But commercial success is not the point of this endeavor—and with the cost of production (including moving the entire cast and crew from LA to New Orleans and back again), there really wasn’t much profit to be made. Instead, Upstairs achieved something very different. Awareness. And, for some, closure.
Wayne Self's musical is not a happy-clappy affair in the style of Oklahoma! or Hair, but rather a thoughtful, moving, and often dark introspection that shares more in common with Assassins and Next to Normal. Its purpose is to honor the memory of the victims, and to acknowledge the brutality of the event that took their lives. A message that was driven home again and again in the multitude of stories that revealed themselves during the show’s run.
It is widely acknowledged that the press coverage of the original event fell short of what it should have been, and publicized insults and slander towards the victims. During the show’s run, an often heard phrase was, “Why did I never know about this fire?” Until Upstairs and other events surrounding the 40th anniversary of the fire began generating attention, the deadliest crime against LGBT people in recorded US history was a barely-acknowledged footnote. In New Orleans, at least, that is no longer the case.
The show wasn’t the only thing that the Upstairs cast and crew were able to attend. On the 24th, a memorial for the fallen was held at the site of the memorial plaque, which is set in the sidewalk at the foot of the staircase where the blaze started. The Upstairs cast and crew were welcomed, and it was an extremely emotional event for everyone involved—especially relatives and friends of the victims.
A story that came to our attention during Pride, where the cast and crew of Upstairs managed a booth and sold t-shirts to promote the show, was one that touched us all. We learned of a local man who’d been deeply affected by the fire, and went to the show with the intention of standing up in the middle of it and announcing his disgust with the entire proceedings. This is a viewpoint that has come up often. Until people see the show and realize what it actually is, the depth it has, the weight it carries, and the sensitivities with which it treats all parties, they are often disturbed or horrified that anyone would attempt to turn this story into a musical.
We learned that this man did go to the show, sat quietly through the entire thing, and returned to his friends in tears. We were told that, for the first time, he had been able to access some closure. There were lots of stories like that.
The Upstairs cast and crew had a more direct hand in assisting the son of Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell, an assistant MCC Pastor who initially escaped the fire but returned to rescue his partner, Louis Horace Broussard. Their bodies were found entwined together. Through money raised by the sale of song recordings from the workshop production, we were able to provide enough funding for Duane Mitchell Jr and his wife, Barbara Mitchell, to travel from Alabama to New Orleans to attend both the memorial service and the 40th anniversary show of Upstairs, with front row seats.
While every sold-out show was an intense experience, the final New Orleans show on the 40th anniversary of the fire reached a greater depth. We had seen tears from audience members every night, but on Monday the entire audience—and many of the crew—visibly sobbed. Duane Mitchell Jr and Barbara Mitchell were seated in the front row at center-stage, where they could clearly see Mitch, the character based on Duane’s father, singing a haunting solo, ‘I Will Always Return’, to his lover, Louis. When the show was over, a visibly emotional Duane Mitchell Jr thanked the cast and crew, and urged us to keep telling this story. Which we fully intend to do.
The entire production of Upstairs has moved back to Los Angeles for a one night only show held at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre on June 29th. Tickets are available at Brownpapertickets.com for $15. In a month that has seen Pride, the strike down of DOMA, the death knell of Prop 8, and the 40th anniversary of this event, we invite everyone to come celebrate with your community, and commemorate those who didn’t live to see it.
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