Theatre Camp!
Volume 3 Book 3 Part 6 of
Living in the Bonus Round

Steve in New York!

[ Book 3-2 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ]
[ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] -- [ Book 3-4 ]
February 11-12, 2003
The New York "Audition."
The first five minutes of our New York City backer's audition were five of the most hair-raising minutes of my life. After six months of work on The Big Voice, this was it. Yes, Los Angeles critics and audiences are discriminating. Yes, the Rochester audiences are much savvier than you might imagine if you haven't been there, but this was New York City.

The people in this audience live and breathe theatre. They don't have any inclination nor desire to cut you any slack, especially when you drag them out of their homes and offices in the middle of a bitter cold, cold day and ask them to sit and listen to you perform your show in a bare-bones setting sitting side-by-side with almost a hundred other New Yorkers.

We got to the theatre a couple of hours early and began working with Janna who would be stage managing. Janna would be running the lights and sound cues by herself and Janna had neither read, seen nor heard The Big Voice in any way whatsoever. So, there we were trying to time everything at the last minute while the tech director of the Chashama Theatre was focusing lights, looking for electrical outlets and hooking up the keyboard.

Meanwhile, Michael Alden (who, with Nancy Nagel Gibbs was producing this performance) was flying in from England where he had just been working a special showing of the film The Hours, a movie he has helped produce. In fact, he was on the plane while the Academy Award nominations were announced so he didn't find out until he landed that they had secured nine nominations.

Lori Machens, who had coordinated this reading taking reservations and doing god only knows what else was now running last minute errands. Anthony Barnao, our director, had flown in from El Lay and was helping Janna with the cues. Time was running out!

At the last minute, I couldn't find my costume! But there it was in the stairwell. Jimmy and I got down to the dressing room with about 15 minutes to spare. The first big question was, "Would anyone show up?" We hadn't secured the venue until last week and the invitations weren't issued until this past Tuesday and Wednesday.

So I'm down in the dressing room with Jimmy when I suddenly realize I need to pee. But no bathroom! So, with five minutes to spare, I snuck up the stairs and crossed the lobby into the men's room so I could pee. The lobby was empty. Did that mean no one showed up? Would we be playing this show to ourselves? Was this a big disaster?

I got back to the dressing room, finished dressing and joined Jimmy upstairs in the "wings" (which was actually right next to the audience which was on the other side of the curtain). Jimmy said to me, "It's packed. We have a full house!"

"We do??" I asked. They seemed awfully quiet. Would they like us? Would they stay past intermission? Then I peeked around the curtain and saw that not only were the seats filled, but they were now setting up folding chairs on the floor. The buzz in the room was starting to pick up as curtain time approached. Amazingly, we were on time!

Michael stepped out into the spotlight and made a brief introduction, the lights went down and the show started with the voice of Robert Mandan as "The Big Voice." We did our opening lines and began the show. The lights were completely blinding. I couldn't see anyone or anything. What a feeling that is! And with my googly eyes, not only was I seeing lights over me in front, but the lights were doubled and seemed directly in front of my face. I was truly totally blind when I looked out into the audience.

So, how did they respond? Well, at first it felt as if they were being just a bit cool. That's what I meant by saying that the first five minutes were totally nerve-wracking. Were they hating us? Were the bored with us? Or were they just coolly watching and waiting to be entertained?

But no, I couldn't think about that. I thought, "Forget them. I know this show. Just say my lines, sing the words, and let the show speak for itself."

Well, it was like a slow landslide. One by one, the funny lines began to get the reactions we were used to. One by one, each audience member started to buy into what we were doing and before we were even 10 minutes into the show, it felt as if they were in the palm of our hands.

Now the laughs were becoming uproarious. Now the quiet moments were getting quieter and quieter. I started to feel more confident. "Trust the material. Calm down. Say the lines." It kept up. They stayed with us. Now the show was being interrupted by applause and more laughs. Suddenly, it wasn't just a reading. Whatever walls they had erected were gone. Everything landed. Everything worked.

At the end, there was an instantaneous standing ovation. In the lobby afterwards, I felt dizzy with all the faces and the hugs. Some of the people I knew. Some I didn't know. Some I thought I SHOULD know. It all became a big whirl in my head. I had invested so much energy and focus to the performance itself, that by the time it was over, I was too overwhelmed to do much more than just shake hands, hug and hurt from the constant grin on my face.

We had an early dinner and by the time we hit the sidewalks, we could barely move. Our feet hurt. Our legs hurt. Our bodies ached. We made it back to our hotel room and fell on the beds like zombies, passing completely out.
 

February 13, 2003.
Feedback, Mailbag and Reviews.
 
The first comment from the NY reading of The Big Voice -- and the one that I love the best -- came to Michael Alden from an audience member, "Thanks to The Big Voice Ethel Merman is no longer a gay joke."

This entry is culled from posts I found online on discussion boards or email. Also, here in Rochester the first reviews from the local papers arrived. Let me say this, I went purposefully looking for something negative. I wanted to give the reader a full range of what I found and heard. Most of the comments here are sparsely edited, mostly to correct spelling or redundancies.

This entry comes from a woman on a discussion board, someone I hadn't met in person but have known cyberly for a couple of years:
 

Despite Orange Alert conditions and punitive cold winds in Gotham, I made the southward trek on the MTA's Metro North Commuter Railroad to see Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu perform their brilliant new show, "The Big Voice," for an audience of potential backers who have the money and clout to help them mount a production in New York. Potential backers with money and clout...and ME! I got myself onto The List!


The Chashama Theatre on 42nd Street.

"The Big Voice" was at the Chashama Theater, an intimate performance space on the north side of 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Ave. That block is just about the only one in the Times Square area that hasn't been rubbed squeaky clean by the likes of Disney, SONY, Reuters, and Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg. The Chashama is a few doors east of the venerable Tad's Steakhouse and a few doors west of another theater that appears to offer a re-creation of the kind of entertainment for which turn-of-the-19th-century New York was known. Fans of Ricky Jay will recognize the genre--Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, that sort of thing. I went in there by accident before finding Chashama. It was WEIRD. I want to go back.

Both theaters were probably adult entertainment emporia, or maybe plain old porn houses, back in the good old days before cable TV, home video and the internet converted the imagery of furtive lust into a bland commodity. Steve and Jimmy, with their complementary talents and personalities, have created a show that hangs together beautifully, wasting not a note or a line to get a cheap laugh or mawkish tear. Every scene reflects and reinforces every other scene, like the facets of a diamond. Their pitch, both musical and emotional, is perfect, their timing precise.

It surprised me just a little that Steve, who spends most of the show behind the keyboard, plays the straight man (so to speak) to Jimmy's hammy drama queen. It's not that Steve doesn't get laughs; he just gets them through subtler means than sweeping across the stage in a fuschia cape or belting out the Post Raisin Bran song complete with what looks like the original choreography from the commercial: "It's raisins...that make...Post Raisin Bran so wonderful," etc. (Being a Post Raisin was one of the highlights of Jimmy's pre-Steve career.) This division of labor works, though. They're both compelling, both clearly more complicated than the archetypes they've taken on for the play.

What else? Steve's music is lovely. The play is uplifting without corniness, sardonic without cynicism (if that's possible), moving without sentimentality.

There was a kind of receiving line after the performance so I finally got to reveal myself to Steve, who was, of course, charming and gracious. It was a little awkward because all these well-wishers from the biz were waiting to greet him, too. We hugged, I gave him a little kiss on the hand (which I now feel stupid about), and I left.
 

Here is the review in its entirety from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the daily newspaper:
ĎGod and Mermaní makes for funny pair
By Mark Liu

Some people go searching and find God.  Some go searching and find Ethel Merman.  And some, namely Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, have the talent and inspiration to combine those searches into a funny and affecting musical.

The Big Voice: God or Merman? is a mesmerizing blend of nostalgia, wit, one-liners, sarcasm, tragedy and silliness (plus a single costume change that guarantees laughs).  Essentially, itís musical storytelling.  The two performers recount how a Brooklyn Catholic and Southern Baptist found their own voices, each other and their own personal way of preaching to the people.

Armed with just a table on one side of the stage and an electronic keyboard on the other, the two tell (and sing) story after life story, beginning with Brochuís wildly funny childhood aspirations.

In the way some boys dream of being a rock star, Brochu dreamed of being the first Brooklyn-born pope.  Itís played for big laughs, but with serious implications.  He thought he had faith in the church, just as the boyhood Schalchlin believed in his Christian band and getting saved by an evangelist in a football stadium.  One of the funnier songs is a lament about being Catholic, with those familiar Catholic complaints that never seem to lose their humor.

Complicating matters is that both men are gay.  Further complicating matters: Brochuís long-awaited religious experience comes not from a voice above but from the voice of Ethel Merman.  Yes, these two were odd growing up, but as one of the songs reminds us, ďoddĒ rhymes with ďGodĒ (as dos ďmass with ďassĒ).  No, this is not a musical for fundamentalists.

Downstairs Cabaretís satellite space on West Main Street makes for an intimate experience, but itís the frankness of the two actors that creates a sense of camaraderie with the audience.  The feeling is that the two have held a dinner party and, now that the wine is flowing, the hosts are regaling their guests with the improbable story of how they met.

Their singing voices are suited to their storytelling style. Neither is a big, strong stage-filling voice.  Yet when they sing together, each voice seems to balance out the otherís flaws, just as their personalities do in their relationship.

That relationship is propelled by a series of coincidences and tested by tragedy, most notably, Schalchlin contracting AIDS.  That actually culminated in the pairís first musical, The Last Session, which Downstairs Cabaret staged a year ago.

Itís one more example of how these enthusiastic performers transform suffering and a desire to worship, be it God or Ethel, into great stories and big laugher.

And, finally, this review (again, in its entirety) comes from CITY, the weekly alternative publication. And by the way, neither of these papers are "roll-overs." I have read many scathing reviews in both of them. Rochester is a city that is an intriguing mixture of both highly conservative and highly progressive writers and thinkers. They are proud of their legacy of being the birthplace of people like Susan B. Anthony.
 
Big voice, inspiring play
by Herbert M. Simpson

The Big Voice: God or Merman? by Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu is completely original and utterly rewarding. A musical about two totally opposite, deeply religious, gay men falling in love, surviving AIDS and finding success in showbiz could be camp or cliché. But we are truly indebted to Downstairs Cabaret Theatre for producing the East Coast premiere of this hilarious, gut-wrenching, startlingly honest show.

With its creators acting and singing together onstage, The Big Voice presents their story through writer Brochu's witty script and composer/lyricist Schalchlin's winsome songs.

Brochu affectionately ribs his Catholic childhood, explaining his dream to be the first Pope from Brooklyn. He bought a record of Gregorian chants by his favorite recording artist, Pope Pius XII, but wasn't inspired. His epiphany came when a randomly chosen record of Annie Get Your Gun blasted out Ethel Merman singing "There's No Business Like Show Business." God, apparently, was in the vibrato.

Schalchlin looked for the voice of God in the passionate evangelism of James Robertson at an Arkansas revival meeting. But his inspiration came through his own voice in Baptist church choirs. He trained in a seminary for a ministry of preaching through music. Sweet and innocently religious, he nonetheless felt conflict, as we hear in his song, "The Closet."

That song shifts to the more worldly Brochu, whose father's remedy was to send him to an all-boys military school. He says that word got out about his unscientific experiment with another boy in the chemistry lab, and "Within an hour I was more sought after than uranium!"

Their stories continue in that L'il Abner vs. Noel Coward vein. Brochu became an established theater artist. Schalchlin a singer/composer. When they met on a cruise ship that neither had planned to be on, it seemed like fate. But sophisticated Brochu was a "Merman Queen," and feared that naive, younger Schalchlin might be a "Judy Queen," for whom "Judaism had nothing to do with synagogue." Blessedly, Schalchlin had to ask "Judy who?" and didn't explain that he though "Ethel" referred to Ethel Mertz.

Comic, romantic and musical highs follow, but come crashing down with AIDS. Revived by a surge of songwriting, he expressed his fears, anguish and creative salvation in music that Brochu wrote a script around. It was their first work together. Because Schalchlin was still too ill, the partners didn't appear in "The Last Session," but Brochu directed it. It was a great success in New York and Los Angeles, then elsewhere. Perhaps you saw it when Downstairs Cabaret Theatre revived it last year.

The dark side came again in the form of personality-disorders that were a side-effect of the anti-AIDS cocktails that contain and arrest that plague. But conquering that tribulation, too, they have reunited and written this autobiographical revue. Schalchlin is in fine shape performing it with his urbane partner. And the audience's pleasure in this happy ending is palpable at the rousing finale.

Anthony Barnao directs impeccably. Designs aren't credited but you'll love Brochu's pajamas.

You needn't be familiar with any gay, showbiz or religious background. Example: To react when Brochu complains that, when they briefly separated, he was in a cramped apartment "down in the depths on the 9th floor," you don't have to know that the song "Down In The Depths On The 90th Floor" was the gay anthem for Broadway in the '70s. The meaning, the feeling, and the wit are obvious. I can't overemphasize what value you'll miss if you don't see this show.

[ Book 3-2 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ]
[ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] -- [ Book 3-4 ]
© 1996-2003 by Steve Schalchlin.
You have permission to print from this diary and distribute for use in support groups, schools, or to just give to a friend. You do not have permission to sell it.