Photography by Andy Ryan
Max Vernon would describe his enduring relationship with show tunes as more of a reluctant love affair than a calling. He announced to his family that he wanted to be on Broadway when he was just 5, but by the time he was 13, he’d grown ashamed of his aspirations. “Musical theater can really suck sometimes,” Vernon says, “so I threw myself into punk and fashion.”
By the age of 18, the Brooklyn-based composer and pianist was playing solo shows around Manhattan and designing his own costumes. His artistic skills also landed him a spot in Scholastic’s Art.Write.Now. program, in which he painted for a live audience in a glass storefront at the World Financial Center. His surreal, schizophrenic drawings (e.g., Leigh Bowery’s head attached to a spider’s body) were showcased in the Halloween 2010 window display at Patricia Field’s flagship store.
Now, however, “the pendulum is swinging back,” says Vernon, who finally succumbed to his weakness for musicals and wrote two of his own. The first, Wired, about a robot pop star struggling in a dystopian future, was a finalist for the 2011 Eugene O’Neill Center Musical Theater Conference and the 2012 Drama League New Works grant. The second, The View UpStairs, is based on the little-known true story of a 1973 arson attack at a New Orleans gay bar that killed 32 people. To commemorate its victims, Vernon presented a concert version of the show this past June on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, which remains the deadliest LGBT massacre in U.S. history. In a poetic twist, the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down two days after the performance.
Vernon hopes both works will reignite a genre that he thinks is gasping for relevance and ingenuity. “It’s about finding a way to create musicals that people in the downtown club-kid scene would think are cool,” says Vernon, who was recently commissioned by Disney to compose songs for possible use in future stage productions of Disney and Pixar films. “I want to hear LCD Soundsystem in a musical; I don’t want to hear other people’s take on Sondheim. I think I can be the black sheep and piss people off by doing what you’re not supposed to do—but hopefully do it well enough that people forgive me.”