The deadliest single attack on the LGBTQ community is the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were murdered. But before Pulse, the 1973 Upstairs Lounge arson fire in New Orleans held that dubious distinction.
Twenty-nine people perished in the blaze itself on Sunday, June 24, 1973. Another three later died from injuries sustained in the fire. Most of the victims31 men and one womanwere members of the LGBTQ-inclusive Metropolitan Community Church and were attending a fundraiser to get an air conditioner for the congregation.
The fact that the Upstairs Lounge fire is so little known shocked the playwright and songwriter Wayne Selfso much so that he was inspired to create a theater piece about the attack. Upstairs: The Musical now makes its Chicago premiere at the Pride Arts Center after previously playing in New Orleans in 2013.
"I grew up in Louisiana. I'm born and bred there and my family has been there before there was a United States," said Self, adding that he previously worked as a music director for a Metropolitan Community Church.
"I grew up gay, but I never actually knew about the fire despite having a misspent youth in New Orleans," Self said. "It wasn't until I was in grad school in Berkeley and I saw it more or less as a footnote in a history book. So I started looking into it the more I could and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became."
Self stresses that Upstairs: The Musical is a piece of fiction inspired by true events. And Self is well aware that some people might automatically be displeased since he wrote it as a musical. Self said he fielded plenty of concerned phone calls in advance of the 2013 premiere.
"But that's my milieu. I'm a musical-theater composer and that's what I bring to the table," Self said. "And New Orleans is obviously a musical city and the Upstairs Lounge itself was a famously a musical bar. Some of the victims were musicians and the bar would put on musical theater shows. So all of that lent itself to the music as a means to tell the story."
Self said it was important to first produce Upstairs: The Musical in Louisiana because "I knew the New Orleans audience would hold me accountable for being respectful and using music to tell the story seriouslynot in a frothy way."
Interestingly, Self isn't the only playwright and songwriter to find musical inspiration from the Upstairs Lounge fire. Max Vernon's musical The View UpStairs played off-Broadway in New York earlier this year.
Gary Trick is co-producing and co-directing the Chicago premiere of Upstairs: The Musical with Eric Coleman. In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Trick wanted to do his part to historically teach people about the earlier Upstairs Lounge fire via Upstairs: The Musical.
Trick is somewhat ashamed to admit that he first heard about the Upstairs Lounge fire at the age of 62. It was via the Syfy reality TV series Ghost Hunters in a rebroadcast of a 2012 episode titled French Quarter Massacre.
But Trick says he isn't alone in initially not knowing about the Upstairs Lounge arson fire.
"My best friends live in New Orleansborn and raised with one in the 9th ward and the other in the suburbs," Trick said. "They're a straight couple in their mid-50s and they never knew that this happened."
"Back then in the 1970s, the media might have thought that the sensitive thing was to not mention the sexuality of the victims because they were 'respecting people's privacy,'" Self said. "And I'm sure the New Orleans tourism industry didn't want it out there and the same with the religious community, so there was a culture of silence built up around it."
In writing the show, Self drew from some stories of the actual fire victims and survivors looking back on the incident two years later. Self also wanted the show to have a musical language of its own, which is why he opted not to write a pastiche score evoking Dixieland jazz or 1970s disco styles.
In co-directing the show, Trick finds it very encouraging that the acting ensemble is taking so well to the material and digging deeply into this tragic chapter of LGBTQ historyeven though practically none of the performers knew of the Upstairs Lounge fire before auditions were announced.
"They had done an amazing amount of work prior to the auditions to find out what happened. They practically ended up casting themselves and came in 'as that person.' [The cast] just want learn so much more about this," Trick said. "I mean, I have shirts that are older than some of the guys in the cast."
The Chicago premiere of Upstairs: The Musical plays Oct. 27-Nov. 12 in The Broadway space of the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets are $35. Doors open an hour before curtain for a dance party with ensemble members in character. ( Note: It's for mature audiences only. ) For more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit UpstairsTheMusicalChicago.com .