show produced off-Broadway. I remember in grad school, someone asked a teacher “how do you tell the difference between an off-Broadway show and a Broadway show?” And the teacher said, “If you’ve got more than seven characters, you’re writing a Broadway show. Because a producer will never produce it. Because you’ve got all those salaries. You have to have the understudies that will cover them,” and all that. But in the author’s note, one of the things I say is that even though these are the nine main characters in the bar, I would love to have ensemble characters of people that are just walking around the bar or just getting drinks that are filling out the atmosphere.
Gilboe: You’ve got a lot of ensemble numbers that they could join.
Vernon: Yeah exactly. And so that’s one of those things in my in the back of my mind when I was writing the Frenchie Davis character. I always assumed that there were just some other random ensemble lesbians. And then, because they were there, she would be able to have interactions, and so Henry’s character could then be more fleshed out. And they could have their own mini plotline. But because we weren’t able to get those chorus members, I couldn’t do that. So that’s something that when we are no longer kind confined by Equity and things like that, and there are some you amateur, stock or regional productions; they’ll be able to do that. And I think that’s something that could get fleshed out. But, yeah, I wish I could hear Frenchy’s sing everything. She sounds fabulous, so that that is a point well taken.
Gilboe: It’s not a deal when it’s it’s not a star. And it wouldn’t be a deal if I went back. But the first time, I’m waiting. OK, “When’s her number? When’s her number?” But I really enjoyed the show.
Now it’s also quite… It’s expensive getting a cast album done. And you do have the cast album recorded and should probably be out right now.
Vernon: It’s going to sound amazing. It sounds so good. I have to say, I love music and I listen from everything from Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline vintage country to Marilyn Manson to Sonic Youth, to obscure 80s punk bands. I just love any genre, and even though musical theater is the passion, the thing I want to do with my life, I don’t listen to many musical theater recordings because the recordings just are bad.
Gilboe: I won’t say which one, but there is a Tony nominee this year that I heard the cast album and its… distorted.
Vernon: You listen you listen to a lot of these cast recordings, and they just don’t sound like something you would want to listen to. And this is definitely not that. I feel like it sounded so incredible in the studio. These are going to be songs that, even if you never saw the show, people who you don’t know don’t even think would like musicals, I think would like the show and will listen to the soundtrack. And so I’m very proud of that. And excited. And and hope that the cast album exposes a new generation of people to the show.
Gilboe: Well I wish you a lot of fun exploring failure and success.
Thank you. I appreciate it. I really appreciate it.