The following quote, credited to Mary Oliver, seems to be aimed directly at this week’s Portrait, “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Max Vernon is a musical theater writer, whose works include “The View UpStairs,” “KPOP” (opening on Broadway this November), “Show & Tell” and “The Tattooed Lady.” They are a three-time Drama Desk nominee, Out100 Honoree, recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award, Jonathan Larson Grant, Pew Arts and Culture Grant, and New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, among others. I had a chance to see their current show, “The Tattooed Lady,” playing at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which Vernon describes as “a full course meal, wild, provocative, hilarious, and entertaining in the way any trip to the freakshow should be.”
Where did you make your debut?
I was born in New York and grew up between New York and Los Angeles, but I’ve been living here for the past 17 years.
What did the folks do? Were they in the arts?
No, not at all, they were both in the business world, but they were very supportive of me and my creativity.
What traits do you think you got from your parents?
When he was growing up, my dad was an acid taking hippie; he was in the first co-ed classes at Skidmore College, though his life took him down a different, more traditional path. When kids of my generation were listening to Spice Girls and N’Sync, my dad made sure I was listening to David Bowie, Queen, the Mamas and the Papas, Fleetwood Mac and that kind of stuff. I owe a lot to my dad for exposing me to some really good music. And my mom, while not an artist, really fostered my love of theater. She took me to see Broadway shows all the time. That became an early passion for me. On the weekends I’d beg my parents to take me to the TKTS booth in Times Square. To me it was so magical, you lined up and waited for them to post things on the board and it was like, “Oh my God, there are so many options!” Of course, now as a creator you DON’T want to be on the TKTS board because it means your show is not selling well! But when I was young, it was extremely thrilling and both parents really fostered that which was cool.
Do you remember the first show you ever saw?
It was the era of the big British musicals that ruined Broadway, so it was probably something like Cats, or Beauty and the Beast, or maybe Phantom, I don’t really remember, but one of those circa ’93 or ’94.
How would people have described you as a kid?
Outspoken, creative, different, someone who followed the beat of their own drum. Growing up I was bullied quite a lot, and I didn’t have many friends so music became my friend. I would spend a lot of time going to record stores and buying vinyl records and listening to them on my record player. I think the fact that I didn’t have many friends growing up required me to be super imaginative and foster creativity so that I could escape into fantasy worlds of my own making. But I’ve always been different, something that I think my parents observed at a young age.
How did that difference manifest? What’s something that the kids would have picked up on?
I’ve always been incredibly outspoken about what I believed and my own sense of internal justice. My mom tells the story of me when I was only 4 years old. I was on a playground and there was a girl on a swing and some boy walked up and pushed her off the swing and climbed on it. I yelled at him, “You get off that swing and let her back on!!” He yelled back, “Yeah? Well, who are you?” and I threw a hand on my hip and shouted, “I’m Max Vernon!” [Laughing] Crazy for a 4 year old, but I think it’s very defining of my life in many ways. I’m now a 34 year old and people are still throwing shit my way and asking, “Who are you?” and the answer is still, I’m Max Vernon!
Yeah, I was even politely thrown out of my hippie preschool for being too outspoken. Which is interesting because the school was supposed to be all about encouraging free thinking, and not just giving kids a rote education. But apparently I asked too many questions and it was disruptive for the other children. Today, in 2022, that’s what I do as a dramatist every day. I try to get into people ‘s who make assumptions and say, you don’t actually know what someone else is thinking. But here’s what I think they may be thinking.
Were you a theater geek in school?
I was a super theater geek in school, definitely. It was interesting to my mom and dad and almost seemed like maybe I was a failed actor in a past life, because even as a kid I was like, “Come on! We’ve got to get going” with my work. I was the one saying, “I need singing lessons and piano lessons, help me out!” They never pushed me, but they supported me all the way. Though I remember that only other gay person in my family was an uncle who died of AIDS so my parents didn’t want me to see “Rent.” They thought it was inappropriate, so of course that made me become obsessed with it! I saw it and then I saw it again and again.
But even before I had a sense of what my sexuality or gender presentation was, other people identified that it was “weird” and not normal or acceptable, so yeah, I was called faggot five times a day for a five year stretch of my life. I associated a lot of that bullying to my love of theater so at about 13, I made a hard schism with that part of my soul and pretended that I hated theater and threw myself into punk rock and punk music and fashion, strange avant-garde art. I started doing a lot of drugs, and by 14, 15 I was kind of a wild child.
I’d say the last 12 years of my life have been about turning it around, I moved to New York, and started performing as a singer-songwriter doing my own songs. Through writing songs I started exploring character and narrative and realized that I wanted to conjure up bigger worlds than one three minute song would allow. So I had to make peace with my childhood love of theater and now this last part of my life has been stitching the two disparate parts of my self together. Creating something that would also appeal to that 14 year old self who fucking hates theater and is deeply ashamed of it. Can I write about forgotten gay bars in the ‘70s that got destroyed in fires, and have time travel and rock and roll in it? Can I write about tattooed ladies in the freak show in the late 1800’s? Can I write about Korean pop stars, can I write about robots, can I do all this in a way that feels contemporary and fresh and a little bit dangerous? Yes, that’s what I do.
What’s the first thing you did that felt like the big time?
I think a big turning point was when I won the Jonathan Larson Award from the American Theatre Wing. That was a $20,000 award and at the time I was living in a rat infested apartment in Brooklyn. The rent was $500 a month which allowed me to concentrate on writing. I was never one to go the typical shit job route, I find it soul killing, but the downside was having to live in a cheap but rat infested home. So the award allowed me to move into a place without rats and really focus on my writing. I was able to start my first musical, “The View Upstairs”, which played off Broadway and was a big deal for me. That was also a big turning point for me both as an artist and for my life. The musical was inspired by the fire in the Upstairs Lounge, which before the massacre at Pulse was the deadliest attack on LGBTQ people in US history. 32 people died in the fire that was set. It was a real passion piece for me but considered an unproducible show. People were like, “Who is going to want to see a musical about gay people dying in a fire…” What I had to explain that it was a musical about gay people living [chuckles] and then dying in a fire, but the fire is a small part of the show. It was meant to spark an intergenerational conversation about how the community has become better or worse. So I stuck with it and 16,000 people saw the show and now it has been produced around the world. It just had its first translated production in Japan and it played to 10,000 people. It’s really vindicating.
That must feel good.
Totally. As a person, I’ve always polarized people just being myself, and my work is no different. When the show came out there were people who loved it and people who despised it. They were like, “Max should throw themself out of a fucking window. They’re a horrible writer with no craft and this is an abomination on God’, but the audience loved it. I might be a sardine and not everyone loves sardines, but if you do, you fucking like sardines and the people who do are ride or die for me. The people who have felt seen by that show are the ones who have given it life. That taught me that going forward, to always be myself and not compromise, and I will find my audience.
Let’s talk about your current play, “The Tattooed Lady.”
At a young age my dad would take me to Coney Island and he didn’t want to take me to the freak show, but again, anything you tell me I shouldn’t be seeing because it’s so scandalous, I need to see it. After pleading, he finally took me, and the tattooed lady made the biggest impression on me. Because of the way I was treated growing up, I’ve always looked for people who were comfortable in their own skin in spite of being misunderstood by others. What was interesting to me was that there were other freaks in the show, but they were basically people who didn’t have access to modern medicine, conjoined twins, or people with skin disorders or too much hair who were essentially exploited for their deformities or medical conditions. But the tattooed lady was a normal person who chose to become a freak. But the ladies intentionally chose their otherness — by tattooing themselves they renounced respectable society, but gained a new kind of autonomy. So to me it’s a narrative about agency and self actualization. The tattooed lady has always been a personal hero of mine. Especially with everything that has been going on for the last five years, I was like the world needs this narrative right now. What I want to do with my body is my own fucking business.
It’s definitely serious business with serious topics but I love that it is also infused with humor.
Yes, I feel that this musical is this generation’s Rocky Horror. [Laughing] I mean I’m fully delusional, but my delusions have often come true. Both musicals are basically about liberation, Rocky Horror said, ‘Don’t dream it, be it’, we sing, ‘We’re astonishing, bizarre and outrageous, So come on in, our courage is contagious.’ Which is what the freak show teaches you, that the parts of ourselves that other people are afraid of are the closest things to our truth’. So there’s a lot of dark in the show, because there’s a lot of dark in the world, but these ladies are a beacon of light because they know exactly who they are. The idea that there’s nothing you can tell me about myself that I don’t already know and I’m not ashamed of any of it.
“The Tattooed Lady” is not explicitly gay, but it’s made for gay people. The narrative of the tattooed women making the decision of choosing to tattoo themselves in spite of what society or any one thinks is something that gay people have to do every day. The cast is all women but they also play men in the scenes, even the romantic scenes. [Laughing] I think the show is built for lesbians in many ways because it’s sexy as hell and very queer.
Agreed, random questions, what’s your best broach?
Hold on, let’s look! [pulls out drawers full of jewelry] I like this one that I got in Mexico, it’s of a hand and it’s really beautiful, and I like this beaded butterfly quite a bit. Oh, and this is nice, it’s a rhinestone clock. And here’s a golden starfish I’m partial to, they’re all lovely.
Favorite cabaret song to sing?
That would be “Stupid Ancient Trees.” I wrote it so it sits right in my range! I had a 6 month sold out residency at Joe’s Pub and that was a favorite!
Who is your favorite to go see?
I like the downtown people like Justin Vivian Bond, Lady Rizo, who I think now just goes by Rizo, Meow Meow, they’re all wonderful cabaret performers.
I’ll have to check them out, I know more of the old school players like Eartha Kitt, etc.
Oh, if you’re going there, I LOVE those people. I’m obsessed with Eartha Kitt, I just never got to see her or any of the others from that era perform because they died before I was able to. But if you’re talking about that generation, I would say Blossom Dearie. Another one that I never got to see though.
Ah, I love her music too. Okay, something that makes you a hypocrite?
I have all of these lyrics about being true to yourself and not caring about other people’s judgment and yet I judge myself constantly and I’m still very sensitive.
What’s your superpower?
My ability to see the seed of weird in every body and to amplify and encourage it.
What song makes you sad and what song gets you revved up?
Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” is sad but beautiful. Wait, is that the one? [Sings several bars] Yes, that’s it. To get me revved up? “Till Victory” by Patti Smith.
Wow, you have a beautiful voice yourself. What’s next for you?
I’m in New York because the closing night of “The Tattooed Lady” is my opening night on Broadway for “KPOP.”
Nice! Tell me about that.
It’s a very, very different kind of show that I’ve been working on for 9 years. It’s big and commercial, incredible singing and dancing, amazing choreography and gorgeous costumes! It’s a big spectacle. I’m grateful to have both plays running at the same time because they showcase very different sides of me.
That should be your next show, “The Many Sides of Max Vernon!”