BWW Interview: Max Vernon Talks EXISTENTIAL Residency, Making 'Art Babies' with Collaborators, and Finding Fashion at the 99-Cent Store
When it comes to Max Vernon's new three-show residency at Joe's Pub, EXISTENTIAL LIFE CRISIS LULLABY, Vernon says to expect "an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink experience---and possibly even the kitchen sink---but glued and covered in glitter."
The musical theatre triptych will rotate through Vernon's recent and upcoming work, including off-Broadway hits KPOP and THE VIEW UPSTAIRS. The first of the three shows (on September 25) is centered on his upcoming musical, THE TATTOOED LADY, which recently went through its first reading. And while the residency marks Vernon's first solo shows at Joe's in six years, he'll still be in good company, as announced guests include Tonya Pinkins (JELLY'S LAST JAM), Daphne Rubin-Vega (RENT), Annie Golden (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), MJ Rodriguez (POSE), Gizel Jimenez (MISS YOU LIKE HELL), singer-songwriter Chrissi Poland, and Veronica Swift (Telluride Jazz Festival). Oh, and did we mention he's making a ton of his own costumes, too?
Vernon was gracious enough to press pause on getting the first show together to talk all about the residency, making "art babies" with his many collaborators and the potential return of a certain X-rated chandelier.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
TF: What can fans expect from the show?
MV: Basically, over the past decade I've been working as a musical theatre writer to get my vision heard in the theatre. And then, the past year, I had this kind of crazy year where THE VIEW UPSTAIRS and KPOP both got produced and KPOP was the most nominated show last year and THE VIEW UPSTAIRS has now had 12 productions. I basically was just like, "I want to celebrate that." I just turned 30, feeling hella existential about life and want to look back and do three shows that were a wild and insane spectacle that honor the over 500 creative artists I've worked with up to this point.
So, I'm bringing some new friends in---people I haven't worked with before---people like Tonya Pinkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Justin Vivian Bond, Stephen Trask, all these different dope artists I love, for all my different shows. But then also working with a lot of people who've been on the journey since the beginning. And each of my three shows is going to be totally different. Completely different setlists, different costumes, different guests performers, and kind of a different narrative.
Also, in case I seem crazy right now, I have so much to do to get these concerts ready because I'm doing everything. I'm booking all the rehearsals, I've got monologues in the show, so I'm practicing as an actor, I'm hand-making all of my costumes, and, on top of this, while all this is happening, I've been doing readings and workshops for two different musicals. So, I just feel crazy, and the only way I can cope with this and do all this work is I've started drinking coffee concentrate straight from the bottle without water.
TF: Oh, man (laughs).
MV: (Laughs) Just staying up 'til 4:00 AM, like, sewin' shit. But that's theatre, right? Make it happen. Put on a show.
TF: I saw on social media that you were planning to make 10 outfits for the show. I was like, "Are you crazy?" Is it another great way to express creativity, does it just drive you nuts adding so much more to your plate, or both?
MV: Well, yes, it drives me nuts, but, also, I love it. For me, I'm someone who in a pre-Lady Gaga world where no one tolerated or thought dressing like a crazy person was cool, I was showing up to school when I was 14 in full eye makeup and kimonos and bondage boots and glitter on my face. Growing up, I was very bullied and kind of my escape from that was I was escaped with T. Rex and David Bowie and all this different music.
So, I've always been really into fashion and it is kind of an escape for me and it's a way to put my truth out there. I don't feel like I'm wearing costumes to be different people. I feel like this is authentically who I am, and I want to show people that, especially in this age in which I feel like we're all being encouraged to repress ourselves in this conservative backlash moment. I want to push back on that and be like, "Screw that. I'm gonna be even more fabulous and outrageous and all of that." And I want to show people I'm not just a composer, lyricist, and a playwright. I also sing. I can costume design. I'm a visual artist. I just want to give people a fuller scope of what I'm about.
TF: Can you say where you're at with the 10 outfits?
MV: I am about done with five of them. One of them is going to be recycled from my Lortel [ensemble]. I made this insane outfit for the Lortel Awards, which was this rainbow fish realness, crazy, crystal look. Right now, I'm working on a trench coat that is like a glitter, sequin-trimmed trench coat, and it's made with about 5,000 strips of hanging sequins and different silver threads and fabrics that I've cut up into strips, and I'm sewing them all on to this trench coat. It's going to be a beautiful silver tornado.
I like conflating high and low. I've just been raiding my 99-cent store and buying tons of plastic flowers and butterflies and stars and all different things, and figuring out how I can take materials that are not really fabric and using them like fabric and create looks out of that.
TF: Have there been any surprises with something working way better than you thought it would?
MV: Yeah, glow-in-the-dark stars (laughs). I used to love that in my childhood. I had them all on my ceiling, and, now, I want to make a suit of glow-in-the-dark stars and turn off all the lights in Joe's Pub and be my own constellation onstage.
TF: What made you decide you wanted to structure the residency this way, with the different shows?
MV: All the shows are sort of thematically linked in a way. A lot of my shows are about self-actualization. It's about, how do you become the thing you see in your head, and what do you have to sacrifice to get that? That's true of KPOP, with the KPOP stars who are essentially immigrants who are assimilating into America, and they're wrestling with, "Do I have to change my identity in order to appeal to an American market?" It's true of THE VIEW UPSTAIRS in the main character, Wes, who's this sort of...shitty fashionista character, who has this idea of wanting to become a personality or a person with a following. And then, with the TATTOOED ladies, this new musical that's all about self-actualization, because it's all about these women who committed this radical act that turned them into freaks, that basically made it so they could no longer have access to "normative society." And yet, it's a choice that allowed them to have a career. It allowed them to be creatively fulfilled. It allowed them to travel the world and do all these incredible things. So I think, around that theme, I felt like it was not enough to just do one show.
And, also, at this point, I've written like 200 songs. So, I felt like there's definitely enough material to do multiple shows and build something to create an experience that is new every time, that is kind of marinating on that theme but is also honoring the different fanbases I have for my different shows. Growing up, the musicals that inspired me were things like HEDWIG, ROCKY HORROR, and HAIR. So, I've always been about these kind of cult musicals that maybe don't get mainstream success, but the people who love it are ride-or-die. I felt like that, in and of itself, warranted a night that was very specific to THE VIEW UPSTAIRS so those people could feel seen and appreciated but also wanted to have other nights so I could expose some of those people to KPOP for the people who weren't able to get in because we were sold out or what have you.
TF: Aside from making the outfits, is there a part that's been the most fun while putting the shows together?
MV: For me, I just love casting. I love working with new artists. I don't know if I'll ever have children. I feel like probably not. I feel like one of the actual gifts of being queer is you don't have the same pressure to procreate, and you can kind of create your own families. I feel like with every show I've done, I've had the opportunity to be blessed with these sort of surrogate families. I just have so many different actors and artists and designers and directors I've had this amazing opportunity to collaborate with and make little art babies with. That, to me, is my favorite thing. I love singing my songs and I'm excited to have the opportunity to actually sing my own work in these shows, but I also just love getting to hear Tonya Pinkins sing my song and have it totally resonate in a way I was not expecting when I wrote it in my like closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn (laughs).
MV: THE TATTOOED LADY is an eight-person show and it's an all-female cast and that's trans-inclusive. But it's women of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, gender identification, and all the women play all of the male characters, too. I think there are over 50 characters in the show, but there's lots of really interesting doubling that happens. For the September concert, I was just like, "I want to put together an army of badass female warriors who are all dynamic and inspiring and have the best voices of all time, but unique."
In grad school, they really encouraged us to not write roles for people who were unique and could not be replaced. And I just kind of said, "Fuck that." That's not what I'm about as an artist. I actually hate that really conservatory-trained vibrato. I would rather work with people who have a quality that is inimitable because that is part of what inspires me as a writer to want to write roles for these people. I feel like every single woman performing in this show is completely unique and unlike anyone. I chose the people I thought would present the broadest range and really show people what THE TATTOOED LADY is going to be.
TF: Along with having different musical guests, each of the shows has a different director. Can you talk about the different vibes they're bringing to it.
MV: Ellie Heyman, Jaki Bradley, Jenny Koons... these are all incredible up-and-coming female directors that a lot of people know. But if they don't know, they're gonna know. I've always felt really strongly that I'm not interested in working with people who are the arty, successful Broadway directors. I would be much more interested in working with my peers and coming up with them because I think it's much more exciting to be attached to people who are tuned in to what's really happening now and are hungry and are young and are passionate. So, I think all these directors, 20 years from now, they are all going to be Broadway directors. They are all going to be legendary people in the theatre community, but I want to work with them now, while we're the same age and while we're all starving artists and full of vision, excitement and all of that.
TF: The title is EXISTENTIAL LIFE CRISIS LULLABY. That's also one of the titles of your songs from SHOW & TELL. What made you decide you wanted to use it for the title here?
MV: We're going to do all these songs that have a lot of darkness in them but also there's a lot of beauty, so that song's going to be the finale of the show because it's basically saying, "Yeah, our world is kind of busted right now, but I've been through a lot of adversity and it turned me into an artist. And I think we can take the things that are painful and dark and scary to us and, similarly, create something wonderful and beautiful out of it. And I'm here for you. I'm here!" That's why that's the name of the series. It's also a song, but I think that's a great theme for those three shows.
TF: On the subject of community, I watched a little bit of your Kennedy Center performance online, and you said that Wes from THE VIEW UPSTAIRS was you "before therapy," looking for a following but realizing he needs community. Did you have queer role models growing up and how has that been finding that community?
MV: No, I had no queer roles models at all. I didn't even have gay role models; I didn't even have homonormative people. I certainly didn't have people in my life who were genderqueer and wearing eyeshadow and on the femme spectrum. That was not in my life, so I feel like I had to figure a lot of that out on my own and figure out how to be the kind of person I wanted to be. A lot of the history of the queer community is based on a shared experience of oppression and bullying. That was certainly something I did experience, and that helped kind of shape who I became as an artist and a person. I think because I didn't have queer role models that I actually personally knew, when I was being bullied and harassed growing up for being that 13-year-old wearing kimonos, I looked to idols from the past. I looked to people like Leigh Bowery, Quentin Crisp and all different playwrights, like Charles Busch, Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith, and I looked to my queer heroes, and even though I didn't know them personally, that was really useful to me.
Then when I moved to the city, I definitely certainly searched out my people, and I feel like I've slowly curated a group of people that I think are really cool, that I can depend on, that are inspiring and fearless in who they are.
TF: So, cabaret's obviously not famously known for giant set pieces, but is there anything that's going to rival the light-up dildo chandelier [from THE VIEW UPSTAIRS]?
MV: Ugh, oh my god, I need to get that light-up dildo chandelier. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe for the October concert, we're going to get that out of storage. I don't know. I'm going to have to talk to our producer about it because I think we might need it, actually. We're definitely going to have some magical lighting. We have a lighting designer who's going to do the show who's one of the director's friends.
TF: Is there anything you can tease about guests for the second two shows?
MV: Between all of the future guests, I think there's something like 15 Tony nominations and awards between them. There's a burlesque dancer, there's a drag queen, there is the lead sponge from SPONGEBOB, the leading sponge. It's pretty great. I have to live in the vague land... But definitely it's the kind of thing you don't want to be shut out of. I think people are going to want to get their tickets now.
TF: It's been a couple years since you did a solo show at Joe's. Do you think you've changed as a performer over that time period?
MV: Totally. Six years ago, when I did my last show at Joe's Pub, I feel like there was a lot of potential there, but no one had really taken a chance on me yet. I feel like, since then, with all the productions I've had and the experience I've had and the validation I've gotten from other people through different grants and awards and all of that, I just feel so much more confident in what I have to offer. I know what I'm doing is kind of unique, and I just feel really comfortable being unapologetic about who I am as an artist. I do stick out in the musical theatre community, and that's okay. There are a lot of people who actually appreciate that. I just feel like I'm an artist who's much more in command in their tools and gifts and all that. And I'm ready to turn it the fuck out (laughs)!
Max Vernon's EXISTENTIAL LIFE CRISIS LULLABY opens at Joe's Pub on Tuesday, September 25. The residency will continue on October 23 and November 27. For tickets and information, visit www.joespub.publictheater.org.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.