The Personal Story Behind The Last Session

Special Features   The Personal Story Behind The Last Session
In the morning, Gideon, the long lean lanky fellow cutting an album at the keyboard, is going to check out of the hotel. Life's hotel, with a handful of pills.

In the morning, Gideon, the long lean lanky fellow cutting an album at the keyboard, is going to check out of the hotel. Life's hotel, with a handful of pills.

The four other people in the studio are pretty upset by this. Two of them, backup singers lovely Tryshia and strident, caustic, redheaded Vicki are women who have loved and do love Gideon a great deal. Vicki was even married to him once. Jim, the dry, ironic guy in the control room, also goes back a long way with the singer/composer at the keyboard, and is purely outraged at Gideon's decision to off himself.

Then there's the third backup singer, Buddy, a young hardcore Bible-spouting Christian fundamentalist with, as it happens, a golden voice. Buddy is shocked and upset in a different way: He's revolted to discover that the musician who has been his lifelong role model and hero is a filthy ho-mo-sex-yew-al with AIDS. He preaches hellfire to his fallen idol, while the others use every possible plea to try to get Gideon to take a rain check.

Meantime, there's this recording session, Gideon's final album, to be got through.

That is the dynamic of The Last Session, the show that burst upon New York out of nowhere, this past May, in a small, tremendous production at the 74-seat Currican Theatre on W. 29th St., and has now, five months later, after two sold-out extensions at the Currican, had its power and passion transferred with cast intact to the 193-seat 47th Street Theatre. And its authors are intact also, though a year-and-a-half ago one of them, Jim Brochu, who wrote the show's book and will direct the commercial run, thought the other, Steve Schalchlin, who wrote its music and most of its lyrics (additional lyrics by John Bettis and Marie Cain), was a goner. The six-foot-two Schalchlin, himself living with AIDS (the real-life Gideon of the story) was down to 135 pounds. Brochu, the HIV-negative New York-born actor, playwright and biographer (of Lucille Ball), and Schalchlin, the Arkansas-born-and-bred songwriter, have lived together 12 years now, since they first met on a Bermuda cruise ship where Schalchlin was playing piano.

"On Mother's Day 1996 I thought he'd be dead by July that he might have a month or six weeks to live," says Brochu. "Instead he was well enough to play Gideon in a Los Angeles workshop of The Last Session."

A year before that Schalchlin (pronounced SHACK-lin) had started writing some deeply autobiographical songs "at first just the lyrics," he emphasizes which he read to a friend, the Los Angeles music publisher Ronda Espy, who dissolved in tears "before I'd written a note of music." (Ms. Espy is today an associate producer and one of the prime backers of the move to 47th St. "Our spiritual godmother from the beginning," says Brochu.)

That same summer of '95, after a draining hospitalization in Santa Monica, Schalchlin wrote a song called "Connected," i.e., to needles, tubes, clamps, IV's and to life.

"The words and music came all at once. I played it for Jim the next day. I couldn't get through it. Neither one of us could."

"Soon thereafter," says Brochu, "I saw him playing it for friends. I also saw it was doing him good, so I started giving him assignments."

"Homework," says Schalchlin wryly. Nine more songs followed. "Originally I thought about doing all this as just one big night in a club" a last session, as it were. "Then a couple of months later we began to talk about it as a united piece," and this time it was Schalchlin who gave Brochu the homework assignment: Write a show built around these songs.

It might truthfully be said that creating these songs, working on The Last Session, brought Steve Schalchlin back to life, as did, at around the same time, the dramatic recent breakthrough in AIDS therapy, which now has Schalchlin on a combination of 3TC plus D4T plus the protease inhibitor Crixivan source of a joke in the show about the breakfast cereal Crispix.

Sitting beside Brochu in a booth in the Edison Cafe, an actors' hangout on 47th Street a couple of blocks east of their new theatre, the Lincolnesque (okay, Arthur Milleresque) Schalchlin looks the picture of vigorous health.

"I'm now 175 pounds," he says. "Now I'm a hunk."

None of any of this would be really worth writing if Currican resident director Mike Wills hadn't brought together in a brilliant intermesh five heart-stopping actor/singers who have stayed with The Last Session, on some very small potatoes, from first to now, when the potatoes have blossomed to standard Off-Broadway Equity levels. They are Bob Stillman as Gideon, Dean Bradshaw as Jim (the guy in the control room), Grace Garland as Tryshia "the Diva," Flamin' Amy Coleman as terrible-tempered Vicki and Stephen Bienskie as bigoted, bewildered young Buddy.

One night after the show, in late July of this year, when they were still on 29th Street, a woman came out of the deli on the corner, carrying a Styrofoam food container. She spotted Stillman and Bienskie and Grace Garland on the sidewalk and ran up to them.

"I'm an AIDS patient," she said. "I have CMV retinitis, and I'm going blind. About two weeks ago I decided to kill myself. I said goodbye to all my friends and was setting my affairs in order.

"Then I saw your show tonight," she said. "It was my rain check. I've just called my boyfriend to tell him that I've changed my mind."

She asked if they'd autograph well, her food container. Grace Garland wrote "RAIN CHECK" across the top, and all three signed it.

"A lot of other people who have AIDS and who'd refused treatment are now, after seeing the show, going on the therapy," says Brochu.

Last March, when Schalchlin started turning the corner, he also started a website diary to keep friends, family and physicians posted on the ups and downs of his health. It expanded by spontaneous combustion people out there chiming in. He now gets about 300 e-mails and 250 Internet "hits" a day. You can tune in at /Broadway/1173. Or you can hit the 47th Street Theatre. Gideon's waiting for you. So are the others.

-- By Jerry Tallmer

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