The UpStairs Lounge Tragedy: Now A Musical

From "Remember the UpStairs Lounge" by Skylar Fein

Here is a conundrum: since fourth grade I’ve been involved in theatre, I have a degree in theatre, and I currently work with a theatre company in New Orleans. Some of the first shows I ever did in the theatre were musicals. And yet: I hate musicals.

“Hate” is a strong word. Let me rephrase that: I don’t hate musicals, I’m just very, very, very wary of them. And in fairness, it’s probably because I’m getting old.

As a kid, the premise of musicals — the literally fantastic idea that entire groups of people would suddenly break into song and dance — didn’t bother me at all. I mean, my parents took me to plenty of Disney movies. What was the difference between a pack of singing mice on screen and a posse of singing cowboys on stage?

With age, however, comes experience. More specifically: bad experiences. I’ve seen more terrible musicals than Rose Kennedy saw funerals. I’ve choked on plot twists more times than Lindsay Lohan has choked on ‘nads. (Then again, she’s surely developed a gag reflex by now.) I have been through some shit, is what I’m saying.

Comic musicals are a little easier to swallow because they don’t usually take things too seriously. Nine times out of ten, they’re more interested in entertaining audiences than getting all wrapped up in “art”. Dramatic musicals, on the other hand? Break out the Klonopin.

I mention this because someone in San Francisco is writing a musical about the fire at the UpStairs Lounge. And I am not entirely sure what to think.

On the one hand, I haven’t seen the musical. I haven’t even seen a video clip from the show because it’s still being workshopped. (Note to my tech industry friends: “workshopping” is like beta-testing, but with more crying and dramatic flourishes.) The finished product could be completely, 100% awesome. A friend of mine is helping with publicity, which is encouraging. And the impetus to memorialize those who died in the fire is commendable.

On the other hand, how do you tackle this tragic narrative in a way that makes sense, that tells an honest tale, that does service to the dead and to history (which, by the way, isn’t resolved and hasn’t conclusively proven that the fire was a hate crime)?

And just as importantly: how do you tell that terrible story without getting smarmy, without pulling your audience out of the experience by creating something painfully, earnestly saccharine? Admittedly, I have a low tolerance for “cornball” — my idea of hell involves a raging campfire, an acoustic guitar, and the John Denver songbook — but surely I can’t be the only one.

"Everybody Loves a Li'l Beaver", from Remember the UpStairs Lounge by Skylar Fein (photographed in my hallway with a crappy iPhone)

My two cents? Material like this lends itself to certain genres. A documentary, for example, tells a story with news footage and interviews, so even when things become emotional and borderline-melodramatic, the audience sticks with it because they know what they’re watching is real. This is also why people continue watching America’s Next Top Model.

Visual art installations like the one created by Skylar Fein (which the folks in San Francisco seem to be using in their production, though there’s no mention of him on their site) seem well-suited, too. They can leave a lasting impression without relying on an artificial beginning, middle, and end. Operas overpower narratives with sequins and arias: sure they’re over the top, but that’s the spectacle we go to see, goddamit.

Even a movie could work — in fact, there’s one in production as we speak. By complete coincidence, the film’s director/producer wrote me last night and mentioned that he was daunted by the task of doing justice to those who died in the fire. As a result, the movie is “based on the story a friend told me in the 80s about being late to meet folks at the UpStairs, only to arrive as the bar was being engulfed”. That’s a really smart approach, if you ask me.

That’s not to say that a dramatic musical can’t accomplish similar ends, but it’s a long, long row to hoe. Consider other serious musicals devoted to tragedies, both real and imagined, from the Donner Party massacre (warning: LOUD MUSIC AHEAD) to Carrie to the more recent Rebecca. I can’t think of many that have fared well.

I’ll reserve judgement until this summer: the playwright is hoping to bring the show to New Orleans in time for the 40th anniversary of the fire. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you haven’t seen the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Carrie: The Musical, here is all 113 jaw-dropping minutes of it. Please enjoy.

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