A Life Made of Music
Through Composing, Steve Schalchlin Created a Bridge to Healing
by C.Todd White
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Annie Tritt
Steve Schalchlin was far from enthusiastic when the doorbell rang that afternoon in 1996. It was the postman with another package of pills for him to try. “Oh great,” he thought. “Another f––ing drug.”
Schalchlin was tired of being a test case for the pharmaceutical industry. He was bitter, exhausted, totally depleted. Having been diagnosed with AIDS three years prior, now he was two steps from the grave. At six-foot-two, he was down to less than 130 pounds, weak and weary, unable to eat much of anything but applesauce and toast. Still, he would disengage from the IV long enough to perform on stage each night. The music sustained him as much as the drugs.
Two years before, in 1994, he had been hit with a bout of Pneumocystis pneumonia that had landed him in the hospital with life in the balance. It had taken a full year before he could walk again or sit at the piano. He began to gauge his vitality by the time he could spend on the keys. One day, having built himself up to sixty-percent strong, he started playing chords. “I just started playing music. My favorite big churchy chords. And leaning my head against the wood of the upright piano, I played all day long. And then I fell asleep. And when I woke up the next day I felt like my energy level had increased to nintey-five percent. It was a measurable difference in my energy level by getting on the piano and playing. That is when I went, ‘Oh, this is not a wives’ tale, about music. This is something that is clinical. This actually did something.’”
Schalchlin tested positive in 1993 and was hardly stoic about it. He considered suicide but was sustained through the love of friends and family and his partner of eight years, playwright and actor Jim Brochu. With Brochu crafting the dialogue, Steve turned to his music and found renewed vitality. The music came from his heart and from his own lived experience.
The songs Schalchlin wrote at this time gradually shaped themselves around a theme, and the theme solidified into a full-fledged musical, aptly called The Last Session. On October 3, 1997, the musical opened Off-Broadway at the Currican Theater, and soon moved to the 47th Street Theater. Both combined, it ran for 111 showings. In the shadow of RENT, it was nominated as Best Musical by the New York Drama League and New York Outer Critics Circle. Though autobiographical, The Last Session was soon resonating with audiences across the nation, the story of a man living with AIDS when AIDS was a death sentence, a farewell song to the lover and friends that had stayed with him through it all. By the end of 1998 it was revitalized in Los Angeles, playing at the Laguna Playhouse and then the Tiffany Theatre. The show was awarded several Drama Critics Circle Awards in Los Angeles in the spring of 1999, and a GLAAD award for Best L.A. Production. Schalchlin’s unique blend of gospel and rock tinged with blues had proven itself a masterpiece of musical passion on par with RENT, Angels in America, and Falsettos. Thanks to that unlikely package of Crixivan that had been delivered just in time, Schalchlin had survived to bring the trophies home.
Steve is also known for having written one of the first online diaries of the Internet age. It began on Sunday, March 24, 1996. He and Jim had already completed The Last Session, and his pressing desire now was to see it produced just once before he died. He never anticipated that the diary would become so widely read (the word “blog” would not be coined for a few years yet), but he needed a way through which he could update his brothers in Texas, and his physician, on the status of his health. The idea felt very natural to him. It just made sense. Before his health had faltered, he worked at the National Academy of Songwriters creating educational newsletters for songwriters. With the rise of the Internet, he realized that he could now broadcast his work over the whole planet. His online journal was an extension of that work, only now he could do it for himself.
Schalchlin knew his words were making a difference when he received an email from a woman in Washington who had been having a difficult time with her ailing husband. She wrote: “I cook for him. I change his bed pans. I’m changing IVs. I’m cleaning the sheets. I’m breaking my back and doing absolutely everything that I can do, and all he does is yell at me.” She continued, “I feel like I’ve been living in hell! But when I read your diary, and I read what happened to you that day, because you were so candid about your own weaknesses, I felt like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. I made the connection: when you get sick, you get angry.”
Another of his first responders was a thirteen-year-old kid living in the outback of Australia who became a pen pal of sorts. Steve had been the boy’s only link to others who were suffering. And then came an invitation by one of his readers to the Harvard School of Public Health. The instructor there had printed every page of the diary and given it to all of his students to read.
Schalchlin’s blog, which he titled “Living in the Bonus Round,” was soon attracting readers from all over the world. “So now I’m getting emails from Costa Rica, and Puerto Rico, and Europe, especially Australia and Britain. English-speaking countries started to write me and ask what was going on and asking for information. I sort of became a one-man information source for a lot of people. And then I was able to turn them on to other places where they could get information.” As with his songs, Steve had learned that his most important work was accomplished when he wasn’t trying to write something big. “If you focus down rather than focusing up, you can end up mattering to people a lot more.”
It should be no surprise to learn that he met his life partner, Jim Brochu, through music. Schalchlin was performing on a cruise ship at the time, passing through the Bermuda Triangle. He was playing “One More Kiss,” a somewhat obscure song from Follies. Having grown up in Baptist Texas, he hadn’t much experience with musical theater or the Broadway style. All he really knew was gospel and rock. So there he was, playing one of Sondheim’s great though obscure songs with a Southern gospel flair.
A man came to the piano and started singing along, smiling from ear to ear as if part of an inside joke. “How do you know that song?” Steve asked when the song had ended. “Oh! My God! That’s from Follies!” Jim replied. Brochu had an apartment in midtown Manhattan, and after a few days on the ship Schalchlin moved in with Brochu in New York. The year was 1985, and they have been together ever since.
Schalchlin is a man made of music, so of course The Last Session was hardly the last great work he would craft with Brochu. In 2002, he and Brochu began working on The Big Voice: God or Merman?, an homage to the great Ethel Merman, whom young Schalchlin saw perform as the lead in Annie Get Your Gun. The Big Voice opened in the fall of 2002 at the Lex Theatre, in Hollywood. A year later, it moved to the Zephyr. The run was extended three times, and the production garnered a Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical Score of 2002 and was met with resounding accolades. The Big Voice opened Off-Broadway in 2004, moved back to Los Angeles for a spin, then returned to New York in the fall of 2006, where it played for six straight months. Schalchlin and Brochu have earned many prestigious awards for the musical, having been recognized for score, writing, directing, and acting.
One of the highlights of Schalchlin’s career was having the opportunity to play a Steinway once owned by John Lennon. George Michael had purchased Lennon’s piano for over $3 million, and he had sent the magical instrument to specific locations across the U.S. where acts of violence had been perpetrated. Michael and his lover, Kenny Goss, had learned of the death of a young gay man in Olympia, Washington, who had killed himself after being beaten and harassed for being homosexual. Schalchlin had written about the incident on his blog because the young man, Bill Clayton, was the son of a woman who had become a friend.
When contacted by Goss, Clayton’s mother, Gabi, said that they could bring the piano to their Olympia home provided Steve be the one to play it. So on one breezy day in April, 2009, Schalchlin found himself playing “Imagine” with a photo of Bill propped against the music rack, surrounded by friends who joined in the singing and journalists snapping future memories—on the very piano on which the song had been composed.
Playing “Imagine” caused Steve to think how wonderful it would be to write a song of perfect peace. Such songs, a collection of hymns, had been sifting their way into his psyche over the past few years, but now he saw them connected. These became a new song cycle, called New World Waking, which premiered at the Davies Concert Hall in December of 2008, sung by the Gay Men’s Chorus of San Francisco.
Schalchlin continues to grow as a musician even as The Last Session approaches its twentieth anniversary. Last year, at the age of sixty-two, he decided to learn how to play the guitar. And he picked it up quick. Five days after dragging the latent instrument from the back of his closet, he took it to a gig. (“It’s so much easier than dragging a keyboard,” he quipped.) The minute he held it, he could make a chord. “I knew exactly how to strum it, and I felt like a fish to water.” He posts new songs each week via his Facebook page, products of a songwriters’ group he now attends in New York.
When I asked Steve what his most important message for A&U readers would be, he had a few things to say. First, find your passion, your art. “I really believe that the arts saved my life. That’s the theme of my life.” And if you share Schalchlin’s creative passion, then don’t worry too much about grandiosity or fame. “If you write very specifically about your individual feelings and experience, and not worry about whether anybody else will get it, it will become more universal than if you try to write for everybody.”
And, he added, it’s when times get tough that your art will most likely flourish. “Creativity really only happens under pressure,” he said as we reflected on the current political climate. “Just like a deadline will make the words flow. Leonard Bernstein had the famous quote: ‘If you want to make a great work of art, you need a plan and not enough time.’ But I also think you also need something to rail against, you need something to write about. And righteous anger is a lovely thing to write—it’s a self-motivating thing. I think now we see a world that feels like it’s on the brink of chaos, not realizing the world is always on the brink of chaos. Having something to fight against gives you a motivation because now, now your vision becomes more clear.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, Steve said, “It’s nice when people can look at my work and say, ‘You know there is really something here for people to learn from.’” I would add that in this postmodern world in dire need of role models and mentors, it is refreshing to find a simple, honest man with the spirit of Lazarus, the compassion of Christ, and the tenor voice of an angel, from whom we all have so much we could learn.
For more about Steve Schalchlin, visit his website, Living in the Bonus Round, at http://bonusroundblog.blogspot.com. A full version of this interview can be found on the website of The Tangent Group at www.tangentgroup.org/schalchlin-interview.
Visit Annie Tritt’s website: www.annietritt.com.
C. Todd White is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is author of Pre-Gay L.A. and other articles and chapters pertaining to the history of homosexual rights in the U.S. He is the Chair of the Los Angeles-based Homosexual Information Center and editor of Tangents Online. He may be contacted at [email protected]