A CONVERSATION WITH JIM BROCHU AND STEVE SCHALCHLIN – The New Conservatory Theatre extends “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” until August 26th

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

Mention the team of Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin to the wholly dedicated fans of Theatre and you will hear a gleeful litany of successful shows, song titles, awards, lecturing engagements, and the daunting fact that New York’s legendary SARDI’S RESTAURANT placed a caricature of Mr. Brochu directly across from that of Ethel Merman. Jim and Steve’s current production (a limited engagement) of THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman? at San Francisco’s NEW CONSERVATORY THEATRE CENTER is commanding national attention. Affectionately tagged as “the story of two lives”, THE BIG VOICE is a fantastical romp down the center aisles of Church and The Great White Way; a musical two-way street where everyone will find their brain, courage, heart, and a way back home. Due to overwhelming popular demand, THE BIG VOICE has been extended until August 26th.

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THE BIG VOICE – Extended through August 26th at NCTC, San Francisco

I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Jim and Steve at their spacious 12th floor accommodations with jaw-dropping southerly view of San Francisco. Still marveling at their uproarious Opening Night the previous Saturday, I knew my first obligation would be to identify my personal persuasion. A running gag throughout the show is whether one sits in the Ethel (Merman) camp or the Judy (Garland) camp. (In other words, “Any note you can belt, I can belt louder.”) Jim and Steve have been life-partners for 22 years. They met on board the ill-fated SS GALILEO. Jim had recently dropped out from a Catholic seminary; Steve was the featured pianist in the ship’s Rendezvous Lounge. The luxury ocean liner was floating somewhere in the waters around Bermuda. With a gleam in his eye and the Test Riddle on his lips, Destiny was giggling as Jim posed the Either/Or question. Steve’s response? “Ethel.” At that moment, God was there. See … Steve, being from Arkansas and the son of a Baptist preacher man, was totally unaware of this particular creed and sense of higher self so deeply stamped within certain loftier musical circles. “Judy” who? For this suddenly smitten but uninitiated chapter & verse pianist, there was only one up-turned response. “Ethel” – ? (And the waters parted. Sign here.) Steve’s later admission would be – as in, Mertz. She’s the only Ethel he knows. (“You spell it with a Z!” – SEASON 6, episode 22.) Jim’s response? “A good answer.”

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DOIN’ WHAT COMES NATURALLY – Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, 1985

I quickly make my own confession. “I got the Jeanette MacDonald gene!” Steve and Jim start to laugh. “For the Centennial of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire – with the title as yet unclaimed – I exercised my journalistic prerogative and pronounced Jeanette MacDonald as “FIRST LADY OF SAN FRANCISCO”. Apparently, another good answer. High above The City skyline, on a sunny afternoon, we are three giddy drama queens poised in the guiding lights of Broadway, Hollywood, and Heaven.

Suddenly, “Steinbeck” and I make eye contact. A sort-of Garfield doing an Oliver Hardy routine, this 18-pound rounder knows The Guest fits right in with his Daddies. Having popped the tab on my Mountain Dew, Steinbeck heads for my lap. Steve observes, “He thinks you’re a chubby chaser.”

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MY TWO DADDIES

JIM: Did you know Jeanette MacDonald was the very first actress ever to wear a body mic? It’s a hilarious story that Charles Nelson Reilly told us. It was at the ST. LOUIS MUNICIPAL THEATRE – which has 12,000 seats. She was doing THE KING & I. They had foot mics and they weren’t picking her up. So the guy, I forget his name, very famous, said that the first night they did it – they had mics at the back of the chair and there was one at the table. Miss MacDonald came out and sang – [Jim gets up to recreate the scene. With arms outstretched, he glides gracefully toward a chair, mouthing the words "Getting to know you". Nearing the back of the chair, he is audible] – “all about you.”

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SEÁN: Oh, no!

JIM: [Moves beyond the chair towards the table mic and mouths "…about you." On a roll, he continues. Jeanette reaches the table mic just in time.] “… hope you like me.”

[We are all in hysterics.]

STEVE: Like “Singing In The Rain”!

JIM: The next night they took a wire and a microphone and shoved it up her dress. It was a full mic with a 100-foot wire. So, Jeanette MacDonald was the first woman to wear a body mic.

[Clearly, I have lost this hand of "Anything you can sing, I sing louder." Still, I'm not to be outdone."]

SEÁN: Well! IIIIIII have a picture of her in the “I Whistle A Happy Tune” dress!

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JIM: In her hoop!

SEÁN: And! The CASTRO THEATRE is celebrating its 85th Anniversary with a brand new print of “San Francisco” and IIIIIII am delivering a RESOLUTION from Supervisor Bevan Dufty.

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JEANETTE MacDONALD & CLARK GABLE – in San Francisco

JIM: THE BIG VOICE: God or Jeanette?

Just as with the audience of Opening Night, I have laughed myself into their fan club. But now the biggest scene stealer of all wants the spotlight. Enter the fourth member of the household, “Thurber” – a sweet-faced orange-furred very mature but nevertheless opinionated feline. With a gleam in his eye, Thurber knows a cat lover when he sees one. He also knows I will be gentle with his aging bones.

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Jim – Thurber – Steve

JIM: And not one organ in working condition!

SEÁN: Thurber will let you know when it’s time to bring down the curtain. My own have already been prepared to go with me to the tomb.

JIM: Like the pharaohs.

More common ground is found in the religious issues of THE BIG VOICE. The success of the show is due to its boisterous and cordial humor, the personable honesty and stinging sincerity, its “rub down with a velvet glove” approach to religious hypocrisy, and the pert, pithy, and poignant musical score. Both gentlemen bare their souls about a personal relationship with God and the contrasting, often devastating effects of organized heavy-duty religion. As a child, Jim was determined to become the first Brooklyn-born Pope. He is mesmerized by the Vatican’s dream machine handling of Pius XII, but is vastly put-off by an LP of His Holiness performing Gregorian chants. Get the tomatoes! The boy then sets the needle to Ethel Merman’s 1946 recording of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Two measures into “There’s NO business like SHOW business…” and the Holy Spirit has migrated to the BROADWAY THEATRE.

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Young Jim – Ethel Merman – Pius XII

SEÁN: Whenever I read a Press Release and see the term “side splitting” or “a thousand laughs” I get really skeptical. I guffawed through the entire show.

STEVE: Oh, good!

SEÁN: When I am taken off-guard, this high-pitched laugh flies out of my mouth.

JIM: I think we heard you! Isn’t it great when you’ve been sitting there for a while and all of a sudden something side-swipes you?

SEÁN: This show does. Constantly.

JIM: Were you there Opening Night?

SEÁN: Yes. [To Stephen] In fact, I was in your direct line of sight. I know you can’t see anybody through the lights.

STEVE: No, we can’t.

SEÁN: But the angle at which you most often look was right there toward my face. Not that it influenced my judgment – but I want you to know I come today with a prejudiced point of view. I LOVED the show.

JIM: Ah, that’s very sweet of you.

SEÁN: So, talk to me! What do you want me to know?

JIM: We can’t stand each other!

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THE BIG VOICE – Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin. Photo by Ed Krieger

SEÁN: There was so much of the show I resonated with. I understand all the Catholic and Baptist lingo – so nothing needed to be explained to me. But as I was sitting there I kept asking myself, “What if I didn’t know all that stuff? Would my periphery knowledge of the separate faiths – even if it were an accumulated perspective based on the Six O’clock News – be enough to get it?” The answer is an absolute yes.

JIM: Our first audiences were middle-aged to older Jewish couples. Straight couples. When we first did the show, in order to build an audience, they would put us on what is called “audience seat fillers” – they pay a little fee and then get comp tickets or very cheap tickets to see a show. So, it was an older Jewish crowd.

STEVE: We were just work-shopping. There had not been any publicity or pre–anything. We just opened the show, started working, and invited people to just come and see it. We were getting raw feedback from people with no pre-conceptions. So, we got this crowd because they were part of this audience service. We were just filling the seats so we could have an audience to play to.

JIM: But they loved it! They got every joke. We didn’t use the service on Saturday because it was Opening Night and there was a party. We usually stand at the door and say good-night to everybody. People say we’re like pastors at the end of the show. But we feel that what we have done is so personal that we have to say good-bye. I remember this one elderly Jewish man who said, “I learned more about Gay marriage and Gay people in the last two hours than I have known in my whole life. And you’re just like us, aren’t you?” So I said, “Yes, just taller.”

[I let out a spontaneous guffaw.]

JIM: [To Stephen] Yeah, he got that one! Did you get your Mountain Dew?

SEÁN: How long did it take to get the play down on paper?

STEVE: It was over a period of …

JIM: Ten days!

STEVE: … three or four months preceding that. I had been on the road doing a show – THE LAST SESSION – and Jim was home in LA. And we kept saying that it would be nice if we could write a piece for the two of us together. Maybe we could put a nightclub act together, anything we could think of.

JIM: But we had stories – stories he had told me about his life, and I knew about mine.

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What’s in your IPOD

STEVE: He would send me an e-mail with a story from his life and I would respond with a song. Or I would respond with a story paralleling it and then add songs that kind of worked with it. I had already been writing a bunch of songs. I had in mind writing a show about our religious experiences anyway and I had already started writing a lot of the score with that in mind. But I didn’t have a scenario; I didn’t know exactly how it was going to fit. I just knew I wanted to write these specific songs. Jim noticed how personal they were coming up and then it would remind him of a story from his childhood. Finally, we were called by THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE. They had a summer series going on of three special nights. They had Charles Nelson Reilly doing one and they wanted us to do one – because THE LAST SESSION had been for them their first great big Equity hit.

JIM: Also, it broke barriers with Republican Orange County and trying to get a Gay audience. It was a show that appealed to both. It was a breakthrough show and got them some awards.

STEVE: So they said, “Why don’t you come down?” And Jim said, “To do what?” They said to just tell a few stories and sing a few songs and talk about what happened to The Last Session since we left there. Jim kind of panicked. He took the material we had and – in about ten days – spun the whole thing into THE BIG VOICE.

JIM: Within a week it was all written.

STEVE: The difference was in ACT 2. We used songs from THE LAST SESSION because that’s what they had requested. It went over so huge! We had the same kind of audience reaction that you had witnessed. We started wondering if this could be a “stand alone” musical – if we could get rid of the songs from The Last Session and write new material to tell the story in a different way.

SEÁN: Would you say the stories – the way they are told – are favorite stories? Stories you’ve told for a long time – stories at parties, or as part of conversations with friends or new acquaintances? Such as, “Steve tell the one about” and the play is launched from there?

STEVE: I don’t think they were.

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JIM & ETHEL

JIM: I have forever told the story of how my life changed on he stage of the Broadway Theatre – meeting Ethel Merman after a performance of GYPSY. I had told that story quite a bit; it had such an impact on me.

STEVE: It’s an enviable story.

JIM: Isn’t it, though? I was blessed to have met her. Her son is going to come see the show. I had a long talk with him. He had heard how we treated his mother as a warm, fully fleshed-out human being and not –

SEÁN: A caricature.

STEVE: A Gay clown.

JIM: Yes. He wrote me an e-mail saying he was trying to get a ticket for Opening Night, but it was sold out.

SEÁN: How did you decide on the stories? Did it just unfold and that was it?

JIM: It really did. It was what Ray Bradbury used to call Zen writing. When you’re in that space, it just flows. I would think of the first act that we did in Laguna compared to the first act we did here – it’s ninety percent the same.

SEÁN: Was it always a religious juxtaposition?

JIM: Yes. Act One was our individual upbringings. Act Two was us getting through what we had to get through.

STEVE: But I think also – just on a fundamental level and a political level – Gay people who are raised in a religious environment, a conservative religious environment are basically told, “You’re not good enough / you don’t belong here / you need to change / you need to be something else.” And so, in a lot of our lives, we end up leaving the church and hating God or hating Religion or hating the whole nine yards. But an inherently spiritual person doesn’t really lose the core of their being. So it’s going to come out somewhere. I think that what we discovered is that it comes out of Theatre, because Theatre and Church are essentially the same thing. They are story-telling, they are inspirational, and they are true. Theatre brings an even higher truth sometimes. Church basically repeats the same old story over and over again. I often wonder if that’s not one of the reasons so many Gay people wind up getting into Theatre. We’re always told that the reasons are because we’re used to hiding and wearing masks and being somebody else. But I think there’s something more profound. I think it’s because we have to tell our story and that we have something to contribute to the – and I hate to use the word “spiritual” – but that’s really what it is. It’s something more than just sitting across the table from somebody and talking about what’s going on. So, Theatre really does become a temple and a place of hard core truths, deep emotional truths.

SEÁN: I was a Theatre Arts major at San Francisco State University. At the time I told my parents that’s what I wanted to do, the Drama Department enjoyed the reputation as being the best on the west coast. It just confirmed everything that had not been voiced under that roof since my first visit to Santa Claus and announcing I wanted an iron, a stove, and a dolly.

JIM: “He’s Gay!”

SEÁN: Yes! And it went downhill from there! But I was given piano lessons and along the way they got a TV. I retreated into the movies and discovered my own performing abilities. By the time I entered the Drama Department I knew I could sell myself as an actor – but the problem was, doing what? During that era there was a heavy emphasis on Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Albee, etc. I am so NOT that person and not what anybody would buy from me on stage.

JIM: You’re more Jerry Herman and Jule Styne!

SEÁN: Right! And “Hamlet”! I was cast as Hamlet in a UC production. Two weeks into rehearsal I won a vocal competition, which came with a sack of cash, provided I do a solo concert – the same week HAMLET is opening. What to do, what to do? I flipped a quarter; it landed in favor of the concert. I bought a new tuxedo and told Hamlet I’d get back to him. After the first aria, I knew that I did not want to be an ensemble player.

JIM: That’s why I decided to do THE BIG VOICE. I could always do Hamlet some other time. [Seán guffaws.] “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew…”

SEÁN: When it comes time – are you going to farm your work out to somebody else?

STEVE: It’s done! We did it New York.

JIM: We couldn’t finish the run because it was so successful. We had to leave. I had a commitment to do my new play, ZERO HOUR, in Houston. Two guys replaced us [Dale Radunz and Carl Danielsen] and they were absolutely wonderful.

SEÁN: Did you hold auditions?

STEVE: This one guy that came in had the same big presence as Jim, but he wasn’t anything like him. He totally owned the role. We had been doing the play enough years for me to start thinking of my role as Steve as the “role of Steve”. For instance – that’s Me up there, but playing it out as a character, as an extension of my own personality. But is it really “me” – the nuts and bolts?

SEÁN: But you also have to find someone who can play the piano as well as you do.

STEVE: That was a little more difficult. He came from more of a musical theatre background, and I come from more of a bar background – playing the bars in the South kind of background. So, it was a little bit more of an adjustment for him.

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Dale Radunz, Jim Brochu and Carl Danielsen

JIM: Now that I’ve organized my pictures, I can show you the two guys who took over the roles for us. It’s funny because one of our producers came in and said, “Oh, I know the guy – Dale Radunz. He’d be great.” The next day we ran into Barry Moss, the great Broadway casting director. Barry says, “I hear you’re leaving the show.” Yeah. “Oh, Dale Radunz.” Then I knew it had to be because two people in two days said it.

SEÁN: Is it being produced somewhere else as well?

STEVE: Now it’s being licensed out by Samuel French.

JIM: You can buy it for $8.50!

STEVE: So if local theaters want to do the play, then all they have to do is license it and cast it. We won’t be in control of it. We’re ready to let it go.

JIM: It’s part of the deal that all the major cities are released.

STEVE: I figure there’s gotta be two big Theatre Queens in every town. One of the reasons why we re-cast ourselves is that we wanted to show producers that it can be done. We did not want the show to be perceived as a “vanity piece”, but as an actual piece of Theatre. The essence of Theatre is that you always play roles that are real or fictional.

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THE BIG VOICE. Illustration by Norn Cutson

SEÁN: Steve, how did you wind up in this playing job you talk about?

STEVE: I started off taking piano lessons when I was seven. I hated taking lessons. I got out of it at ten – just in time to start playing piano for my dad’s church.

SEÁN: Did you want to play piano for your dad’s church?

STEVE: I didn’t mind. Maybe I liked being in front of people, in front of the congregation. But that’s what kept me going – learning how to play accompaniment for gospel singing and stuff like that.

SEÁN: And it validated you.

STEVE: Yes. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I joined this rock and roll band. That’s when I learned interplay. I was in my thirties when I got a job aboard a cruise ship outside of New York. I was playing five hours a day. That’s when I learned show music. Until then I didn’t know any of it and I had actually played in a piano bar in New York. I was playing contemporary songs with an occasional show tune. I would get lead sheets and fake books and then do the show tunes like rock songs because I didn’t know how to play them.

SEÁN: What were your first encounters with the Broadway material?

STEVE: My favorite examples are Irving Berlin. I would look at the chord structure and think, “This look like Elton John” and then play them as Elton John would. Cole Porter songs looked like Billy Joel to me. Stephen Sondheim’s music all looked like R&B because it was all major sevenths and sixths and stuff. So I played everything as though I were in a Soul band. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it was pretty awful. Then came the classic day when I was playing Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” – just straight, just like it’s written. Then somebody came up to me after the fourth night I’d been playing it and said, “You know – you’re doing an OK job. But these old jazz songs really sound better if you give them a little swing.” So I went back and started re-learning the songs again, giving them a swing. It was an interesting transition.

SEÁN: OK, guys – give me an EXCLUSIVE.

JIM: We’re a REALLY BORING couple! You want an exclusive? Something we haven’t told anyone else? This production of “The Big Voice” at the New Conservatory Theatre is the best we’ve ever done.

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2005 OVATION AWARD for BEST MUSICAL – Steve Schalchlin & Jim Brochu, Jerry Herman (Presenter), Anthony Barnao (Director)

To purchase tickets on-line:
THE BIG VOICE – God or Merman?
ZERO HOUR

Link up to the production’s home page: THE BIG VOICE

Seán recommends these recordings for your collection:
CD – THE LAST SESSION – The Dallas Cast Recording
CD – ANNIE GET YOUR GUN – Original Broadway Cast, 1946
CD – GYPSY, Original Cast Recording with Ethel Merman

See Seán’s recent articles:
MEROLA OPERA PROGRAM – GRAND FINALE, SATURDAY, AUGUST 18th
“H.M.S. PINAFORE” Sails The Lamplighters Music Theatre Into 55th Season
HOTEL CASABLANCA – World Premiere in San Francisco
INSIGNIFICANT OTHERS – A Conversation with Composer Jay Kuo
IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE – Everything old is new again at SF Opera
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT, Principal Dancer of the San Francisco Ballet
DAVID GOCKLEY’S “DON GIOVANNI” – Semper Fi!
SAMSON vs DELILAH at AT&T Park – Can Stadium Survive Biblical Shearing?
LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf – A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
SPIDER-MAN 3, An All-American Cinematic Marvel

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San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@gmail.com.

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