From the DRAMATISTS GUILD QUARTERLY
By Dan Berkowitz
“I love it!” roared Jim Brochu. “I hope you’re gonna put that in the article!”
The cause of this explosion of mirth was my suggestion that readers of The Dramatist might be interested in how playwright/director Jim and his partner, singer/songwriter Steve Schalchlin, had, over the past several years, been uncommonly successful at making chicken salad out of chicken shit.
The “shit,” so to speak, included Steve’s declining health and imminent death from AIDS; his consequent decision to commit suicide; and his battle with the new AIDS drugs, which saved his life, but caused personality-altering side effects which led to the breakup of his and Jim’s long-term relationship. Oh yeah, the shit also included growing up during the Eisenhower years gay and Catholic in Brooklyn (Jim), and gay and Baptist in the Bible Belt (Steve).
The “salad” the two created from all this was a pair of joyous, life-affirming musicals: The Last Session, which was nominated for Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards in New York, won of a host of awards on the west coast, including the L. A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award, and has been produced all around the country - and which is about a singer/ songwriter, dying of AIDS, who has decided to kill himself; and The Big Voice: God or Merman?, a new show about a pair of middle-aged men, who grew up gay during the Eisenhower years, fell in love, struggled through one’s near-fatal illness, broke up, and eventually got back together and are doing... this show!
I didn’t see The Last Session, but I happened to catch The Big Voice during its initial run in Los Angeles late last year. The show was remarkable, for many reasons. Aside from being extraordinarily well-written - screamingly funny, but with a deeply emotional core which surfaces in startling ways - and very well-performed by the authors themselves, it is an anomaly in this age of the big-budget, mega-spectacular musical: it has a cast of two, casually dressed, on a bare stage, with only a table, two chairs, a keyboard, and a single “costume” (a sight gag, which appears momentarily in the second act.)
“And the disco ball,” protests Jim. “It’s our special effect!”
The journey to these two shows began almost ten years ago. Steve had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1993, and his health deteriorated rapidly. On Mother’s Day of 1994, he was so ill with pneumonia that Jim drove him to the emergency room of Santa Monica Hospital. While waiting to be admitted, Steve saw the actor Anson Williams (“Potsie” on Happy Days), who came over and spoke to him. In The Big Voice, he recalls the incident as a pivotal moment - “How could I die if the last celebrity I saw was Potsie?!?”
After being released from the hospital, his health was fragile, but his spirit was even more so. With little hope of recovery, he spent most of his time sitting around the house, deeply depressed, seriously contemplating killing himself. Out of frustration, Jim told him, “You’re a songwriter. Write a song!”
He did, and his spirits lifted somewhat. Sensing the change, Jim continued to give Steve “homework assignments - write a song about your hospital experience, write a song about your memorial service.” Says Jim, “I saw the process keeping him alive.”
Before long, Steve had a sheaf of songs, but no specific plan of what to do with them. Then, on Thanksgiving night of 1995, the couple visited a friend who had a recording studio in his house. Steve sat down to play a few of the songs he’d written.
“At that moment, I saw the whole play,” says Jim. The writing of the first draft took less than a week, and, in one of those rare examples of haste not making waste, The Last Session went from an idea to an off-Broadway production in a year and a half.
The show ran for six months in New York, and has since had more than a dozen productions in theatres around the country, including its west coast premiere at The Laguna Playhouse, where it became an enormous hit. The Big Voice had its genesis in June of 2002, when the people at Laguna were putting together a series of Monday evening events. They had booked Susan Egan and Charles Nelson Reilly for the first two - and then they called Jim and Steve. Says Jim, “They said maybe we could tell a few stories, sing a few songs. Maybe reprise The Last Session experience.”
Instead, Jim decided, “I think I’ll write a play.” While he geared the second act of the evening to center on The Last Session and its songs, as the Playhouse had suggested, he set out to write a first act about “a boy from Arkansas, and a kid from Brooklyn, who both wanted the same things as a kid.” In what he calls a “flash of grace,” he wrote the first draft in seven days. “And even now, the first act of the show is almost word for word what it was in the first draft.”
That first act tells the parallel stories of the musically-talented Baptist kid from the Bible Belt, who knew he was “different” but didn’t dare admit it, and the Catholic boy from Brooklyn, who grew up thinking he’d be a priest, and whose “favorite recording artist was Pope Pius XII doing Gregorian chants.” The turning point for Jim was hearing Ethel Merman sing, and realizing that theatre “was just like church - but with energy!” In a neat bit of serendipity, Merman’s father was a friend of Jim’s father, and the boy got to meet the legendary star on his first trip to see a Broadway show - Gypsy. The first act of The Big Voice ends with Jim’s meeting Steve aboard a cruise ship in 1985 - “The S. S. Galileo, sister ship of the Andrea Doria” - and their decision to move in together.
The response at Laguna was enthusiastic, and Steve and Jim realized “maybe we have something.” They then tackled the challenge of coming up with a second act that would be funny and entertaining, but would also deal with the very real pain which led to The Last Session, and the traumatic, months-long dissolution of their relationship. They enlisted their friend Anthony Barnao to direct, did a workshop in September of 2002, then opened the show in October and ran for more than two months.
Even though The Big Voice is young, and is still being tweaked, it seems to be on its way. It’s been nominated for Best Score by the L. A. Drama Critics Circle, and for this year’s GLAAD Media Award. And the couple are in the process of “a national tour prior to Broadway,” as Jim puts it with a guffaw. They played the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in Rochester, New York for an extended run this winter, and will play Houston in May, Dallas in July and Chicago next spring. The New York producers of The Last Session are scheduling backers’ auditions in Manhattan.
So why use your own life and all its foibles as fodder for a show - why air your dirty laundry in public, so to speak? “Our original concept was to write a play about God, but we found we were writing a play about each other,” says Jim. “We change the course of each other’s lives all the time, and we never know it - that’s what the play is about.”
“People survive in the real world by laughing at it,” adds Steve, “and the play reflects that. I write seriously, but Jimmy has taught me that once you establish a serious moment, you’re done: do a joke and get out of it. Audiences want to hear the truth, and they can tell when you’re giving them bullshit.”
In the second act of The Big Voice, the pair tell of “Annette,” a young woman with AIDS, who had resolved to commit suicide on her next birthday. As it happened, she was given a free ticket to The Last Session, and came back to see it several times. Eventually, she met Jim and Steve, and told them seeing the play had made her change her mind about killing herself. “She said, ‘if you could get by, so can I’,” says Steve. “To think that we actually saved a life!,” muses Jim. “Did that ever happen after seeing Hello, Dolly!?”