2019 is officially the year of the musical; after a period of so-so revivals and uninspiring new work, London’s musical theatre scene is thriving again with reinvigorated classics and key investment in new productions that enchant audiences and critics alike. Already this year the West End has seen a celebrated Broadway transfer for Waitress with Katherine McPhee, now onto its second cast, the UK premieres of Come From Away and 9 to 5 (which recently announced a UK tour), alongside big-ticket revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium and a third-coming for the Open Air Theatre’s smart and moving version of Jesus Christ Superstar transferring to the Barbican.
Just over half-way through the year and there’s still plenty more to come – Michael Ball returns to Les Misérables to play Javert in an all-star concert version opening shortly while the much-loved original production gets a facelift and a redesigned theatre space, the anticipated arrival of Dear Evan Hansen strolls into town in the autumn and if you needed any confirmation that musicals are now cool again then Director-of-the-moment Jamie Lloyd swaps Pinter for Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new version of Evita.
The success of Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies at the National, which also returned to the Olivier this year, and Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered Company at the Gielgud which extended well beyond its original run changed everything, and musicals are now far more than lively tunes and hyper-real stories playing to coach-loads of tourists. With an ability to transfer serious social messages about the world we’ve created for ourselves and the expectations we place on the lives of others, done well a single song can be far more emotive than three hours of serious drama, so the arrival of Off-Broadway hit The View UpStairs a few weeks after Pride couldn’t be more timely.
Max Vernon’s musical, making it’s European debut at the Soho Theatre and running for just five weeks, commemorates the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans which was the most significant event of its kind until 2016’s Florida shootings. And while the fire and its consequences hang over the action, Vernon’s focus in on the humanity of the men and women inside at the time, the broken community of customers who found solace in the one place they could be themselves against a backdrop of endless persecution and hate beyond the walls of the UpStairs Bar.
Vernon uses a time-travel structure in which an entitled millennial moving home from New York unknowingly buys the bar to turn into his fashion emporium, only to find himself unexpectedly back in 1973 getting to know the regulars. It sounds unlikely but works fairly seamlessly in practice, allowing Vernon to point to the ease with which we all take for granted any of the rights and freedoms hard won by previous generations, and how little we know or appreciate the suffering and fear of discovery which the pioneers of democratic and social freedoms had to endure.
It is a theme that has echoed through a number of high-profile productions about the history of the LGBTQ+ experience in recent years. Both Angels in America and The Inheritance commented on the longer-term consequences of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in both devastating and galvanising the gay community, while remarking on how the impact of those losses was remarkably little known among the younger generation. Similarly, the TV show Pose which came to BBC2 earlier this did the same for the ball culture scene charting internal divisions within the Trans African American and Latinx Houses and struggles for recognition. Vernon’s new musical however looks beyond the 1980s, to pre-existing hostility and prejudice which he suggests has never entirely disappeared from American society, drawing clear parallels between the violence of the 1973 attack and the erosion of equality as hard-line politicians dominate modern US government.
Lee Newby’s set largely eschews any suggestion of camp exuberance, this is not an era in which the characters could be out and proud even in their own space. Newby’s work has a lot of lovely detail, fitting nicely into the small Soho Theatre stage to create a slightly worn 70s boozer with a sticky-looking tiled floor, tired furniture and heavy curtains. The only concession to the cabaret entertainments occasionally offered by the bar is a large white grand piano, but this shabbiness suits the underground nature of the story, and there’s something inviting even homely about Newby’s interpretation of The UpStairs Bar that grows in stature as the characters’ attachment to it becomes clearer.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps most of the characters on stage throughout the show, even in the opening and closing scenes where the 1970s cast linger like shadows or ghosts keeping the past alive as Wes agrees to buy the building. It’s a musical with 15 songs and dialogue so things move briskly and O’Boyle moves his performers around the space, sitting at different tables and when not participating in the central discussion there are lots of silent vignettes that add texture to the underlying tensions and alliances within the group that become vital later in the story.
The culture clash between 2019’s Wes and the inhabitants of The UpStairs Bar is Vernon’s key device, and it’s one that earns plenty of laughs as Wes’s modern ideas, shallowness and clear naivety about his cultural ancestry clash against the darker reality of the people hiding their sexuality and living in fear of public shame. Smashing Wes’s phone immediately as a spy device and criticising his gender-neutral clothing style are easy wins for Vernon, but Tyrone Huntley’s Wes is not a character who is easy to like. Obsessed with image, sexting and presenting his life as a success on social media, it makes him hard to root for and Wes takes too much of the focus. Huntley is very funny and sings beautifully, giving heart to the growing connection with hustler Patrick (Andy Mientus) that starts to reform him. The point of the show is to see his growth as he begins to understand the importance of the room he now owns, but he’s still a rather two-dimensional creation that may drive the narrative but is ultimately the least interesting thing about it.
Instead, Vernon has created a cast of fascinating 1970s characters who, though sparingly used, form a convincingly disparate group who genuinely seem to care for each other. Across the one hour and 45-minute running time, the audience is able to spend a little time with each one of them individually, spread-out across the show, while catching snippets of their attitudes and personal circumstances that build a broad but satisfying picture of different personalities clinging together. With eight additional characters there’s little time to flesh them all out as fully as we’d expect, but somehow Vernon has shown us enough of their humanity and their complexity that by the end the individual and collective cost of the arson attack is devastatingly realised.
Buddy is a married man with children living a lie for the sake of convention and playing piano at the bar once a week, a night he lives for. Frustrated by his need to invert himself, John Partridge’s Buddy is full of stunted frustration as the man he is is constantly subdued by the man he needs to be to protect his family from retaliatory actions because of his choices. And Partridge sings beautifully, particularly ‘Some Kind of Paradise’ which opens the show with a blusey feel that runs through the music. There’s a gentle tragedy in Buddy that Partridge brings out to great effect, having to weigh his options all the time, and even in the supportive surroundings of the UpStairs Bar he must stay in control – a key theme of The View UpStairs being the eternal debate between violent and peaceful means to achieve change – even at the cost of his friendships.
Declan Bennett has a great rock voice which suits the role of the troubled Dale particularly well, a character on the periphery of the group, feeling excluded and pushed to greater extremes as the action unfolds. Bennett plays Dale as a bundle of ready aggression, and filled with subtle tics, unable to stay still and rather pointedly fiddling with a lighter at every opportunity. He never seems quite as volatile or “mad” as the other characters imply but Bennett finds surprising reserves of pathos for Dale in his solo number ‘Better Than Silence’, the sadness of his homelessness and prostitution explaining his behaviour as he feels unseen by the others, a cry for help ignored with disastrous consequences.
The smaller roles are also full of colour including the sweet mother and son duo of Latina seamstress Ines (Victoria Hamilton Barritt) and Drag Queen Freddy (Garry Lee) who’ve struggled on when her husband left, finding greater happiness by embracing the unexpected path life gave them. Impressive work too from Cedric Neal as the more flamboyant Willie, with a dancer’s technique and an incredibly soulful voice, particularly in the charming ‘Theme Song’, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as bar owner Henri, a no-nonsense proprietor who keeps everyone in line but refuses to give much away to her clientele, while Joseph Prouse’s non-practicing pastor Richard argues for peaceable methods while trying to maintain everyone’s faith in themselves.
Vernon’s musical isn’t perfect and like a lot of American imports it sometimes prioritises cheese over the gritter experience of the regulars of the bar and our route into the show via the time-looping Wes feels unnecessary, but there is something life-affirming about The View UpStairs and its faith in the essential value of all people regardless of what they have to do to survive that entirely wins you over. In the context of recent shows, it’s also a useful reminder that the AIDS epidemic was neither the first or only battle the LGBTQ+ community has had to fight, and, whatever your sexuality or gender alignment, established political and social rights are always one election away from retrenchment. So, forget what you think you know about musicals, because in 2019 they have much to contribute to ongoing debates.