Houston Texas
Volume 3 Book 4 Part 7 of
Living in the Bonus Round
(The Big Voice Chronicles)

The Houston skyline from the roof of the Natural History Museum.
[ Book 3-3 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ]
[ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] -- [ Book 3-5 ]
April 9-14, 2003.
Week Two in Houston.
I haven't updated in a week because I'm experiencing computer technical difficulties. In other words, my laptop is not working. So, I'm borrowing one for this diary and it has taken me a few days to get my programs all loaded so I can diarize. I'll try to catch up over the next couple of days. I just have to figure out where to start. We've made several personal appearances, received three more excellent reviews from the Houston press, and even went to church.

The houses are picking up nicely. Each night seems to progressively get larger and more enthusiastic audiences. We have only one more week to go. I'm going to be so sad to leave. I feel like I'm just beginning to get to know the people here. And we most definitely have a mutual admiration society going. Jimmy keeps commenting on how much he loves Houston. He loves the skyline, he says the people are all VERY "nice," and he just feels like it's very civilized here.

He asked me, "Is that a Houston thing or a Texas thing?" I told him it was a Texas thing. Despite what people on the outside think of Texas, it's actually full of fascinating and lovely people. It most definitely has a culture of its own. It would nicer if the state wasn't arresting gay people in the privacy of their homes and hauling them off to jail, but I guess you can't have everything.

A house of a patron where we attended a reception
for the Board of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Anyway, I think the best way to discuss this past week is through pictures.

Jimmy with Nixon Wheat, our primary underwriter,
And Kenn McLaughlin, managing director.

Old friends of mine, the Mathis' from JBC.

With the cast of Dirty Blonde, playing next door to us.
We shared a dressing room. They were great fun to chat with.

House manager Todd. Very hard worker, that Todd.

Kelly runs the sound board and loves taking dramatic photos.
Our entire crew is female. Love that.

We went to the Science museum to see an exhibition from the Vatican.
I asked why a religious exhibit would be in the Science Museum and
Jimmy would have cracked that it was there with the other dinosaurs...

... but of course Jimmy would never say such a thing.

This is a shot of the Introduction to Drama class at U of H.

The week began rather comically. We were to speak to a drama class at U of H. I was picturing drama students in a dance studio wearing leotards. But instead it was an "Introduction to Drama" class, a required course for Fine Arts majors. We were in a triangle shaped classroom with the students stretched out before us and slightly above us. I asked, "So how many of you are drama students?"

No hands.

"How many looking for a career in the theatre?"

No hands.

"Anyone here wanting to be a writer?"

One hand in back.

We finally got it going with personal stories and a little piece of Big Voice -- oh, and lots of Lucy stories from Jim.

That afternoon, however, it was different. I was to speak at the Bel Air High School Gay Straight Alliance during lunchtime. Now, I don't think I've ever spoken to a high school SGA. I know I've spoken for college level GSAs, a gay fraternity twice and a gay student union at a college. So, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

No piano so I was just winging it. Then I remembered the speech I gave in Pennsylvania where there was a big gay student weekend gathering. I told them how, if this were the 50s, as a group of gays or their supporters, they'd be meeting in a basement at night with guards posted at the doors to keep the cops away. I told them about California Hall and Stonewall -- and about Youth Guardian Services. I told them how different it was for me growing up when the word "homosexual" wasn't even in the popular vocabulary -- and how I felt so totally and completely alone.

The whole group let me take their picture, but I've decided I'm not sure if I can post it publicly. Though these "kids" are out and proud, I worry that since they're minors, I might need permission from their families -- or I might be exposing them to violence. I don't know. It's scary. That's all.

Bellaire High School where I spoke to a Gay Straight Alliance.
This would be the first time I spoke to a High School GSA.

Ryan led the GSA.
He is bold in his political beliefs and the kind of role model I wish I had when I was his age.

[Part 2 coming soon where Steve sings for a Unitarian Universalist Church.]

Here are excerpts from two new reviews for The Big Voice:

Texas Triangle Magazine

by Chuck Perconnel


HOUSTON—For a simple relaxing love story, we frequently turn to musical theater or the opera. But in recent years, as the line between opera and musical has grown thinner (e.g. Evita, Les Miserables, Floyd Collins) musical theater has felt increasingly competent to present books of exceptionally complex and profound stories and music beyond rhyming jingles.

In Big Voice: God or Merman, Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu present “the first and only autobiographical musical featuring the playwrights and partners themselves”. And the love story is far from simple—this is “reality theater,” folks.

It is the story of two gay men, Jimmy and Steve, who grew up in the church. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Roman Catholic, whose life goal as a child was to become the first Pope from Brooklyn. His childhood play centered around donning a “papal” costume and blessing the multitudes from the balcony. Steve had the equally ambitious dream of becoming a big-time Evangelist and, yes, blessing the crowd from the platform. As he says, “The pope has a big hat, an Evangelist, big hair.”

Wow! Did their life dreams ever change! Or did they?

Jimmy’s father was a friend of Ethel Merman, and when she asked the lad what he wanted to be when he grew up, he started to answer, “the Pope,” but he was so impressed with Miss Merman that he stammered, “a show girl.”

“The theater was as beautiful as a church, but with energy,” he would later reason.

Steve, the Arkansas son of a Baptist Preacher, found his way to evangelism blocked by his knowledge that he was gay. He stumbled into a theater (Oh, no! The playpen of Satan!), and got a job singing and dancing—not exactly a career his parents and other Baptists would have considered honorable. He worked his way up through the bar scene to a big gig on lounge piano of the ill-fated sister ship of the ill-fated Andrea Doria. The news of this ship’s crash brought them together again after a long period of separation. But let’s go back a bit...

Fresh out of seminary, a despondent Jim decided to take a resuscitating cruise. Where? Why, on the same ship that carried a disenchanted Steve in its belly. And it was love at first sight! Before the cruise ended they had laid plans for a life together. Sappy, right? Well, hold onto your lifesavers. This pair has a story full of joy, turmoil, severe illness, a medically induced divorce, reconciliation, and the startling realization that The Big Voice had, in fact, called them to bless people. No, not in the church. From the stage. Not through pious formulas, but through expansive and contagious celebration. And boy, do they!

It is the wittiest piece of inspiration you’re ever likely to see or hear. Their repartee is captivating, Their music is scintillating, a pastiche of folk-rock-hymn and high musical theater melody. The lyrics are sophisticated and sassy without being pretentious. Their playing together is magical for its skill; the genuine love it radiates.

This is a love story which is unbearably funny and painfully lovely. It spares no nerve in revealing the strains and tensions of gay life and marriage, but it is lavish in celebrating its joys. I’d see it soon if I were you. This is one show you would not want to lament over never having seen when you are old and counting the highlights of your life.


Are You There, Ethel?

The creators of The Last Session bring The Big Voice to Stages


Sardi's Restaurant, Pope Pius XII and a Baptist salvation "circus" from Arkansas are all part of the eclectic equation of Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's oddly tender The Big Voice: God or Merman? There is no logical reason why the unabashedly intimate autobiographical musical should work as well as it does - but it does. Schalchlin's music rolls along with pop tunefulness and lyrics -- about, say, Catholic women who long for birth control -- that are often laugh-out-loud funny. And Brochu's book with jokes about love, religion and showbiz glow with a generous spirit.

The premise of this pastiche of songs, jokes and storytelling is that religion and showbiz are the same thing. Brochu, who was born Catholic in Brooklyn, longs to be pope when he grows up. He spends his boyhood afternoons practicing his pontiff waves and sends off for an album called Pope Pius XII's Greatest Hits. Clear across the country, in backwoods Arkansas, Schalchlin is busy getting "saved in a football stadium." In "James Robertson," one of the best Billy Joel-like tunes of the night, he narrates his experience as a ten-year-old boy who stumbles upon a razzle-dazzle evangelist show one Southern night. As with most coming-of-age tales about religion, both boys are disappointed in their quest for an earthshaking, lights-flashing, I-see-God experience. Brochu even travels to Rome with the old ladies of the Rosary Society hoping to hear the "big voice" of God, but not even the pope rocks his world. Back home, Schalchlin is eventually hurt by the traveling evangelists' brassy shows.

Brochu makes his first big showbiz discovery when he discards the pope's anemic recording of Gregorian chants. Disgusted with the pontiff's whiny, sickly voice, Brochu pulls out the freebie attached to his purchase. When Ethel Merman's "Annie Get Your Gun" blares out from the scratchy record player, the lights actually do start flashing and the world really does stop turning. It's a theatrically sacred moment. In Ethel's big awe-inspiring voice Brochu finds the religion he's been looking for.

We follow the boys' sexual awakening -- they know they're "perfect saints" on the outside but "odd" on the inside. Schalchlin's Arkansas story achieves some real poignancy with "The Closet," a provocative song made haunting by the composer's lovely melody. Meanwhile Brochu is getting "fixed" at military school, where he meets more boys than he could have dreamed of back home in Brooklyn.

One of the funniest and most heartfelt scenes is when Brochu and Schalchlin first meet. Schalchlin, who both sings and accompanies every tune in this production on his lively keyboard, began his career entertaining in the "Fantasy Lounge" of a cruise ship. Brochu makes great fun of the utterly unromantic environment of the cruise ship bar with its "blinding fluorescent" lights and icy temperatures. But despite the uninspiring atmosphere, their love blooms, although Schalchlin doesn't even know who Ethel Merman is. Their budding romance is rendered with a self-deprecating, almost silly joy.

Brochu and Schalchlin, under the direction of Anthony Barnao, manage to pull off the material with convincing confidence. The seasoned performers, who created the award-winning off-Broadway musical The Last Session, cast a surprising spell that makes this show charming. In the end, it's the sweet, almost heartbreaking honesty of the performer-writers that makes this night of theater irresistible.

[ Book 3-3 ] -- [ Pt 1 ] [ Pt 2 ] [ Pt 3 ] [ Pt 4 ] [ Pt 5 ]
[ Pt 6 ] [ Pt 7 ] [ Pt 8 ] [ Pt 9 ] [ Pt 10 ] -- [ Book 3-5 ]
© 1996-2003 by Steve Schalchlin.
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