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'The Big Voice' Echoes in New York

THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman? is a new autobiographical musical love story between Jim Brochu, a Catholic who dreamed of being the first Brooklyn born Pope, and Steve Schalchlin, a Baptist preacher's kid from Arkansas. Steve grows up torn between the Ministry and songwriting, and Jim between the priesthood and "theater-queendom." This past November, the legendary Jerry Herman presented Jim and Steve with the coveted L.A. Stage  Ovation Award to The Big Voice: God or Merman? as Best Musical of 2005. Jim was also nominated for Ovations in 2003 and 2005 for Best Actor in a Musical for The Big Voice and won this year's Valley Theatre League's ADA Award as Best Musical Actor for the same show.

Schalchlin made his off-Broadway debut as composer/lyricist of the hit musical The Last Session, featuring Tony nominee Bob Stillman, which was nominated for Best Musical by the New York Drama League and the New York Outer Critics Circle, and which won Best Musical Score by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle.

Brochu comes back to his hometown of New York City directly from his critically acclaimed portrayal of Zero Mostel in his play, Zero Hour. He was nominated for the L.A. Stage Ovation Award for Best Actor and as a playwright, he received a nomination for Best Play of 2006. He made his New York debut in Sid Slon's production of The Taming Of The Shrew at Town Hall. His off-Broadway credits: Robert Lowell's Endicott And The Red Cross (American Place Theatre), Ephraim Kishon's Unfair To Goliath ( Cherry Lane ), Avery Korman's Skye (Lincoln Center), Don Pippin's The Contrast (Theatre East) and Frank Loesser's Greenwillow (Equity Library Theatre). His television work includes All My Children,The Young And The Restless , Officer Jerry Chandler on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and the befuddled bailiff on NBC's Sirota's Court with Michael Constantine.

The guys were on hand recently to answer a few questions about their new show and working together.  

TJ: Ok, how long have you guys been together?

J&S: Depends on if you're using the Chinese calendar or the Hebrew one. Longer than most of our straight friends. Next May it will be 22 years, which is 144 in straight years. We met at the hypotenuse of the Bermuda Triangle and been looking for the angles ever since. 

TJ: When did you decide to write THE BIG VOICE?

J&S: Well, it was pretty much decided for us. In the summer of 2002, Rick Stein at the Laguna Playhouse in California was producing a three-show Monday night series for the theatre. He had Susan Egan for the first show, Charles Nelson Reilly for the second and asked us to do the third. The Playhouse had a big hit with a our first musical, The Last Session, and Rick thought it would be fun if we came down, told some stories about our lives, sang a couple of songs and talk about how The Last Session got written. We called the show The Big Voice: God or Merman? The audience loved it, so we decided to develop it and see where it went. Well, what was suppose to be a one night only event has turned into a journey of ten thousand miles and three hundred performances all across the country that's brought us back full circle to 47th Street, right across the street from where The Last Session played.

TJ: Is it easy for you to put your relationship out there for everyone to see?

J&S: Isn't that what writers do? Put their lives out there for people to examine? Some just do it using a fictional framework. Rehearsals were a bit cathartic; sometimes like Freud and Jung having a field day. There were some painful moments, but there was also something about putting it all out there that was terribly freeing. Every word of the show is true. It all happened. And we've found that by being candid about our ups and downs, and by showing our humanness, straight people watching the show root for us to stay together. They see themselves in us and, suddenly, it's not about a "gay marriage" at all. It's just about love. An older couple came up to us after one of the Chicago performances and said, "You're just like us. We didn't know." 

TJ: What has been the most difficult thing for you in writing the show? 

J&S: The most difficult thing was accepting the fact that it all came so easily. We wrote the play by writing characters – even though they were based on us, in fact were us. At one rehearsal Steve thought of a line and we tried it. As soon as it came out of his mouth, Jim and the director said, at the same time, "STEVE WOULD NEVER SAY THAT!"   – even though he just had. So, lots of laughs. From the first performance, audiences were laughing hysterically at the funny parts and crying with us during the dramatic parts. The hardest thing has been learning to just leave it alone and not try to fix things that aren't broken.  

TJ: Being partners, was it an easy thing for you to work so closely together on a project? 

J&S: We actually prefer being together all the time because we have discovered the secret to a great relationship. We just ignore each other. Each of us has work space in our apartment, and even when we are offered separate dressing rooms in the theatres we've played, we prefer to be in one. When Jim was doing his one man show, Zero Hour in L.A., Steve would hang out in the dressing room. We do best when we're together.

TJ: Were you surprised by the LA Ovations Awards? How did you react? 

J&S: We reacted like shrieking ten-year old girls on Christmas morning. (There's video evidence of it on the Net.) Winning Best Musical was a total surprise. It shows the power of "word of mouth." We did The Big Voice in Los Angeles on a bare, postage stamp-sized stage in a little theatre in North Hollywood with no promotion money, no advertising and no publicity. The other shows were million dollar productions. They won all the other awards for lighting, costume design, set design, etc. We won for best musical! Lots of writers have told us how inspired they are by this. You don't need a million dollars to make an impact. And Jim's show business career started at the back of the St. James Theatre selling orange drink at intermissions of Hello Dolly, so to be presented the Ovation by Jerry Herman was especially rewarding. And what else is thrilling is that Jim won his second Ovation in a row just last night for his Zero Mostel show, Zero Hour which was named the Best New Play of the 2005-2006 Season. 

TJ: How have the audiences reacted to THE BIG VOICE? 

J&S: Explosively. We've been touring out of town for several years. No  matter where we played -- north, south, small towns, large cities; the response has been uniformly amazing. They all "get it" no matter what the demographic. We ask the audience to work with us in the sense that the show is presented like Our Town. It's Theatre of the Mind. The set is a table, a chair and a keyboard. We ask the audience to use their imaginations to supply the props and costumes and sets. And they do! We tell them to imagine us as young, naked models who can talk. 

TJ: What have some of their comments been to the production? 

J&S: One of our favorite stories was from when we did two performances for the Universalist Unitarian Church Convention in Long Beach. We did a sold out show in the morning and came back later in the evening to do the second show. An hour before we started, we looked out into the room and saw a man sitting there with a half-dozen children between the ages of 7 and 12. I went up to him and said, "You know, this is a show about gay marriage and I don't know if it would be appropriate for the kids." The man said, "I saw your show this morning and brought my children because they had to see it. I wanted them to know what real love is all about." It doesn't get better than that.

TJ: What can you tell me about the show to entice people to come see it in NYC? 

J&S: Okay, there is one second act costume change that'll kill you! Oh, and we give out cash, prizes and a turkey dinner at the end of the show. Not really, but the producers are giving out discounts. And we're even doing a late night 10:30 show on Fridays for working theatre pros or for people trying to break a record for how many shows they can see in a weekend. It's an innovative, but old-fashioned book musical with lots of laughs, a few sniffles and very melodic songs with beginnings, middles and endings. 

TJ: Is THE LAST SESSION still being performed?

J&S: You cannot imagine how many people come up to us saying they saw the original off-Broadway production. It's very beloved. There have been stock and amateur productions all over the country and it just played a small town in Arkansas. We're about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the New York production. We've been getting a lot of inquiries about doing a big, new all-star production. And there's been talk of a film. We'll see! 

TJ: Are you excited about THE BIG VOICE coming to NYC?


J&S: Well, for any performer, New York is like Mecca. It's Holy Ground - the place you want to be. It's Jim's home town. He started in the New York Theatre – his first show was at the Cherry Lane. We can't wait for New Yorkers to see it. There's a lot of insider stuff about musical theatre and growing up Catholic under Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen. We are thrilled to say the least. And to be the first show in a new Off-Broadway Theatre space is especially exciting. The Actors Temple on West 47th Street  is where Sophie Tucker, Joe E. Lewis, Henny Youngman and so many other greats attended services. One of the themes of The Big Voice is that one can find a religious experience in a theatre as much as in a house of worship. Excited? If you hear any ten year old girls shrieking – it's us.

TJ: Steve, you still have your web blog LIVING IN THE BONUS ROUND? How's that been going?

J&S: Did you know that The Last Session was the very FIRST musical with a website? And the first to use the Internet as a promotional tool to get to New York. And the first musical to broadcast live over the Net. It was only heard by four people with squeaky modems, but we were there. And LIVING IN THE BONUS ROUND is one of the earliest proto-blogs on the Net. I started it almost 11 years ago. Lately, I've been writing a lot more political and opinion stuff, and have found myself linked to really popular blogs like Andrew Sullivan's, James Wolcott's and Joe.My.God but mostly it's the same personal site it was back then, except I've branched out into video blogging and photography. Have to stay on the cutting edge, you know. When someone finally decides to do a movie about us, I have all the footage ready to go.

TJ:  OK, I do a section in the interview on FAVORITE THINGS, so let's have it for both of you. FAVORITE BOOK

STEVE: Whatever I'm reading at the time. Currently, It's "Julian" by Gore Vidal. But I read lots of science fiction and comic books.

JIM: "Good Times, Bad Times" by James Kirkwood. It had an enormous effect on me. I wrote Jimmy Kirkwood a fan letter and we became friends. He died in 1989 and I still miss him.

TJ: FAVORITE CITY 

STEVE:    Oh, please. New York. No doubt about it. But I also love Sydney and Paris.

JIM: How could it be any place but New York? My hometown. We've been lucky that our work has taken us all over the world but 44th and Broadway is the center of the universe.

TJ: FAVORTE DRINK 

STEVE: Diet Mountain Dew Red. Can't get enough.

JIM: Coca-Cola, which I can't drink anymore since I'm pre-diabetic but I've settled for Coke Zero since it was named after the great Zero Mostel.

TJ: FAVORITE MOVIE

STEVE: "The Producers" – the original with Zero Mostel. Didn't they name a soft drink after him?

JIM:  I love the old movies. I could watch "All About Eve," "Star is Born," "Mildred Pierce, "Sunset Boulevard," "Yankee Doodle Dandy" – you get the drift.

TJ: FAVORITE THEATRICAL PRODUCTION 

STEVE:  The first Broadway show I ever saw: The original production of Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou . Until then, I was a rock musician who knew nothing about theatre. I thought musicals were for old people and weenies. "Sweeney Todd" kicked me in the teeth and changed my life - right from that first steam whistle.

JIM:  Gypsy with Ethel Merman . it changed my life forever – and we reenact the scene in "The Big Voice." But I've loved every Broadway revival of it, too, and thought the last one with Bernadette was sensational.

Tickets for THE BIG VOICE: God or Merman? are $55 and $35.  The show plays Tuesday-Thursday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm. There will be a late night show on Fridays at 10:30pm after the opening on November 30th. Tickets can be purchased by calling Telecharge (212) 239-6200 or going to www.Telecharge.com. For more information, please visit: www.TheBigVoice.com . So go to see some great theatre and enjoy. Ciao and remember, theatre is my life!


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