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The Up Stairs Lounge fire, New Orleans, 1973

Stumbled on this at the blog of Wayne Self, who wrote a musical about the event. I never knew about it until now. How horrible.

by Anonymousreply 6907/08/2013

I remember this well. It was horrific.

by Anonymousreply 104/25/2013

In the midst of all the advances of the last 30 years, we forget the intense, myopic, government and church sanctioned hatred older generations of gay men and women faced.

by Anonymousreply 204/25/2013

What a horrible tale, especially the Reverend trapped in the window as he burned to death.

by Anonymousreply 304/25/2013


by Anonymousreply 404/25/2013

"Let the Faggots Burn" is Johnny Townsend's history of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire.

by Anonymousreply 504/25/2013

The South is still evil, just less so.

by Anonymousreply 604/25/2013

New Orleans is still fucked up about safety. During Mardi Gras, they put some unstable lumber under some of the balconies in the French Quarter to guard against collapse, but it's clear that horrific fire and collapse will happen sometime in the near future.

by Anonymousreply 704/25/2013

I first heard of this when I saw it on "Ghosthunters". If I recall correctly, they left that man's body in the window for over a day and people were coming by just to gawk. It made me sick. All of you older gay men have my gratitude for fighting and surviving during those times.

by Anonymousreply 804/25/2013

R8, in what episode of "Ghosthunters" was the New Orleans fire in?

by Anonymousreply 905/14/2013

R7, while you're stupidly bemoaning the lack of New Orleans fire safety, are you somehow missing the fact that this was a gay-hate act of arson in which many gay people died? It was not primarily a matter of the fact that wood burns. Christ.

by Anonymousreply 1005/14/2013

It was gay-on-gay crime, yes?

by Anonymousreply 1105/14/2013

The most likely suspect was a hustler who got kicked out of the bar earlier that night.

by Anonymousreply 1205/17/2013

CBS News clip about the fire. A couple of the commenters at YouTube are relatives of the victims.

by Anonymousreply 1305/17/2013

The 40 year anniversary is coming up. A stage play is being performed to bring the stories of the people who died to light, as they have been ignored for far too long. It runs in late June, coinciding with New Orleans Gay Pride week.

If you're in the area, you should check it out.

by Anonymousreply 1405/17/2013

That doesn't mean it wasn't a hate crime R12.

by Anonymousreply 1505/17/2013

Thanks for posting this. I just bought the Kindle version for $3.99.

by Anonymousreply 1605/17/2013


Have to ask, though: is a musical really the best way to pay tribute to the victims of something like this?

by Anonymousreply 1705/17/2013

Why wouldn't it be? It's not like it's a happy-go-lucky musical. It's a dramatic stage play that features songs. Sorta half-way between drama and opera I guess.

If someone was a painter and wanted to pay tribute, they'd paint a painting. Wayne is clearly a musical theater person. So this is what he created.

If you want, you can buy and download the songs to check them out. They're online somewhere (probably on the site linked in the OP).

by Anonymousreply 1805/17/2013

The New Orleans artist Skylar Fein created a really interesting site-specific installation about the Upstairs Lounge. The thing I remember most was the CBS News footage in r13's link, which he showed on a loop in an old dirty-movie glory hole booth in the corner of the installation.

by Anonymousreply 1905/17/2013

The author/creator/composer answers R17 rather explicitly in his latest blog update:

[bold]32 Died; I Wrote a Musical—Why I Did It, and Would Do It Again[/bold]

by Anonymousreply 2006/03/2013

The D.A. at the time of this fire was none other than Harry Connick Sr, a homophobic slime ball who committed many "questionable" acts while in office. He made life for us gays living and playing in the French Quarter at the time miserable. He was a vile man. Probably still is...

There are several allegations of systemic misconduct by Connick and his prosecutors. "According to the Innocence Project, a national organization that represents incarcerated criminals claiming innocence, 36 men convicted in Orleans Parish during Connick's 30-year tenure as DA have made allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, and 19 have had their sentences overturned or reduced as a result."[21] However, Connick has recently defended himself against these claims. John Simerman, in a recent article in the Times-Picayune, reaffirms that, “the sheer number of trials in Orleans Parish criminal court distorts the numbers.” Simerman continues, “In his last five years in office, the courthouse at Tulane and Broad handled nearly 2,200 trials, more than a third of the criminal trials in Louisiana.”[22] Indeed, his office tried about 1,000 cases per year, as compared to the approximate 100 cases per year that the Garrison administration tried.[23]

In the case of Shareef Cousin, Connick's attorneys withheld a key witness statement from the defense, arguing that the prosecution were under no legal obligation to disclose such information.[24] As a result, Cousin was put on death row at the age of 16, but the conviction and death sentence was overturned after four years, in 1999.[25]

by Anonymousreply 2106/03/2013

OP thank you very much for posting this. I'd never heard of this incident.

(Warning: The OP's link contains some very disturbing images. There's also Wikipedia article on the topic if you're squeamish.)

One detail in the article struck me as strangely coincidental on a personal level. It mentioned the Up Stairs was on Chartres St., though no specific street number was specified.

Later this summer I'm visiting New Orleans for the first time. I'm staying at a place called the Quarter House on Rue de Chartres. I wondered how close it might be--I wanted to see the location and pay my respects, so to speak--so I did a little more research.

Quarter House is at 129 Chartres and the former Up Stairs was at 141 Chartres. I'm presuming it's a few doors down in the same block. I'll see it every day I'm in New Orleans and think about the people who suffered and died there.

That sounds morbid but it will make my trip to the historic French Quarter far more memorable. This is a tragic story in gay history that deserves to be remembered.

Thanks again, OP.

by Anonymousreply 2206/03/2013

For all our bitchiness, it's finding out things like this story, and the art it inspired that makes me love y'all.

by Anonymousreply 2306/03/2013

Say what? Datalounge had an upstairs?

Did the f&f button overuse start the fire?

by Anonymousreply 2406/03/2013

You can support the production by buying a ticket and typing "DONATE" into the company name field... the ticket will be used for someone who can't afford their own ticket.

Just FYI.

by Anonymousreply 2506/03/2013

R25, you just killed the thread.

by Anonymousreply 2606/03/2013

Just saying, if you want to support the production you can. If you don't want to, you don't have to.

by Anonymousreply 2706/03/2013

You're sick R24.

As you seemed to request, you got FF'd. But, given the sense of humor some DLers have, you'll probably end up on W&W.

Did you even bother to read the OP's article before posting?

R26 I hope you're wrong. This thread is a lot more interesting for younger gays (and older ones, I imagine) than the 1,473,954 thread on presenting holes.

by Anonymousreply 2806/03/2013

So is this productiuon scored by Great White?

by Anonymousreply 2906/03/2013

[quote]who wrote a musical about the event.

Oh, God.

by Anonymousreply 3006/03/2013

R30, read the link at R20.

by Anonymousreply 3106/03/2013

OP, thanks for posting this.

by Anonymousreply 3206/04/2013

If this is the same club I'm thinking of, "Ghost Hunters" did a show about this a few years ago. It was pretty good, the investigators got some evidence of spirits still lingering.

by Anonymousreply 3306/04/2013

Anyone else going to be in New Orleans for Pride weekend?

by Anonymousreply 3406/05/2013

[quote]Quarter House is at 129 Chartres and the former Up Stairs was at 141 Chartres. I'm presuming it's a few doors down in the same block. I'll see it every day I'm in New Orleans and think about the people who suffered and died there.

The site of the Upstairs Lounge is just down the street from where you're staying, at the corner of Chartres and Iberville, above a bar now called the Jimani. If you stagger home late (like 3 am) you'll find the Jimani packed with off-duty strippers.

Iberville Street was the Quarter's old strip of gay bars. There are none left, but back in the day (I'm told) it was more Murderer's Row than happy Fruit Loop. A very rough district of criminal types.

by Anonymousreply 3506/05/2013

What a horrifying story, both the event and its aftermath. Thanks for posting; I am more than a little shocked that I'd never heard of this before.

by Anonymousreply 3606/05/2013

R36, that's the reason people are trying to bring it to attention actually. It's shocking that this was covered up and silenced the way it was... even with the willing cooperation of the gay community in New Orleans at the time.

And R35:

[quote]If you stagger home late (like 3 am) you'll find the Jimani packed with off-duty strippers.

Male? Female? Or both?

by Anonymousreply 3706/05/2013

r37 - Female, and possibly some MTF transsexuals.

By the way, the event wasn't silenced by the "willing cooperation" of the gay community. If anything, it galvanized them (from what I've read and been told), and was sort of New Orleans' version of Stonewall.

There's a gay rights history of the 1970s that describes the memorial service for the Upstairs Lounge and how TV cameras gathered outside. The officiant at the memorial told the crowd they could go out a side door if they chose, but instead they walked out in front of the cameras en masse. When Anita Bryant came to New Orleans in 1977, thousands of people turned out in protest, and that was due to some of the organizing that followed the outrage over the Upstairs Lounge incident.

by Anonymousreply 3806/05/2013

wtf is the deal with the "Gerbils, $1 each" sign in the art installation at r13's link? ugh!

by Anonymousreply 3906/05/2013

R33, what episode of "Ghost Hunters" was that? It reminds me of those long-ago gay bars, full of men who have since died of AIDS. There must be a lot of ghosts still there.

by Anonymousreply 4006/12/2013

[bold]Fire at the Up Stairs Lounge: a musical[/bold]

[italic]Will Coviello on the musical premiering on the 40th anniversary of New Orleans' deadliest fire[/italic]

The Up Stairs Lounge was usually crowded on Sunday nights. The weekly "beer bust" allowed patrons to pay $1 for a glass and each table had a pitcher that was refilled as long as the bust lasted. Owner Phil Esteve and bartender Buddy Rasmussen started the promotion to attract patrons to the second-floor gay bar at Iberville and Chartres streets.

The space previously housed a bar with a gritty reputation, and when Esteve opened Up Stairs in October 1970, he created a cleaner, friendlier place. Long drapes hid pipes and other unattractive features. Red flocked wallpaper covered some of the walls, and the Cosmopolitan centerfold featuring Burt Reynolds, nude on a bearskin rug, hung behind the red Formica-topped bar. There also was a poster of Mark Spitz wearing a swimsuit and his Olympic gold medals.

Esteve installed a baby grand piano, and many nights patrons sat around the piano and sang along. There was a group gathered at the piano at around 8 p.m. Sunday, June 24, when there was a long ring of the downstairs buzzer.

Luther Boggs opened the door to an entrance stairwell engulfed in flames. The fire roared into the room and up to the ceiling, torching the drapes, wallpaper and everything in the room. Patrons were trapped. Some of them tried to squeeze through bars spaced 13 inches apart that blocked the floor-to-ceiling windows; a few were able to jump to the sidewalk. Rasmussen saved many lives as he found men in the smoke-filled room and led them to a little-known exit in the back.

The fire lasted less than 20 minutes, but it flared so furiously it claimed 29 lives that night. Three more later died from severe burns and injuries. Some survivors were left disfigured, badly burned and missing fingers.

The New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church lost its pastor, a deacon and a quarter of its congregation in the fire. The burned body of pastor Bill Larson was left for hours where he died trying to escape through the window bars.

The fire dominated the headlines of The Times-Picayune and The States-Item for several days. Then the stories slipped into the inside pages of the paper. Troy Perry, the founder of the national Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) for gay and lesbian Christians flew from Los Angeles to New Orleans immediately after the fire. Perry was dismayed by the difficulties he had organizing a public memorial service.

Though there were many unresolved issues — including an arson investigation and the unknown identities of many of the victims — the event disappeared from public discussion, and after a while, it seemed, from public memory as well.


by Anonymousreply 4106/17/2013


Perry's autobiography is one of a handful of books that mentions the Up Stairs fire. Wayne Self read the book while in seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He had never heard of the fire, even though he had grown up in Natchitoches, came out as gay early in his college years and had visited New Orleans many times.

"Learning about the Up Stairs changed my trajectory entirely," Self says.

He left the seminary to write a musical about the fire.

"Any time anyone says, 'Oh, heavens, a musical about such a disaster,' I am like, 'Yeah, I know, right,'" Self says with a note of chagrin. "I was thinking the same thing. It was a big weight on my shoulders to say, 'How am I going to navigate these waters? How am I going to make this entertaining, but not a talent show, and navigate the themes that are right there on the surface that must be dealt with?'

"It took some doing, and it took some false starts."

Upstairs premieres this week at Cafe Istanbul, four days before the 40th anniversary of the fire.

The fire at the Up Stairs lounge had the highest death toll of any fire in New Orleans history, including the 1788 and 1794 blazes that burned most of the French Quarter to the ground. The carnage was captured in local newspapers. One headline read, "Scene of French Quarter fire is called Dante's Inferno, Hitler's Incinerators." The States-Item devoted an entire page to seven photos of the victims at the scene and attending policemen and firemen. There were horrific pictures of the victims, including one of Larson, dead in the window. The fire was reported on national news broadcasts the next day.

But homophobia shaped responses to the fire before the smoke had cleared. The New Orleans Police Department officer in charge of detectives was quoted in the newspaper and alluded to on CBS News concerning the difficulty in identifying victims. In The States-Item, it was the first mention of homosexuality in relation to the event: "We don't even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar."

During the first week, police and fire department officials went back and forth over designating the fire as arson. Many people who survived the fire suspected a customer named Rodger Nunez of starting it, according to several people interviewed in Johnny Townsend's book Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. Nunez was in a fight in the bar less than two hours before the fire, and days later sought treatment for a fractured jaw. Police questioned Nunez, but never arrested him or anyone else in connection with the fire. (Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.)

"There were the terrible jokes," Townsend says. "'Oh, you don't want to bury them at the church? Bury them in fruit jars. They're fruits.' 'Did you hear about the weenie roast in the French Quarter the other day?' It was just terrible."

The papers printed names of newly identified victims every day, but some bodies at the morgue went unidentified and unclaimed.


by Anonymousreply 4206/17/2013


"These were days when if your name was in the paper after a gay bar raid, you lost your job," Townsend says. "Families refused to claim the bodies because they didn't want anyone to know they had a family member who was gay. ... People who were grieving the loss of friends, even lovers, couldn't tell anyone at work because they'd be fired. There was all this terrible anguish that had to stay hidden."

The tragedy was met with silence by many local churches. Perry was able to organize a small, relatively private service at St. George's Episcopal Church. No local church would host a public memorial, until a week later, when the pastor of St. George's United Methodist Church, over the objections of some members of the congregation, agreed to hold a service.

The treatment of the victims became a painful memory for the gay community, and the inaction of local religious groups was outrageous to many people of faith, gay and straight.

While the fire is rarely mentioned four decades later, it still resonates powerfully with many who remember it — and some who learned the story.

When artist Skylar Fein opened his installation Remember The UpStairs Lounge at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Prospect.1 biennial in November 2008, he didn't know what to expect. Fein learned about the fire by chance when he noticed the plaque on the sidewalk below the former bar. As he started researching, he met resistance from some in the gay community. One person who found the memories difficult asked him why he was choosing to "dredge up" the story.

Fein contacted Townsend and read a draft of Townsend's then-unpublished manuscript (Townsend published it himself in 2011). Townsend also shared photos of the lounge and victims that he had collected while researching his book, and Fein used many in his re-creation of the lounge.

"I didn't know what it was going to be," Fein says. "I thought no one would care. I thought it would just be me and three or four older gay men who lived through the time. Then we'd walk out and that'd be it. I was totally unprepared for the thousands of people coming through that first weekend."

He also couldn't have predicted the response.

"The angriest people in the exhibit were the Catholics," Fein says. "They were way angrier than the gay and lesbian community. A group of older straight couples from the Northshore were very affected by it. They sought me out — I was in the installation. This one woman said, 'We remember this. We remember the fire. We remember that our church refused to bury the dead. We knew it was wrong.' They all nodded gravely.

"That moment, more than any other moment, I felt like the city had shifted."

Self was shocked he had not heard about the fire until he read Perry's book.

"When you grow up gay in Natchitoches, New Orleans is sort of your spiritual home," he says. "I have a lot of friends here from school and way back."

In Natchitoches, Self attended Baptist services with his father and Mass with his Catholic mother. He started college in Natchitoches but completed his philosophy degree at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. He took a computer programming job with CompuServe in Ohio, and eventually he and some friends started their own tech company and moved it to the San Francisco area. After years in the tech industry, Self re-evaluated his goals and became musical director for his MCC congregation. Then he entered the seminary.

In his chapter about the Up Stairs Lounge, Perry mostly writes about the lack of a protest or organizing effort in response to the fire. Self was interested in the people involved. To learn more about them, he read Townsend's book and the unpublished manuscript of another history of the event by Clayton Delery.

"I found very compelling stories that took place in and around this situation," he says. "I couldn't believe that they hadn't been told over and over again.


by Anonymousreply 4306/17/2013


The songs are mostly ballads sung by the ensemble, which suits the Up Stairs well, since it was popular as a place to sing and dance, where some patrons staged short farcical dramas and drag performances.

"When I first heard about the fire ... songs started to come," Self says. "Songs started to come pretty quickly, at least initially. I started writing them down. But I didn't think I was ready to take on the material. The time wasn't ripe yet."

Self wrote a musical that was performed at the San Francisco chapter of the MCC. Wise Up! is a show-tunesy version of the Christmas story told by three drag queens, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. But Self knew he needed more experience to handle the Up Stairs lounge story. He entered a masters program in musical composition and theater. There, he wrote another musical before finishing Upstairs. Cadillac is a country- and Western-accented musical about coming out in a small town in the South. It's a serious drama about a complicated relationship, but not as somber as what lies at the heart of his new project.

Upstairs has strong religious imagery, and the work deals with complicated people and internalized homophobia. Redemption is an issue for one character conflicted about his identity, having grown up gay in the Bible Belt.

"There is stuff that's gay-specific in the play," Self says. "But it's about people who are told that redemption is not possible for them. Or that it would mean changing their sexuality ­— how they struggle for redemption. How does a person who is told, 'Well, no, you can't. You are broken. You are not OK in the sight of God' — how does that person struggle for redemption if they receive those messages enough? But gay people aren't the only people who are told that.

"The narrative I put forth is not necessarily the narrative people expect when they walk in," Self adds. "There are things left unresolved. There are things left unsaid. It's going to be provocative to some people. If people are expecting a pageant of a memorial service essentially done on stage, that's not what this is. It will be challenging. But finally, people will understand why I wrote it the way I did and what it's calling for, what it's hoping for."

Self, who lives outside Los Angeles, cast actors there for three workshop productions held in February in the San Francisco area.

"I would send out the hardest piece in the show," he says. "Half of my people who were interested disappeared. 'Sanctuary' has got weird harmonies, it's atonal. The rest of the songs are these nice ballads. I figured I could find good actors; I wanted to find singers who could handle the material."

In the workshop version, some characters played multiple roles. All those actors will perform in the New Orleans premiere, but there are no doubled roles. The rest of the cast includes several Los Angeles actors and New Orleanian Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman). The live band features New Orleans musicians, and Self is working with local technical staff as well. Following the opening run, there will be a benefit performance on June 29 in Los Angeles. Where it goes from there is yet to be determined.

Asked if he sees it in the same vein as other dramas created in response to crises — such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, about the early lack of response in New York to the HIV epidemic, or The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man — Self offers a different vision.


by Anonymousreply 4406/17/2013


"I was very compelled by Corpus Christi," he says. "It's a play about the life of Jesus, but it is set in Corpus Christi, Texas. This was in the 1990s and it was protested. People wouldn't put it on, but it still has a life, and it would go from town to town, and church to church – very, very progressive churches. People wouldn't put it on because it can be very irreverent. I was inspired by the activism and just the existence of a piece like that and its continuing life. My prayer for Upstairs — my hope — is that it will have a similar life.

"Everyone is like, 'Oh, Wayne, we'll see you on Broadway,'" he says. "I am like, 'No. Have you been to Broadway?' But to have a life where it can go from community theater to community theater and have the story continually told — that would be a great way to live up to the mission that I have set out for myself."


by Anonymousreply 4506/17/2013

Is the Webmaster going to have ban Wayne Self? He's becoming the new PPSM...

by Anonymousreply 4606/17/2013

R46, given that I know Wayne personally, I can assure you he hasn't posted on this thread. He's way too busy with the play right now.

by Anonymousreply 4706/17/2013

The episode of "Ghost Hunters" was on a few months ago or could have bee late last year. Some clips might be up at YouTube.

by Anonymousreply 4806/17/2013

I remember the Ghost Hunter episode... they mostly talked about the "Jemini Lounge", which is the current bar at the location downstairs (the upstairs, where the "Upstairs" lounge was, is just a storage room now I guess).

They actually treated the topic, the fire, and the victims with respect, which I was surprised by. No gay jokes, or even avoiding the fact that they were gay.

by Anonymousreply 4906/19/2013

Monday 6/24 is the 40th anniversary of the fire.

NOLA Website has a good article about it:

by Anonymousreply 5006/23/2013

The Historic New Orleans Collection had this link to commemorations of the event:

by Anonymousreply 5106/24/2013

I attended the musical. It was pretty amazing, actually. I hope it gets a tour or something.

by Anonymousreply 5206/24/2013

[quote] This one woman said, 'We remember this. We remember the fire. We remember that our church refused to bury the dead. We knew it was wrong.' They all nodded gravely.

I'm truly glad sentiment has changed...but how does someone know that their church turned their back on human beings, and still remain a member of that church?

by Anonymousreply 5306/24/2013

R53 is apparently unaware of the Christian concepts of repentance and forgiveness.

by Anonymousreply 5406/24/2013


by Anonymousreply 5506/24/2013

R54 I'm aware of them.

I'm not judging the congregants for remaining with their church, but I think for me, the institution turning its back on 32 people would have been a breaking point, or at least a time where I would have deeply questioned my reasons for staying.

by Anonymousreply 5606/25/2013

Such an awful story, such an awful way to die. And from reading various stories about what happened, it seemed a couple people escaped, went back in to help others and died. And the main suspect was someone kicked out of the bar earlier. Nasty.

Not sure I'd want to see the musical, but if it ever gets to my area ... who knows.

The picture of the dead reverend stuck in the window is terribly chilling and haunting.

by Anonymousreply 5706/25/2013

[quote]Not sure I'd want to see the musical, but if it ever gets to my area ... who knows.

It was very good. Very worth seeing.

by Anonymousreply 5806/25/2013

Now TIME Magazine is recounting the story...

[bold]The Upstairs Lounge Fire: The Little Known Story of the Largest Killing of Gays in US History[/bold]

On June 24, 1973, a flash fire tore through a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In less than 20 minutes, 32 people were killed, dozens more critically injured and the ones who managed to escape watched helplessly as friends and lovers burned to death before their eyes. It is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. Yet politicians and religious leaders were relatively silent. The powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans at the time, Phillip Hannan, did not offer his support or sympathy to victims. And while all signs pointed to arson, the police investigation ran cold. No one has ever been prosecuted.

In this week’s magazine, TIME tells the story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, which remains little known and even less understood despite the epic scale of the tragedy. Events like Stonewall have entered the canon of GLBT history, while other, equally significant moments have lingered in the background. But the movement is still relatively young in the arc of American history and as Harvey Milk once said, “A reading of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of a building is widely covered. The events that started the American Revolution were the meetings in homes, pubs, on street corners.”

As the stories of a survivor who remembers that tragic night, the founder of the church whose local congregation held services in the bar and the lead police investigator on the case show, the Upstairs fire was one such event.

Forty years later, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence in a statement to TIME: “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via email on June 17. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.” In a month that anticipates a potentially landmark Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the apology is another sign that times are changing.

by Anonymousreply 5906/28/2013

Not the largest killing no. HIV, remember?

by Anonymousreply 6006/28/2013

A good review of the show I attended in New Orleans:


A diamond in the rough to be found.[/bold]

The world premiere of Upstairs, a new musical with book, music, and lyrics by Louisiana native Wayne Self that bills itself as "a musical tragedy" takes on the Herculean task of making its debut in "the city that forgot to care." It does so with respect, perspective, and a level of humanity uncommon in the modern musical-theater scene. Weeks before the premiere, locals actively derided the concept of a musical treatment of the tragedy, filling the social networks with angry declamations of trading on the disaster and erroneously assuming that Upstairs would be a frivolous musical comedy. The show, which was presented in the limited confines of Cafe Istanbul in the area known as the Faubourg Marigny, quickly changed even the most hardened critics into ardent supporters of the production.

Over five years in the creation, Mr. Self, director Zachary McCallum, and musical director Stephanie Lynne Smith have crafted a respectful yet honestly human experience that refuses to shy away from the realities of the lives, loves, and failings of their subjects, brought to life by a cast most any production would be thrilled to employ. The ten characters in the show are a mixture of actual people and composites of the patrons, some of whom survive today.

An ensemble piece in the best sense, each performer is given the chance to shine. In the role of owner Buddy Rasmussen, Garrett Marshall is the show's heart. Blessed with a widely expressive voice and impressive physical presence, Marshall gives an engaging, nuanced performance. As his highly intelligent lover, Adam, Nicholas Losorelli is a credible companion and foil to Marshall's Buddy, bearing a fondness for Southern author Flannery O'Connor's bleak prose that echoes the mores of the era. As the production's sole female, Katrina McGraw's Inez is a savvy amoral whore, mother and pimp for her two gay sons: the black Louis (Keith Beverly) — a flamboyant activist in love with a devoted Christian man — and his gifted white musician brother, Jean (Sean Alexander Bart) — who shares their mother's amoral attitudes.

The dramatic impetus for Upstairs is the character of Agneau (pronounced Ahn-yoh, a nod to the character's Creole French heritage), a damaged victim of the excesses of the gay ghetto and his strict fundamentalist upbringing. Portrayed by Alexander Jon, Agneau is a pernicious lost lamb uncomfortable in his own skin and mentally unstable. He is constantly haunted by the presence of Uncle, played with assured fervor by Brian Brown. Invisible to the other characters, Brown's Uncle is not only Agneau's frighteningly shameful voice of self-loathing, but a representation that happily slits itself on the razor's edge between outright hatred and dogmatic entreaty. Despite swinging Bible verses like a cudgel, there is an undercurrent of caring and desperation. Uncle wants a little too much to keep Agneau from falling into the pits of Hell for his sinful attractions.

Even with its many plusses, Upstairs is definitely a work-in-progress. Many of the problems with the show are directly attributed to the limitations of Cafe Instanbul, a modular multipurpose concert stage with sparse lighting better suited to showcasing musicians than musicals. Despite the powerful voices of the cast, diction and clarity are somewhat lacking. Transitions between the various scenes want to be underscored, and timing in the book scenes are a little slow — though I suspect this issue was due mostly to the lighting limitations. The actors perform their numbers beautifully, but could benefit from a quick refresher in the vocal styles of the 1970s and could use some work re-creating the distinctive accents of the city. But these are nitpicking issues that underscore the value of the production as a whole, and are wholly fixable.

With more work and better venues, "Upstairs" has the potential to become a major musical drama.

by Anonymousreply 6106/28/2013

There's a very stripped-down one-night-only show in Los Angeles this weekend (the 29th of June) for only $15...

I'm hoping it gets a bigger tour, but money is always an issue.

by Anonymousreply 6206/28/2013

I hope the musical was filmed and will someday be available for public viewing (I.e. YouTube, museum, public library).

Weht the arsen suspect?

by Anonymousreply 6306/28/2013

R63, he committed suicide a long time ago.

by Anonymousreply 6406/28/2013

Thanks, r64.

by Anonymousreply 6506/28/2013

I knew about this but I hope the musical gets put onto DVD like someone else said.

by Anonymousreply 6606/28/2013

As far as I know, the New Orleans shows weren't recorded.

by Anonymousreply 6706/28/2013

Events like this need to be remembered.

by Anonymousreply 6807/01/2013

I'm about two thirds of the way through 'Let The Faggots Burn'. Wow. Since there's not much story behind a fire that lasted less than 20 minutes, it's all individual chapters about victims, survivors (told by friends, family. etc)

It's really awfully sad and not an easy read. The author does a really good job. Goes into a lot of detail about the aftermath. I was most struck to find that three bodies were never identified or claimed. That's very haunting.

The author mentions that he had difficulty getting the book published (so he self published) because people said the 'characters' weren't very interesting .... which, really, is kind of the point. These were just ordinary people hanging out in a bar. I thought the stories were interesting. It was such a different time.

If you can handle the subject matter, I highly recommend the book.

There's a new documentary about the fire out now too ...has anyone seen it yet ??

by Anonymousreply 6907/08/2013
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