Since premiering in New York, Max Vernon’s musical The View UpStairs, which they wrote the music, lyrics and script for, has opened around the world including a run at London’s Soho Theatre in 2019, with the show based on the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack and has recently been announced to open in Tokyo next year. Other musicals that Max has written the music and lyrics for include The Tattooed Lady, which workshopped recently and will premiere in 2022, and KPOP the Musical, which premiered in 2017 with a sold-out run and was the most nominated off-Broadway show of that year. KPOP was set for a pre-Broadway run recently before having to be cancelled due to COVID but they are hoping to open next year on Broadway. Max is also part of the band Tony & The Kiki, with their latest single Listen released this week and they are holding their first live show on October 10th at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn. Answering our questions recently, Max talks about writing The View UpStairs, their shows The Tattooed Lady and KPOP and performing with Tony & The Kiki.
You wrote the musical The View UpStairs based on the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack, what inspired you to write a musical about it and how long were you working on it?
As a millennial who grew up without any significant queer mentors, I wrote The View UpStairs to try to understand my history and place in this world a bit better. The LGBTQ community was historically bonded through a shared experience of oppression; you had to go to gay bars to find your community, as in many states it was quite literally illegal to be publicly gay. In 2021, oppression/violence still exists (especially for the trans community), but certainly not in the same form as in 1973. Queerness has been integrated into capitalism as gays accrued wealth and purchasing power. Gay bars are no longer needed to meet people and many are going out of business entirely. So, I wanted to use the fire at the UpStairs Lounge to spark a conversation between generations about the ways in which our world has changed for better and/or worse over the last fifty years, and to figure out – where do we go from here?
What was it like premiering the musical in New York and having it open in London Soho Theatre and seeing the great reviews?
With all of these productions, there is something very moving for me around knowing that for a month or two, the UpStairs Lounge will rise again – each community performing the theatre (NY, LA, Utah, Chicago, Texas, Ohio, Sydney, London, Tokyo, etc) gets to redefine what that gay bar meant for them and cultivate conversation and community around it. I love the idea that something beautiful that was destroyed, now keeps coming back and multiplying and spreading a message of hope.
In terms of reviews – I’ve found that they’ve actually been quite polarizing. I’ll read one thing that says “This show changed my life, and I felt seen for the first time on stage” and then another that says “Max wrote a show full of horrible damaging stereotypes and the lead character is insufferable. Please jump out a window!!!” and meanwhile that main character is based on me lol. But I’d have it no other way. My work is not for everybody. I personally am not for everybody, and everybody is not for me! I’m very much of the mindset that musicals can still be dangerous and provocative. I like exploring dark shit and populating my shows with flawed characters who aren’t always “likeable”. I grew up loving musicals like Rocky Horror and Hedwig and Hair, and similarly wanted to create a cult Rock & Roll musical for the future legendary weird queer kids out there. This musical is for them, and I think they will love it.
How does it feel having the musical nominated for a number of awards, most recently at the WhatsOnStage Awards for the London production and how was it attending?
Awards are paperweights. They’re fun to win, and then they go in my closet and collect dust. The only thing I like about award shows is they give me an excuse to be creative and create an outfit. For WhatsOnStage, I hand painted this look for example: https://www.instagram.com/p/B9NM8wzpS_H/
The View UpStairs has recently been announced to head to Tokyo, can you say more about this?
It’s going to this huge 1400 seat theatre, which seems wild. I actually studied Japanese in school for five years and briefly lived in Shingu, Wakayama prefecture. So this production feels very personal for me. I have absolutely no idea how the show will translate or resonate culturally, but I am excited to find out.
Can you tell us about The Tattooed Lady which was workshopped recently and how did the workshop go?
It’s a musical inspired by the stories of Tattooed Ladies who performed in the freak show in the late 1800s. In the true spirit of the side show, I’m trying to push myself to give no f*cks and just be fearless. There’s been a few musicals about the circus/freakshow and they all feel so sanitized and safe to me. This show is NOT that. I think it will probably trigger everybody, myself included, but in a way that feels necessary. The theatre premiering the show next fall actually made a documentary about it if you want to know more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJEryefSr14
What are you looking forward to most for premiering the musical in theatres and what were the music and lyrics like to write?
I think we’re living in this very stupid time in which everyone on the internet assumes people are either angels or monsters, and absolutely nothing in between. All of the characters in The Tattooed Lady are very complicated – these women are inspiring and badass, but also (historically) did f*cked up things and have demons and flaws and A LOT of nuance. I’m excited to have a conversation with the audience around that. I truly love this score and can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
You’ve written the music and lyrics to KPOP the Musical, how was this and what are the future plans for performances?
KPOP was a very different kind of project for me. I love writing about juicy complicated shit, exploring deep contradictions and transformation within characters ie not the assignment here. But, while it exercised a different creative muscle for me, it was also a blast to just write a bunch of fun catchy BOPS that an audience can dance to. The world (especially now) needs some pure escapist entertainment as well. We’d had a pre-Broadway production in an 1800 seat theatre that just got scuttled unfortunately because of the Delta variant, but we are still on a path to Broadway… hopefully in 2022.
What was the response like to the world premiere in 2017?
The whole run was sold out before we started performances and we were the most nominated Off-Broadway show of the year in terms of awards season. However, the capacity of the theatre was quite small, and because of equity rules we only ran for six weeks. So, we were essentially the most expensive, most acclaimed Off-Broadway musical that very few people saw.
Who do you think the shows will appeal to?
If this interview intrigues you, then you’ll probably dig my art as well. Please go see my shows!
Can you tell us about Tony & The Kiki and about your recent releases?
Tony & The Kiki is a queer glam rock band that I started as a pandemic passion project, but has completely taken over my life. I’m writing and producing music, making all of our costumes, doing everybody’s make up, shooting and creative directing live videos, editing all of our sound – it’s everything for me right now. I love, love, love, love these songs, and it has helped me reconnect to my teenage dreams. If you dig T. Rex, Meat Loaf, Sylvester – but want to hear a Latin spin on it, then you will be obsessed. Here’s our first music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPJoO__Fq9E
Do you have any upcoming releases or performances in the coming months?
Our latest single Listen came out on October 6th, and then our first EP Light it Up will be released in November. You can hear our tunes on Spotify/Apple/your personal robot/whatever. We’re playing our first live show on October 10th at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn.
How did the band come together and what do you enjoy most about being part of it?
I met Anthony at a queer seance in the east village, where we were invoking spirits from the 70s. With so many projects, I’m hired to only utilize one of my skill sets – with Tony & The Kiki, it’s really a creative free for all, and all the other bandmates have been super encouraging of me getting wild and trying a bunch of things.
Had you always wanted a career in music and writing and how did you start?
I don’t know if I necessarily knew it would be a career – but since I was five years old I’ve always been singing and playing piano. I hear music in my head almost every waking minute (which sometimes drives me crazy but…). When I was eighteen I moved to NYC and started gigging out, and never looked back.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
My fiancé and I are avid gaymers. Board games, video games, you name it – we have quite a collection at this point.
Are you currently working on new writing material that you can tell us about and are there any future plans to bring any of the musicals to the UK?
I’ve got some musicals in the works right now – about the apocalypse, witches, robots, etc. I would absolutely LOVE to come back to the UK as I had a dream experience last time. Producers, hit me up!!!! xo
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