The Big Voice: God or Merman?
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OFF- BROADWAY NEW YORK CITY
NEW YORK TIMES
A Musical Attempt to Share Some Secrets of True Love
By HONOR MOORE
“How do you do it?” jealous single people often ask happily married couples. The contented partners, in late middle age, usually smile at each other as they spout truisms, but the secret of their success remains nearly as impossible as a solution to the Poincaré conjecture.
Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu nonetheless try to share some of the magic in “The Big Voice: God or Merman?,” a chronicle of their own love story, which they wrote and are now performing as a hilarious and utterly enthralling evening of musical theater.
One of the men, as a Roman Catholic boy in Brooklyn, yearned to be pope, but changed his mind when the LP he bought of Ethel Merman in “Annie Get Your Gun” had more heat than Pope Pius XII performing a Gregorian chant. The other, a Baptist adolescent in Arkansas, longed to be an evangelist until he fell in love with music, and his mother told him to write a song. Both endure homophobia, come out and end up in show business and on the same cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle, where their life together begins in 1985.
Think of two gifted and smart gay men with years of theater stories deploying their considerable talents from the two pianos you happen to have in your living room. Any question you could ask, they answer with a sidesplitting story or a telling anecdote. As these men onstage evoke Arkansas, a cruise ship or Sardi’s, you crack up at their deft mimicry and marvel at the romantic sweep of their songs, emotion catching your throat as you see them navigate AIDS and success, breakup and reconciliation.
Our contemporary embrace of the memoir is a longing for the true adventures of life. The trick is to make memory art without losing the awkwardness that proves authenticity. Here art is achieved with light hands, and the result is a triumphant and very touching song of praise to everyday love and the funky glories of the show business life.
(Below is the video diary where Jim and Steve have stayed up late waiting for the review...)
Called "a musical comedy in two lives," The Big Voice: God or Merman? more accurately might be called an ironic autobiographical romance with songs, for the music, consistently entertaining and often even touching, only minimally moves the story or reveals characters in the way we conventionally expect a "musical comedy" to do. The present creative pair’s earlier effort, The Last Session (Our Review), was much more a conventional musical in structure, although considerably grittier than The Big Voice which, in its first act in particular, has numerous moments that are delightfully silly.
Although we’ve seen countless autobiographical solo plays, and even a few autobiographical solo musicals (e.g., Elaine Stritch At Liberty, to say nothing of assorted club acts or larger productions such as last year’s Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life), The Big Voice may be the first dual autobiographical musical... more..
The Merman Temple
The ministry of showbiz versus the showbiz of ministry
by Joseph Mccombs
Partners in life as well as in stage and song, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin have made fantastic theater out of the drama of their lives with the autobiographical musical The Big Voice: God or Merman? Brooklynite Brochu and rural-boy Schalchlin each grew up with designs on the ministry (or more precisely, its spectacle). Each searched for a calling—that titular "Big Voice"—illustrating how complex a negotiation the relationship with God can be for gay men. Their moral is a grand one: Whatever inspires joyous, reverent passion in you, therein lies your religion.
But that's not why people will rave about this simply staged yet intricately written production. They'll be in it for the one-liners, which consistently score high on the LOL-meter. (The best, referencing a surprise AIDS-deathbed visit from Happy Days' Anson Williams: "I decided to live that day—because I didn't want the last celebrity I ever saw to be Potsie.") The dry Schalchlin gesticulates stiffly, but Brochu, a fussily gregarious Zero Mostel type, is his ideal foil, and the pair's cruise-ship courting scene plays marvelously, with laughs and heart to spare. And the resolving ballad "How Do You Fall Back in Love" could have been better sung but hardly better voiced. The Ethel queens win this round.
NY DAILY NEWS
By Joe Dziemianowicz.
There is more than one love story chronicled in the funny, tender and thoroughly entertaining two-man show "The Big Voice: God or Merman?". One of them is between "Voice's" creators and performers, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin, who play themselves in the musical memoir. The other is between the pair and the theater - a relationship that has changed their lives. They discover that the theater has helped them do the same for others, and anyone who loves the theater will relate - and should see this show.
The parallels between the men's early lives and experiences prove fascinating. Schalchlin, a Baptist from Arkansas, figured he'd be a preacher, but fell in love with music. The Brooklyn-born Catholic, Brochu, dreamed (seriously) of being the Pope - until he heard the legendary Ethel Merman on the "Annie Get Your Gun" LP (we've incorporated a shot of her in that signature role at left). Then, in 1959, he saw Merman in "Gypsy" at the Broadway Theatre. Click. "It was like church," he says, "but with energy."
The now-middle-aged men met on a cruise ship and made lives together in the theater, not the church. Like their long relationship, the show isn't all smooth sailing. But even when it meanders and occasionally treads into too-much-information territory, the "Big Voice" captivates with its big heart.
THE NEW YORKER
Together, the couple has created a small and endearing musical about their relationship and their love of musical theatre, a kind of second honeymoon in song performed with an affecting mixture of sarcasm, mirth, and heart.
“The Big Voice" is unconventional and perhaps unlikely, but this story of a mismatched couple, musical comedy-style, is funny, touching and warmly endearing. Brochu keeps us in stitches with his showbiz shtick.
’The Big Voice: God or Merman’ encapsulates why we love theater. It’s a show that somehow manages to bring a smile to the face, a tear to the eye and laughter all the way through. It is a comedy celebrating gay marriage that effortlessly weaves together humor with a touch of drama. An instant hit, the show is a smart, funny and touching performance – one that makes Broadway happy to welcome Brochu and Schalchlin back with open arms.”
Highly entertaining! There are all different kinds of love stories. This one is as much about love of theater as it is about a 22-year relationship between two very talented men. Alternately hilarious and deeply moving, The Big Voice: God or Merman should not be missed!
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sexual-spiritual conflicts sing in witty 'Big Voice'
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Monday, August 6, 2007
The answer to the question posed in the title comes early in Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" Schalchlin, who wrote the often witty and poignant songs, grew up Baptist in Arkansas. Brochu, who wrote the book, was a devout Catholic who spent much of his boyhood practicing to become the first pope from Brooklyn. But he also got to see, meet and even hang out with Ethel Merman. So much for that little quandary.
In a world Brochu defines as divided between Ethel queens and Judy queens, "Big Voice" comes down unapologetically and hilariously in the first camp. Which, given Brochu's ability to mimic Merman's vocal timbre, is one of the little show's big assets. A recent off-Broadway hit, which opened Saturday at New Conservatory Theatre Center, "Voice" is a charming, cutting, honest and very funny chamber musical about growing up gay and religious, AIDS, long-term relationships and the spiritual and healing powers of showbiz.
It's also sneaky, hiding its polish until its charms catch you unawares. The rotund Brochu and lean Schalchlin open in deceptively amateurish fashion in a mildly comic take on Genesis - in which "And the Big Voice said, 'Let there be light' " is followed by, "And the Big Voice said, 'Let there be a spotlight.' " Brendan James' staging looks casually haphazard, and the performers' voices sound strained and out of sync at first.
But the sharp wit of Brochu's book and Schalchlin's and Marie Cain's lyrics quickly assert themselves in a clever colloquy about the claims of differing religions, as does the charm of Brochu's assertively buoyant and Schalchlin's diffidently passive-aggressive personas. Their stories of emerging gay consciousness in conflict with childhood religiosity are touching, smart and idiosyncratic. Schalchlin seduces us with a sweet rendition of his first song, a country-style hymn to what he didn't yet know was his true god ("I Want to Make Music"), and cuts to the quick with a poignant tune about the lasting scars of trying to live in "The Closet."
The rest of "Voice" covers a lot of ground. Subtitled "a musical comedy in two lives," it interweaves lightly sarcastic tales of spiritual wrestles through adolescence and college. Brochu goes on a religious pilgrimage to Europe, achieving the spiritual epiphany he couldn't find at Lourdes or St. Peter's Square when he sees Merman in "Gypsy" (John Kelly's lights enhance the humor).
The stories come together in a comically awkward meeting on a Caribbean cruise. Schalchlin almost dies of AIDS, rebounding with the help of new drug cocktails and a need to write music as he and Brochu develop their first hit show, "The Last Session" - a story told in that show and on Schalchlin's blog ( bonusroundblog.blogspot.com). "Voice" continues the story through post-"Session" marital difficulties, a trial "divorce," reconciliation and deepening faith in musical comedy.
Most of the songs work well, the lyrics are acute and the stories told with a disarmingly comic honesty that should make people of all persuasions hear the "Voice" and see the light. Even Judy queens
by Eugene Lovendusky
"Oh, please let this be true! Please!" I begged quietly as a portly man, wading waist-deep in theatre lore, regaled one account after another of meeting the legendary Ethel Merman as a child. Center-stage after curtain-fall of Gypsy... A dinner booth in Sardi's... The pay-off? It is. Every last bit of this man's life (and the life he's shared with his partner) is true...
Life stories so exquisitely divine, only Mother Fate could have spun! As if each moment in their lives, up to this point in time, was destined to be staged as an award-winning memoir.
All the more wonderful is that these two amazing men share it all with us. Told as a musical comedy in two lives, The Big Voice: God or Merman?, a special off-Broadway engagement now playing San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center, is truly a gift to the stage hand-wrapped by Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu.
Brochu's charming Brooklyn up-bringing, where he discovers Merman between papal-aspirations, matches the endearing tales of Schalchlin's Arkansas home-life, comforted in the closet only by his music. When these two poles of the gay-atlas collide in a chilly and blinding cruise ship piano-bar, the spotlight burns!
Taking a page from the comedian's Bible, Brochu's humor is exact and rewarding. Regarding the show's title question, Brochu encounters Gregorian chants and Annie, Get Your Gun. Guess which wins? Yet amidst the feather and bangles, heavier truths enter the picture: AIDS, dissolving romance, and the rise of Schalchlin's first original musical The Last Session. Most impressive outside of the story-telling is the fantastic craftsmanship Brochu demonstrates in his balanced book. Two polished hours zip from the toys and gimmicks of Act 1 to the earth-moving speed bumps of Act 2.
Much more tame than his counter-part, Schalchlin's showmanship stands simply as a man at his piano. His emotion-laden original songs shine between pivot-points in the script. He sings of an evangelist stealing his faith in "James Robinson;" the perils of sexual identity in "The Closet;" the joys of love and the pain of loss. His heart-elating lyrics spell deeply-rooted stories: "Standing in the light of day and something turns away."
At its core is selflessness and genuine happiness. After engagements first in LA and New York, these two still make each other laugh. To tell their true stories to a room of strangers is one thing. To retell them night after night beside their counter-part is another!
The Big Voice presents two seniors whose stamina and youthfulness rival the camp of musical twinks everywhere! A theatrical tale spun by Mother Fate reminds that it only takes a smile and an unwavering passion to give Father Time a run for his money.
SF BAY AREA GUARDIAN
Two distinct personalities and upbringings share a defining tension between the sexually closeted call of religion, on the one hand, and the all-embracing allure of music and show business on the other. It's a personal and somewhat philosophical quandary neatly summed up in the title of Los Angeles-based duo Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin's long-running off-Broadway musical memoir, an engagingly comic and at times touching love letter to the theater and their 22-year artistic and romantic partnership.
Now up at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (which in 2001 produced their musical The Last Session, inspired by Schalchlin's battle with AIDS and his Baptist past), The Big Voice takes place, if not in the proverbial void, then on a fairly bare stage and without benefit of flashy presentation (minus one cunning costume change for ex-Catholic boy Brochu). But although the pace slackens a bit in the second act's more life-crammed story line, the snappy book (by Brochu) and catchy, heartfelt songs (by Schalchlin, with additional lyrics by Marie Cain) remain a firm basis throughout for the complementary gifts of Brochu's old-school Broadway charisma and the arch innocence of Schalchlin's expert Midwestern deadpan. (Avila).
BAY AREA REPORTER
'The Big Voice' resounds at NCTC
by Richard Dodds
A joke has a punchline, and then it's gone. In The Big Voice: God or Merman, what often starts out as a joke with the expected punchline can turn and twist in a way that builds the humor, yanks it away, and then tops the original laugh before letting it evolve into a sweet parable.
Religion is very much on the minds of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin, the creators and performers of Big Voice, as they take us first on their youthful spiritual journeys that go comically awry and then become sincerely fulfilling as they join forces in life, love, and the temple known as the theater.
New Conservatory Theatre Center presented Brochu and Schalchlin's musical The Last Session in 2001, and now is presenting Brochu and Schalchlin themselves in Big Voice following its successful run in New York. Directed by Brendan James, it's a deceptively simple affair, with the author-actors alone on stage with a table, two stools, and an electric keyboard as they tell their stories.
Brochu, a chubby kid from Brooklyn, had his eyes on the pope's job before an encounter with Ethel Merman changed all that. Schalchlin was a closeted Baptist from Arkansas whose idea of rebellion was to join a Christian rock band. They had been skirting the edges of showbiz success before they met. Brochu's jobs included a gig as a singing raisin in a cereal commercial, delightfully reenacted, and Schalchlin earned his keep mainly playing in New York piano bars.
They met aboard a second-rate cruise ship on which Schalchlin was the entertainer in what, at least as presented through Brochu's hilarious depictions, was the horribly mislabeled Fantasy Lounge. They seemed a mismatched pair. When the boisterous Brochu asks the soft-spoken Schalchlin if he is a Judy queen or an Ethel queen, Schalchlin gives the right answer: Ethel queen, only later admitting that he assumed he was casting his vote for Ethel Mertz.
Schalchlin's songs, with additional lyrics by Marie Cain, punctuate the storytelling with poignancy, often about the nature of religion, and with unexpected humor. In one song, famine is likened to getting a bad review from God, and in another, a famous evangelist is set up on a pedestal before being swatted off.
There is a Laurel-and-Hardy vibe to the couple's dynamic, most obviously in the physical contrast between the rotund Brochu and the rail-thin Schalchlin, that follows through with Brochu's bossiness and Schalchlin's timidity. They present a kind of vaudeville variation on the eye-rolls and sighs that become shorthand between long-married couples.
The second act enters deeper waters, as Schalchlin hovers near death with AIDS, finds the energy to write the semi-autobiographical musical The Last Session, and begins to regain his health with the advent of the new drugs. But this second chance changes the dynamics of Brochu and Schalchlin's relationship, and they unhappily split up before they find a way to rebuild their relationship, spelled out in one of the show's strongest songs, "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"
It's a shout-hallelujah to show business.
SF WEEKLYA musical comedy with a big heart
By Nathaniel Eaton
Published: August 15, 2007
I have been reminded that it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, if you're young or old, or if there's a fancy set or a bare stage — an amazing love story transcends it all. The Big Voice: God or Merman? proves this point nicely.
After a successful off-Broadway run, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchin bring their small and truly moving autobiographical show to the New Conservatory Theatre. Billed as a "musical comedy in two lives," the first act charts their journeys separately until they eventually meet and fall in love on a cruise ship. Brochu employs his broad flamboyant charisma to describe growing up close to the Broadway lights, finding himself caught between being the next pope or a stage queen. He's large and joyously irreverent, and he even comes out in Pope pajamas singing Ethel Merman. It's a wonderful juxtaposition with the quieter and thinner Schalchin, who often sits behind his keyboard softly singing original ballads detailing his uncomfortable youth growing up in Arkansas as a Baptist.
They have an Abbot & Costello chemistry that only gets better when the shock and anger of AIDS darkens their relationship. After the show the two actors retire to the lobby and offer hugs and handshakes to audience members — a completely fitting gesture after spending a fun and intimate two hours together.
Omaha World Herald
'Big Voice' proclaims theatrical salvation
By Bob Fischbach
Jim Brochu writes rip-roaringly funny dialogue. And the gifted comedian knows how to use a look, body language and comic inflection to work an audience from a chuckle to a rolling laugh to a roar.
And why not laugh? It isn't every boy who believes his destiny is to be the first pope from Brooklyn, only to switch his hero worship from Pius XII to Ethel Merman.
Steve Schalchlin writes melodic, engaging tunes. His autobiographical lyrics are so seeringly honest about his journey from evangelical Southern Baptist boy to closeted gay to near-death from HIV to success on the musical stage, that his audiences share the emotional roller coaster in indelibly personal ways.
How the two of them met, fell in love and created musicals together is an improbable tale. How they tell that tale onstage is, it turns out, theatrical dynamite - all the more powerful because the writers perform the two-man show themselves, in fine tenor harmony.
The Big Voice: God or Merman?, heads to off-Broadway later this year, having won critics' awards in Los Angeles. Schalchlin and Brochu are still tweaking songs and dialogue, though it's hard to imagine the show that much better.
The new musical has already sold out three of the its 12 nights. One reason, of course, is The Last Session, another musical written by Schalchlin and Brochu that swept Omaha's 1999 Theater Arts Guild awards and won accolades on both coasts.
Schalchlin's tunes range from a Billy Joel-like sound on "The Closet" to theangry "One New Hell" to the plaintive and poignant "How Do You Fall Back in Love?"
Enthusiasm for Thursday's opening was clear, marked by long, loud applauseafter songs, sustained periods of laughter and hushed moments that brought out the hankies. At the final curtain, the crowd was on its feet before the duo hit center stage.
The Big Voice weaves threads of the partners' faith lives, their love lives and their stage lives into a moving and entertaining evening that swallows two hours in a heartbeat, then lingers in your head long after.
'The Big Voice' — the little musical that could
By Chris Jones
Tribune arts reporter
Given all the religious opposition to gay couples who consider themselves married, one can understand why Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin turned to the theater for spiritual sustenance. And by the end of "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" this performing duo has arrived at the public conclusion that the man upstairs actually was channeling his guidance via Ethel herself.
For these musical-loving gay men, it's not so much God or Merman as God through Merman. If that makes no sense, this show probably is not for you. And if it does? A wry and sweet little musical with off-Broadway ambitions awaits.
With a variety of original numbers, "The Big Voice" follows the familiar cabaret-style tack of using a life (or, in this case, two interwoven lives) as a trajectory for a show. Brochu and Schalchlin — best known for their contemporary musical "The Last Session" — recount both their own biographies and the tricky trail of their relationship from a first meeting through temporary divorce through reconciliation.
The theatrical strengths of the piece lie in its potent and provocative exploration of the two fellows' religious roots (Schalchlin was a Baptist in Arkansas; Brochu once was in a Catholic seminary in Brooklyn) and how they morphed into an acceptance of their sexuality. The two are a study in opposites — Brochu is loud, brash and cheery; Schalchlin is introspective and rather soulful. The first act feels trivial in the extreme — but once we learn about Schalchlin's survival of a near-death experience in the far stronger second act, the dramatic stakes quickly rise...
Yet at its core, "The Big Voice" is an earnest, life-affirming show that's none the worse for its intensely personal roots. The performers — especially the complex and moving Schalchlin — are talented men with complex lives and poignant stories to share and sing about. One leaves the theater with a palpable sense of possibility.
WINDY CITY TIMES
By Rick Reed
If Ethel Merman’s voice was heard at the start of The Big Voice singing “Curtain up, light the lights,” the audience might have been disappointed because no curtain comes up here and the lights that are lit are very simple.
...The two creator/performers arrive on stage in pants and casual shirts. The set consists of a table, two chairs and an electric piano. I thought I was about to see a tryout or a staged reading but I was wrong - yes, critics can be wrong.
This autobiographical story, tweaked with high camp, big laughs, astonishing original music that ranges from heart rending ballads to slick musical theatre to gospel-infused to rock, shattered my expectations and won me over with first a chuckle then a guffaw then tears as Steve and Jim take us on the journey of their lives.
With warmth, poignancy, a great deal of charm and a lot of self-effacing humor, these committed, talented men bring their audience along on a stellar ride. Starting with a childhood fascination for theatre and music and being trapped in the confines of organized religion (one Roman Catholic and the other Southern Baptist), the pair chronicle their meeting as young men aboard a cruise ship, their domestic highs and lows, their familial relationships, their theatrical triumphs…and more importantly their personal triumphs - surviving AIDS and a serious break in the foundation of their relationship.
Brochu and Schalchlin are very talented men and The Big Voice succeeds despite its minimal trappings. This duo doesn’t need them. Their infectious humor and their ability to shine a spotlight on their personal and professional lives supersede any need for sets and props. The lack of these things make their characters and story sparkle even more brightly.
LOS ANGELES TIMES. Nov. 1, 2002:
CHOOSING THEATRE AS RELIGION
by David C. Nichols
Los Angeles Times
Two indelible moments typify the considerable humor and impact of "The Big Voice: God or Merman?," Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu's autobiographical musical at the Zephyr Theatre.
The first occurs mid-Act I, which charts a passage through the channels of religion and musical theater from the opening number, "Why?," onward.
Arkansas Baptist Schalchlin grows up pulled between the ministry and songwriting; Brooklyn Catholic Brochu between the priesthood and theater queendom. This leads to the first touchstone, when Brochu's family friend Mr. Zimmerman takes him to see "Gypsy," starring daughter Ethel. The subsequent reverent epiphany -- "It was like Church, but with energy!" -- is priceless.
The other signpost arrives early in Act 2. Having ended Act I waxing romantic in the lovely ballad "Near You," Schalchlin casually changes direction.
His fathomless eyes belying his smiling voice, Schalchlin announces, "I had it," conveying an entire universe in a single syllable.
Under Anthony Barnao's elegant direction, the attunement of these life partners is effortless, with Brochu an acerbic hambone and Schalchlin an affecting morph of Keith Carradine and Mr. Rogers.
The lingering afterglow suggests that the biggest voice in question belongs to neither God nor Merman, but to both performers and their witty, inspiring confessional.
FROM BACKSTAGE WEST
(Los Angeles) 10/23/2002 (in its entirety):
The Big Voice: God or Merman?
Reviewed By Les Spindle
In the beginning, God created musical theatre, and Jim Brochu would probably tell us that the first directive to blast from his mouth was "Sing Out, Louise!" Tongue-in-cheek humor co-exists alongside grandiose themes of strife and divine intervention in this idiosyncratic love story from the creators of the widely acclaimed 1997 musical The Last Session. And because these talented writer/performers (Brochu and Steve Schalchlin) are doin' what comes so naturally to them, the show bristles with the ring of truth. Just as The Last Session jump-started the genre of intimate pop musicals, this new show presents a marvelously fresh approach to the autobiographical musical revue.
Having an openly gay married couple--referred to as "the gay Burns and Allen" by a friend--headline a show of this type is a mildly revolutionary event. The two performers candidly reveal the details of their 17-year love affair and mutual life lessons. Inspired by Schalchlin's battle with AIDS, The Last Session (book and direction by Brochu), wove Schalchlin's stirring pop/gospel songs into a rousing seriocomic tale about an AIDS-afflicted musician who plans to perform one last concert, then commit suicide. Schalchlin's splendid new score is strongly reminiscent of Session, and not just because the earlier show's germination is a key part of this story. His trademark style offers an intoxicating blend of irony, poignancy, and folk-song sensibility.
The banter surrounding the songs begins with anecdotes satirizing the men's devout religious upbringings--Catholic for Brochu and Southern Baptist for Schalchlin--proceeding to their 1985 meeting aboard a cruise ship and subsequent love bond. This is followed by the mutual discovery that their spiritual lives were to be found within their shared artistic endeavors, not as men of the cloth. This point is epitomized by the anecdote in which an AIDS-afflicted woman who viewed The Last Session told them she was planning to commit suicide, but that the show changed her mind.
Schalchlin is an accomplished singer/ songwriter who shares his gifts and experiences with students in a touring one-man show. Brochu boasts 30 years of impressive credits as a director/writer/producer/actor in theatre and television and is also noted for the book Lucy in the Afternoon, about his close friend, the late Lucille Ball. Yet he latches onto another superstar to provide a potent gag for the show's central motif, leavening the heady business about serendipity and fate. The late great Broadway legend Ethel Merman periodically entered his life, and he presents her as sort of a guardian angel, inspiring him to forget the church and find his calling in show business. The image of a larger-than-life diva deity provides an apt metaphor in this captivating musical romp, superbly directed by Anthony Barnao, that's too heartfelt and honest to be camp. This highly personal vehicle showcases two warm and witty veteran showmen who have aged like fine wine. Who could ask for anything more?
By Julio Martinez
(First review of The Big Voice.)
of the original Los Angeles production posted Oct. 15, 2002.
This condensation reflects the slightly edited (from the online review) version that appeared in print:
"Collaborators in life and in art, Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin
(co-creators of the multiple-award-winning musical "The Last Session") have chronicled the history of their relationship in story and song. With composer Schalchlin holding forth from an electronic keyboard and Brochu roaming flamboyantly about a bare stage, the pair relate the deceptively simple, endearing tale of two deeply religious gay men who found their true calling in life while trying to come to terms with their complicated relationship with God. Aided by a delightful 13-number original score, director Anthony Barnao intuitively guides the two through the humor-filled interactions of talented artists who have been life partners for over 17 years. Their ability to fluidly weave individual tales in and around one another creates a lighthearted energy that sustains itself even when they are relating the darker moments of their relationship. Like all good musicals there’s a happy ending leading to a maturing of their beliefs and the recognition that they had found the essence of God in each other."
by Sharon Perlmutter:
"The only disappointing thing about The Big Voice: God or Merman? is that there are some people in the world who will refuse to see it because the relationship it recounts is a homosexual one. Not only that, but the show dares to suggest that God is not found exclusively in a church, but can also be found in a theatre or in our hearts...it's just good theatre."
"Brochu and Schalchlin's score ranges from cute, playful numbers which demonstrate a lyric-writing wit, to honest expressions of emotion or belief, to folksong-like story songs."
"...there's just something endearing about watching these two guys honestly telling us the story of their lives, and hoping the audience will take something of value away from it. We will."
"...These two men; Jim, a nice Catholic kid from Brooklyn, and Steve, Baptist from the deep south, were interested in the theater since childhood, but first 'found' religion. Jim wanted to perhaps be the next Pope, while Steve went through his fundamental Christian offerings. In spite of such, they felt that they were not right for staying within their faith. Jim received his calling when he had a brief meeting with the great Ethel Merman when he was 12. From there, Ethel served as 'god'. Of course, Steve and Jim did later meet, found out that they came from the same backgrounds, and began their life in the theater and with each other! They continued, writing and performing in theater pieces, hitting their peak by creating the production "The Last Session", a musical of a vocalist dying of AIDS, and making his last recording session as a tribute for himself, dedicating it to his partner.
This play, directed by Anthony Barnao, is very simple. There are no lavish costumes, no set backdrops, no nothing! It's just Steve, Jim, and a keyboard, providing the songs that tell about where they came from, where they are, and where they will be going. The songs are catchy and lively.
Best of all, this show with its simplicity, proves that 'less is more'. One doesn't need thirty costume changes, a cast of thousands, and a forty piece orchestra to pull off a musical. Just have good talent, great songs, and a lot of faith! THE BIG VOICE is just that! It does have its faith and spirit, and is a real crowd pleaser-- as 'god' says there's no business like..(you know the rest!!)"
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Duo finds salvation onstage in 'God or Merman?'
By TOM SIME / The Dallas Morning News
It's too bad the title The Odd Couple is already taken. It suits Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin perfectly, and they're really a couple couple. But the vivid pair – picture Zero Mostel and Anthony Perkins in love – instead call their autobiographical cabaret musical The Big Voice: God or Merman? The touring show opened at the Trinity River Arts Center on Tuesday, the same venue where Uptown Players recently presented the pair's acclaimed earlier musical, The Last Session. This smaller-scale tuner, directed by Anthony Barnao, suggests that showbiz is a calling as undeniable as that to the priesthood or ministry.
Those were the original goals of Mr. Brochu, a New York Catholic, and Mr. Schalchlin, an Arkansas Baptist. Mr. Brochu, the stronger comedian of the two, wanted to be "the first Brooklyn-born pope." And Mr. Schalchlin, the stronger musician, wanted to be a Baptist rock star, saving souls through his music.
Mr. Schalchlin comes pretty close to his initial target with his earnest, often beautiful tunes, sung with borderline- evangelical zeal. But for Mr. Brochu, it wasn't to be. The show's most indelible moment occurs when he recalls his first real religious epiphany. He'd been to the Vatican; nothing. He'd been to Lourdes; nothing. But when needle hits groove on the Annie Get Your Gun LP, God at last descends. It's a hilarious, inspired scene.
Mr. Brochu's father actually knew, and introduced 13-year-old Jimmy to, Ethel Merman during the run of Gypsy. Lourdes, Shmourdes. The Broadway Theatre was "like church, but with energy." Jimmy is smitten, and becomes an actor after realizing that he wanted to be a priest only because of the costumes, props and scenery.
The two meet when Mr. Schalchlin is working as a lounge singer on a cruise ship. Their instant bond and growing relationship, Mr. Schalchlin's battle with AIDS, the writing of Last Session, and their subsequent breakup and reconciliation are all simply, comically and sometimes movingly conveyed, with tangential howlers, such as Mr. Brochu's supposed penchant for wearing bishop robes as pajamas ("You look like a gay Dracula," says Mr. Schalchlin).
Mr. Brochu's voice is brassier and more comical, Mr. Schalchlin's more keening and sincere, in the Elton John-Billy Joel mode. Though the latter does most of the singing, the two harmonize well in duets. Is that art or life? For these two, both are both.
ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT CHRONICLE
‘God and Merman’ 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, it’s 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 Brochu’s wildly funny childhood aspirations.
In the way some boys dream of being a rock star, Brochu dreamed of being the first Brooklyn-born pope. It’s 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: Brochu’s 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, “odd” rhymes with “God” (as dos “mass with “ass”). No, this is not a musical for fundamentalists.
Downstairs Cabaret’s satellite space on West Main Street makes for an intimate experience, but it’s 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 other’s 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 pair’s first musical, The Last Session, which Downstairs Cabaret staged a year ago.
It’s 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.
CITY (weekly alternative February 2002):
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.
A sincere `Voice' speaks up at Stages
By EVERETT EVANS
The Big Voice: God or Merman? is simplicity itself.
The two-man, autobiographical musical at Stages Repertory Theatre consists of just writers/performers Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, their stories and songs, a keyboard and stool, a table and chair.
Yet, this little show is one of those cases in which minimalism works. The stories and songs come from the heart -- and reach the heart, too.
Essentially, The Big Voice tells how two gay men from different backgrounds find each other.
It's also about how Brochu, a Brooklyn-born Catholic, and Schalchlin, a Southern Baptist raised in Arkansas and Texas, begin searching for meaning in their respective religions -- but wind up finding spiritual solace in theater and in their relationship with each other.
Schalchlin and Brochu, who wrote the acclaimed off-Broadway musical The Last Session, premiered Big Voice to good reviews last year in Los Angeles. An off-Broadway production is planned for next season.
The first act tells how the two grew up, each struggling with being different. Brochu humorously recounts his childhood wish to become "the first Brooklyn-born Pope."
His real calling is revealed when he hears the cast album of Annie Get Your Gun, with Ethel Merman. Imagine Brochu's delight when his father reveals that he knows the legendary Broadway star (through a business connection with her father). Thus, the 13-year-old Brochu is taken to the Broadway Theater to see Merman in Gypsy, and what's more, gets to meet her onstage after the show.
It's the first of several encounters with Merman, whose persona becomes Brochu's spiritual touchstone.
Meanwhile, Schalchlin is struggling through adolescence and college. For a time, he plays with a Baptist rock band but that doesn't work out. Unable to tell family and friends the truth about himself, he tries to escape the world of his youth.
Many ups and downs later, the two meet -- Brochu, a passenger on a cruise ship; Schalchlin, the ship's lounge pianist. They hit it off and sail into the sunset -- to a shared life in Brochu's New York apartment.
The second act opens with some of the show's funniest moments as the two discover one another's foibles and idiosyncrasies.
Things turn dark as Schalchlin battles AIDS, which nearly kills him. At Brochu's urging, Schalchlin starts writing songs about his ordeal as therapy. The songs become the basis for The Last Session. Just as the show takes off and its success changes their lives, new medications put Schalchlin on the road back to health. There's an 11th-hour crisis to threaten the couple's relationship, but realizing they are miserable without each other, they quickly get back together.
Though Big Voice at times covers familiar ground, it does so with warmth, humor and an often original perspective. Though it's handled lightly, there's good sense in the show's message that religion is not the only place to look for spiritual fulfillment.
Schalchlin carries a slightly larger share of the singing, performing with a clenched-fist intensity and earnestness. His plaintive music sometimes shows the influence of folkish, soft-pop songwriters such as James Taylor and Carole King. A few of his songs may even qualify as nonsectarian hymns. He certainly conveys a questing air.
Brochu gets a slightly bigger share of the storytelling -- fine, since he's a natural raconteur. He assumes the more traditionally "gay" persona that counts Paul Lynde and Liberace as patron saints -- flamboyant, theatrical, unabashedly hammy, with a dash of smug-cat sarcasm. Recalling one of his TV-commercial acting jobs as a dancing raisin ("I was the gay raisin"), he makes the bit a comic highlight.
The Big Voice speaks in its own voice, authentic and sincere. That's the main reason this little show carries a big punch.
TEXAS TRIANGLE MAGAZINE
by Chuck Perconnel
“THE BIG VOICE” A BIG HIT! Rating: A
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
BY LEE WILLIAMS
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.
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