BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
I'm a man on a mission. A mission to convince everyone I meet that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way.

I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City. That is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. (In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better.) Accepting my death changed me. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle.

Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album (selling 10s of copies), headlining to a sold out house at a major night club in New York City and played the lead role in a staged reading of a play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve [SHACK-lin].

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rufus Finds TLS Tasty.

Today, I'm laid up with a sore throat. Luckily, I was able to slide into my doctor's office between appts. to get a test and a prescription. So, all is well. I just have to stay still, warm and quiet. But, I was feelin' a big down when I saw this:
That adorable face belongs to a Rufus, who lives with a friend of mine, J.R. Stuart, an acting coach at Indiana University Southeast, an actor, producer, director and god knows what else -- we ALL have to be all of those things in this business. Apparently, Rufus loved it. He commented, particularly, on sweet insouciance of the binding glue.

With the renewed attention coming to TLS by the London production, I'm starting to get more and more inquiries -- especially from people in college towns. TLS has great educational value about AIDS and does it in a humorous and entertaining, almost family friendly way. Maybe not for young kids, though I remember the 10 year old in Laguna who sat in the front seat, riveted.

When Rob Harris asked me what I "saw" for a London production, I told him he could do it on a street corner with a banjo, if that's all he had. Meaning, spend as little or as much on the physical production as you want. Or as famed songwriter Marilyn Bergman once said at an ASCAP musical theater workshop, when a writer was describing how the stage would move, and where the lighting would hit, "Don't talk to me 'set!'"

It's about the words and the music, and the great characters -- and, finally, the actors themselves, who will take it away from all of us every night, transforming it through their eyes. It's very exciting to even think about!

I remember, back in L.A., I was being interviewed by a writer for a local AIDS newsletter. When I told him that not only did I survive by writing these songs, but that the show would be opening in New York in a few months. His jaw hit the floor.

He said, "Do you know how many people have drawers full of plays that have never been seen on a stage? Who've been writing for years. And you're opening in New York?"

At the time, it seemed like such a natural progression, I hadn't really thought about it like that. Doesn't EVERYONE get their musical produced in New York, Off-Broadway? I think I was too sick at the time to give it that much thought.

But the highest honor is knowing Rufus found us chewy delicious.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Remembering the Plague.

This new production of The Last Session brings back a lot of painful memories. Andrew Sullivan has been discussing this on his blog.
People forget that HIV decimated the immune system - but people actually died from the opportunistic infections. These "OI"s were something out of Dante's Hell. So many drowned to death from pneumocystis. Or they would develop hideous KS lesions, or extremely painful neuropathy (my "buddy" screamed once when I brushed a bedsheet against the tip of his toes), or CMV where a friend of mine had to inject himself in the eyeball to prevent going blind, or toxoplasmosis, a brain degenerative disease where people wake up one day to find they can't tie their shoe-laces, and their memories are falling apart. Within the gay community, 300,000 deaths amounted to a plague of medieval dimensions. Once you knew your T-cells were below a certain level, it was like being in a dark forest where, at any moment, some hideous viral or bacterial creature could emerge and kill you. And for fifteen years there was nothing to take that worked, just the agonizing helplessness of waiting to die, and watching others get assaulted by one terrifying disease after another.
300,000 deaths. No immune system. Death coming in the form of an unknown virus or bacteria that might suddenly arise.

Pneumocystis is what nearly killed me. My t-cells, where "normal" is 1200, were at about 40. Or less. It's hard to remember. After 21 days of I.V. pentamidine, which ruined the taste in my mouth and had me nauseous the whole time, usually lying in a zoned-out daze until the day Jim took me home, hardly able to stand -- a barely animated skeleton, I had to relearn how to walk.

But that's not the story. The story is about the resurrection, the comeback.

In The Last Session, the character of Gideon wants to end his life. It takes place in 1996, just before the drug cocktail. There were few therapies that would work, and for a few months. He is exhausted from the fight. All he wants is control over his life. Control over when to bow out. Though he's hiding this decision from his friends, it's hard not to think that he called them together for more than just a goodbye session.

For me, I never felt suicidal. Not like that. I credit my friends for this. They simply wouldn't let me go.

But how sad to imagine that if I had been like Gideon, if I had killed myself, I wouldn't be here to have seen The Big Voice or Zero Hour or, not, this hot new production. I am so anxious and excited to see that they will do with it.

People have asked me how much involvement Jim and I will have, and the answer is very little. Since Rob Harris, the producer, told me he saw the original production, he understands the piece. He'll keep it on track.  I feel totally safe with him involved.

I also had a great meeting with Tom Turner, the young musical director. He is a brilliant pianist and singer, himself. In fact, he came and sang with us in the sanctuary choir at Christ Church Bay Ridge, while he was here. And I couldn't tell you about any of it! He and I had a great chance to thumb through the songs, and he was terrific. He seemed to "get" the style immediately.

That leaves Guy Retallack, the director. He's going to be approaching this from a totally fresh perspective. He and the others have asked us a few questions about how we approached certain moments -- and I sent them all additional notes about the characters, but we told them to feel free to follow their own vision. My sense is that Guy wants to make it as real as possible, perhaps eschewing some of the theatrical conceits we've used over the years.

IOW, a grittier, more real type of approach. And I say go for it. Try anything. Put it in front of an audience and see if it works.

Truth is, I've been involved in many bare bones productions where we did much the same thing -- mostly because we had no choice. Sometimes, all we had were a few lights and some music stands. It will be interesting to see this choice done with a first class lighting and production team.

Because The Last Session was born from truth.

You don't have to pretend. Just play it and the people will respond.

They always have.

And, best of all, (for me, anyway), I'm here to see it!

Monday, June 18, 2012

"The Last Session" will open in London, Fall 2012.


In a brand-spanking new production, Climar Productions in London will produce the first U.K. production of "The Last Session." Ticketing info. The Playbill story.

This is news I've been sitting on for months, dying to tell everyone. But it's not just bad luck to announce something too early, if there's a glitch of some kind before the last "i" is dotted, you just end up disappointing everyone.

Even though it's been 15 years since it debuted Off-Broadway, I get emails and random handshakes (when out and about) from people I never knew who tell me that the show had a profound impact on them that has resonated through the years.

One of these people is a guy -- a producer in London -- named Rob Harris.

Rob wrote us a few months ago, saying that back in 1997, he and his partner, Simon, were visiting from London. Simon had gone to see a show that Rob -- who was a young agent back then -- wasn't interested in, so he wandered over to the TKTS booth to see what was discounted on the boards.

As he stood in line, he said someone came over and gave him a flyer to The Last Session. Rob looked it over and decided to see it. He tells me he was so taken by the piece, he took Simon the next night. And he loved it even more.

These days, the TKTS booth is a tourist attraction, surrounded by marketing teams handing out coupons and tickets to shows and attractions in New York City. Back then, there were only a few. So, our team of producers and creators each took turns, myself included. Who knows who handed him that flyer? It could have been me!

"I decided that day," he said, "that if I ever become a producer, I would produce this show."

Last year, he saw that dream come true, producing, to great acclaim, a musical called "Thrill Me, The Leopold and Loeb Story."

And then, out of the blue, we get his note about producing TLS.

It'll be interesting to see how people take to it after 15 years. Back then, though we had a healthy run, many people avoided the show because the pain of the AIDS crisis was still fresh. Now, it's a moment in history. A snapshot of an era.

Thanks, Rob. It's so nice to know that TLS lives.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Mark Evanier's Nail-Biting Ray Bradbury Story.

If you are a comic book geek, or were ever a Ray Bradbury fan, or comic book geek, especially in the 50s/60s/70s, (or both!) Mark Evanier is recounting a story about a historic meeting he precariously arranged with the late Ray Bradbury and horror comic publisher, Al Feldstein (and Julius Schwartz).

It starts here, continues here and here. And he's left us at a fabulous cliffhanger.

EDIT: Which now here in part 4.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Zachary Maitlin is going to be a star.


Zachary Maitlin as Oliver. Irish Rep benefit at the Shubert.
I was standing in Shubert Alley just after the Irish Rep's annual big musical all-star fundraiser, held at the Shubert Theater. Two friends of ours from Chicago were in, visiting. Two highly talented directors.

Zachary Maitlin, Charlotte Moore,
Music Director Mark Hartman.
"Where did they find that kid?" he asked." I never see this show done by someone so naturally himself. Usually it's done by some older boy who's small, and who's a real Broadway type." Meaning, someone who looks "trained."

Zachary had this unabashed ability to just stand and be himself. Quiet. Unassuming. Real. Would that we all had the ability to just stand and be ourselves, quiet and unassuming.

I thought, wait. That sounds like the bonus round! How can a kid this young already be in the bonus round? Or is this how we start, and then we circle back around and find it again?

(Anyway, for the record, I'm not professionally associated with this kid, nor is this some kind of publicity stunt for anyone. I don't know if he had a manager or an agent, or they just found him. But these benefits rarely get press or reviews. In the case of the Irish Rep, they do this once a year. Find a great old musical and stage it with full orchestra and Broadway stars. And I thought, if he really is just a kid, this will give the relatives something to coo over.)

Jim Brochu, Zachary Maitlin, Dewey Caddell.
This is a benefit Jim loves doing. A couple of years ago, "Brigadoon." He wanted to do it last year, but he was doing "Zero" out of town.

For us, too, it feels like a family affair. Mark Hartman, the musical director is not just a friend and one of the most skilled and talented men in New York, but he also manages to be one of the kindest people in the Broadway community, a trait he shares with Brian Stokes Mitchell, who was playing Fagin. Brian, or Stokes, and we go way back to Los Angeles and a musicals writing course we took together one summer.

I don't know Melissa Errico or James Barbour that well, so I can't speak for them. I don't need to. Their powerful performances spoke for themselves. That same friend who noticed Zachary said, "I never realized how good she is. I guess she just needs that one starring vehicle."

The list of first class musicians who would do anything for Mark, like learning, rehearsing and then performing in a benefit on their night off, countless. This is why nights like this are so special. This is why fans fly in from all over the country just to donate their time in the chorus. Included in this fabulous ensemble, was an entire boys choir from Philadelphia en route to sing for a Nobel Prize winner's presentation, the Keystone State Boychoir.

Since I came to musicals later in life, "Oliver" was not really a part of my cultural DNA, though I was vaguely aware of the big songs from the show, "Food, Glorious Food" and "As Long As He Needs Me," I don't think I ever really saw it. I remember the movie, kinda.

What you cannot describe is how these songs sound with the full orchestra. Those strings! Wow, I can feel them in my body! It's so rich and full and natural and real. All those voices filling the theater.

Good guys. Bad guys. Bad girls turned good and murdered for it. And Jim Brochu coming in at the last minute and saving the day. What could be be bad?
John Treacy Egan and Kathy Fitzgerald achieved the impossible:
They stole the show completely away from the children.
rehearsing "Oliver!" Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012
James Barbour, Zachary Maitlin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lance Chantiles-Wertz
rehearsing "Oliver!" Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012

Brian Stokes Mitchell rehearsing as Fagin in "Oliver!"
Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012

Melissa Errico
rehearsing "Oliver!" Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012
James Barbour murders Melissa Errico.
rehearsing "Oliver!" Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012
Jim Brochu and Zachary Maitlin rehearsing "Oliver!" Irish Rep benefit. Shubert Theater NY 2012

Curtain call of the Irish Rep benefit Shubert Theater NY 2012
From my seat in the upper right corner of the Loge.
And, no, I did not shoot, nor try to shoot any video, so don't ask. 
After the show I stood in Shubert Alley. Then we went across the street to Sardi's. Jim has known Max, the owner, who began there as a dishwasher and is the coolest human being alive, for 40 years.

Shubert Theater 2012.

Shubert Alley.

"Hey, we're not on the bus!"
That's Broadway's legendary John McMartin at Sardi's after the show posing with Jim Brochu.
He is referring to an incident on a city bus. The day our incredible New York Times review
came out for "The Big Voice: God or Merman?"
He was reading it just as we stepped on -- he was headed to his own matinee --
 and he said something like "Kings of New York!"
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Jim chat after the show.
There is a picture of myself with my longtime TLS fan (and friend), TeKay TK. But it's on his camera. I'll post it when he sends it to me.

And that was our big day. And all through this, Jim is suffering from back pain, a pinched nerve in his shoulder blade that runs all the way down to his pinky. Stokes said he had the same thing. So, he showed Jim some exercises, and I get to be the nurse!

In fact, I think I hear my patient calling. Pardon me, Ethel. I'm wanted in surgery.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Calling Out Kolecki.

I stood up at choir rehearsal yesterday morning, interrupting the gentle, friendly chatter of the singers, just after Mark -- our conductor -- stepped out to find copies of some ancient hymnal, the only one that contains a certain arrangement of a song written in 1855, which Fr. Hamblin had designated as the communion hymn. (The hymn, btw, was musically complex and just gorgeous, written by Bonar, which fellow tenor Stephen Wilde and I decided he wrote just to counteract the effect of playground ridicule he must have endured for having a name that sounds like boner -- which will give you the 'tenor' of our level of humor).

In a very stern, sober voice, I loudly proclaimed, "If anyone here finds a piece of sheet music with the name 'Kolecki' on it, it is to be immediately destroyed! Do not sing it! Do not even touch it!  I came in here and saw a Psalm with Paul Kolecki's name on it! I'm the court composer here! And I'm calling you out Kolecki! What is going on behind my back??"

Paul Kolecki (a young singer and writer who came to the choir through Mark Janas' opera community outreach program at Manhattan School of Music; we are also in Andy Gale's acting class together) rose from the bass section, doubled up his fists and challenged me to a Psalm-down.

"Okay, buddy, we're on!"

By this time, the choir was laughing at us, knowing we were putting them on.

But what Paul and I -- and fellow choir member, Stephen Elkins -- are doing is trying to find fun ways to incite each other to compose more music.

A bro-down throw-down!

Plus, the image of characterizing the writing of sacred music like a professional wrestling match is an image that makes me laugh.

"I guess we're going to have to have a kyrie-off and a sanctus-off, you bastard!"

I wonder if we should design garish gym-locker type posters.


UPDATE: In the subway after church, "Kolecki" walked up and really threw down. He said, "A shack is a poorly built structure that can be blown down by the buzz of a blow-fly." I had no response. I'd been made.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Please join us for Mark Janas' 60th B'day Party & Fundraiser. June 9th.

As many readers of this blog know, my friend and musical mentor and teacher, Mark Janas, recently had brain surgery. And we want to support him and celebrate him through his recovery. If you know him or have ever worked with him, RSVP for the party and come on down. GREAT entertainment is planned, including Jim Brochu and myself doing a couple of songs from The Big Voice: God or Merman?, for which Mark helped me edit the score.


Theater review: Potted Potter, the unauthorized Harry experience.

Potted Potter, the unauthorized Harry Experience, which just opened at the Little Shubert here in NY, from several years touring England and Edinburgh, with its original cast of Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, is the kind of family-friendly/adult-friendly show that is so proud of its silliness, you get swept up in the fun of it all, even if you're a 58 year old man who gave up reading the series at about book four. (The conceit of the show is that they promise to condense the entire series down to 70 minutes.)

When I arrived at Potted Potter and saw that I was surrounded by kids I thought, "Oh, dear. This is going to be a long afternoon." I mean kids and theater? I could just imagine the chaos ahead of me as the kids start running in the aisles or bawling or whining or crying.

Nightmare in Diagon Alley.

I was wrong. And here's why.

The kids got all the jokes. Not only did they get the jokes, along with a few ridiculous references to Lord of the Rings and Mary Poppins, but they were enraptured because Dan and Jeff, the actors and writers, skillfully made them feel like they, the kids, knew more than the adults -- and that if they got lost, the kids would steer them back. And "Potter" is filled with a great many plot complications and heavy themes.

As the two men make their way through the volumes wearing silly dime store costumes and constantly fumbling the storylines, the kids around me were riveted. At one point, when Jeff seemed to not remember a certain complexity to an arcane plot point, a kid maybe 7 or 8 years old, corrected him. Loudly. And Jeff just went along for the ride.

And perhaps that's really what makes this show successful. Yeah, it's a silly as a dog wearing a chicken suit, but it's so eager to please, you can't help but get swept up in the laughter.

We even get to all play a game of Quidditch!

How? Well, why spoil the fun. Let's just say that it's as decidedly low tech as the rest of the show, and by the time they dragged some little kid out of the audience, they had dragged it out of all of us.

Jim Brochu being silly behind British producer of Potted Potter, James Seabright.
Since James Seabright is a friend of ours, I thought perhaps my opinion might have been a little tilted. I always want my friends to do well. But, after the opening, the next morning, there was a brilliant little rave in the New York Times.

Well done!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

68th Annual Theatre World Awards.

Brian Stokes Mitchell singing at the 68th Annual Theatre World Awards.
What a pleasure it was to attend the Theatre World Awards, the warmest awards show in town.. We had tickets for the balcony, but we're too big to sit in most Broadway seats very comfortably, so Jim said, "Let's sneak into a box."

Normally, I hate box seats. I want to be out front. You hardly see the actors' faces in a box seat. So, like a scene from a Lucy Show, we crawled into the closest box seat to the stage. The Belasco Theater looked like this from our vantage point:



And then this was posted to Facebook:
Jim Brochu & Steve Schalchlin at the Theatre World Awards.
Photo posted by Xanthe Elbrick on Facebook.
That's actually her in the photo just above us. So, I don't know who snapped us.
I grabbed our camera and, turning off the flash, started taking pics of the stage, which, as you can see, was right below us.

Though we wore a coat and tie, these awards are not intended for the glamorous crowd. It's a very particular award and you can only get it once because it's awarded for the most outstanding Broadway and Off-Broadway debuts of the year. There are no nominations and no stress. They choose six men and six women given to them by either a castmate or someone associated with the recipient.

Meaning, the stories were all personal and intimate. The acceptance speeches, short and also personal.

Philip Seymour Hoffman giving an award to a cast mate of "Death of a Salesman"...
...Finn Wittrock who I remember from "All My Children."
Saw him later at the party and said how much I enjoyed him on that show.
The awards were started 68 years ago by John Willis, who published the essential annual volume, "Theatre World," which contains listings and photos from all the shows in a particular year. Several of the speakers said how they, living as a child in Virginia or the  midwest, would read and collect these like a Bible. One said, "I knew the names of every assistant stage manager of the smallest Off-Broadway shows."
The sly and precocious Peter Filichia hosted.
John Rubenstein giving an award.

Deaf actor, Russell Harvard from a play called "Tribes" that everyone is talking about.
The delicious Josh Grisetti who is in the current cast of RENT.

Brian Stokes Mitchell delivers a great song.
Victor Garber.

Jennifer Lim from "Chinglish."
Broadway heartthrob Jeremy Jordan for "Bonnie & Clyde."
That show closed but now he's in mega-hit Disney's "Newsies."
Unlike the flashier Tonys, this is the most "family" feeling awards show in town. I'm so glad we were able to go.

The great Leslie Uggams.

Crystal A. Dickenson from "Clybourne Park."

Afterwards, Jim talks to John Rubenstein.
Jim Brochu with Broadway star, Le Roy Reams.
Jim is holding the Theatre World volume where he first appeared.


Harvey Evans, Lee Roy Reams, Jim Brochu.

New York Morning Light.

Jim Brochu said, "You know. Whoever does the lighting for this city... Very well done."

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Queen Elizabeth is in the Bonus Round

You know, that's the new paradigm for life. You go and you go, do as much as you can. And then, at the end, nice and quick.

That was my doctor today.

Tests were good. A1c down to 6.3. That's good! You were up to 9. Cholesterol normal.

But the kidneys.

This combo you're on, he said, one of the three meds. I call it a poisonette. To the kidneys. Like chemo. In fact, it's just like chemo. The next wave of therapies are going to emphasize empowering the immune system.

Nothing to worry about just yet. Are you hydrating?

I tell him how I make my own sugarfree lemonade with truvia.

Come back in a month and let's look again.

He's talking about changing combos. I hate changing combos. He can tell.

It's nothing to worry about.

You go and you go in life, do as  much as you can. And then, at the end, take a bow wearing a fabulous hat.

 Photo on boston.com John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Image

Jason Mraz in the Bonus Round.

I like how he talks about having stepped up to the edge of suicide, but then thought, well, as long as I'm gonna die anyway, I might as well do everything I can. What's to lose? We all have to learn the lessons in life, one at a time. In the Bonus Round, together we're going it alone.

Monday, June 04, 2012

What A Scene Is About.

As I sat in Andy Gale's acting class, yesterday, I thought about a graphic on Facebook about beloved "Desperate Housewives" actress Kathryn Joost, who just passed away at age 72.


There was a time in this world's history when even LIVING to 42 was considered an accomplishment. That she began her career at that age is truly an example of Living in the Bonus Round. When most people have already set their life's course and have more or less planned the rest of their existence, she decided to begin hers.

I got up to do my "scene." I mentioned it before. It's the last speech in the play "As Is." By a hospice worker. The first time I read it out loud, I bawled like a baby and knew that it was a powerful "read." Half the other actors were also bawling their eyes out! And it more or less gave me hope that I wasn't going to make a fool of myself, starting my acting training at age 58.

But, then, after memorizing it, I stood up to deliver it and it felt pallid. Lifeless. Weak. Small. I still cried a bit, but perhaps because I wasn't reading it and discovering it for the first time, the emotions were gone. I could feel myself say the words, but I didn't feel present. Like a ghost was talking. And I felt physically awkward.

So, Andy had Jake stand up and punch at me while delivering the speech. He said the point of this was to get me to use my whole body when I talk. When I punched back at Jake, while saying the words, they stopped coming from my throat, in a wandering way, and became little missiles fired from my gut.

That exercise was very illuminating but I knew there was more to figure out.

Yesterday, when I got up, I still felt lost. He asked me, "What are you trying to accomplish in this scene? Who are you speaking to?"

Who? What? Well, um, it's the last scene in the play and I'm standing on a stage directly addressing the audience. I guess I'm talking to the audience.

"Sit down."

 So, we, the six or seven of us are sitting around a table.

This is Andy's advanced class. Watching these actors perform their scenes.. No. Watching what the actors do with their scenes after Andy's given them a little focus, a little direction, is magical. Each of them have skills that I know I have inside me, but have never really given much thought to. It's like the old saying, it's not what you don't know; it's what you don't know you don't know -- that's the most illusive thing.

"What action are you trying in this scene?"

I didn't really understand the question. My response was, "To make them understand what it feels like to be a hospice worker?"

"No. Trying to make someone understand something is the point of every scene. That's not an action."

I was confused. I couldn't think of anything.

One of the other actors said, "Well, for instance, an action would be -- not that would work in this situation -- that you're trying to seduce someone. So, the words in the speech are all aimed at getting the person in the scene to go home with you."

Andy's eyes went bright. "Try that!"

I must have looked absolutely lost.

Use a description of a hospice patient to seduce someone?

He designated one of the other actors to be my scene partner and I was to seduce him.

It's hard to know what I felt at that moment. I was thrilled with the idea of trying something. Anything new! It didn't hurt that my scene partner, Emanuel Abruzzo, is unbelievably talented and attractive. I feel like I was awkward doing it, but I started to get the point.

In the scene, the hospice worker expresses a great deal of pain and anger. People who experience pain and anger need comfort. My scene partner, Emanuel Abruzzo, who recently danced in the Jack Cole Project, was great helping me with the scene and trying to respond to my tentative line readings. Still, I felt like I had only skimmed the surface of what was supposed to happen.

But I saw it in action when a girl, Christine Bruno, who I hadn't met previously, did the same type of exercise with a scene she had chosen for that week. Again, with Emanuel. The writing was very poetic, and when she read it, as Andy finally remarked, it felt like we were at a poetry reading. (It was about time, and how time feels different to different people, depending on their life circumstance.)

So, Andy had her do the scene again, but this time, as a person who's on the verge of committing suicide, and who is reaching out to someone at that moment. And, suddenly, not only did the words about the meaning of time come alive, but the actress came alive. It was stunning. Absolutely mesmerizing.

Yeah, she wanted to be "understood." But why? In order to find a reason to live.

I love the Bonus Round.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

54 Below is a Cut Above.


Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
It was just a trial night, not even a soft opening. Some drinks were available; a sampling of (delicious) finger food. And a kick-ass band trying out the new stage, with its expert lighting design and perfectly balanced sound system that managed to be fully present without being too loud to hear every word and every syllable of the singer.

And when the singer is Terese Genecco and her Rat Pack era swing band (piano, bass, drums, sax, trumpet & slide trombone--The Little Big Band) expertly kicking ass, you don't want to have to worry about whether you can hear her. Or whether she can hear herself. You don't want the brass overwhelming the piano or the singer. And, by Jove, they've made a perfect listening space.

This night, Jim and I were just a few of the friends allowed to sit, watch, eat and drink in "54 Below," a stylish and sumptuous new cabaret space about to open, yesterday profiled in the NY Times. (Go there for more great pictures and to read more about the room).

It's my one bone to pick with most of the cabaret spaces and clubs in this city, aside from most of them being too expensive for regular show folk to hang out at: They simply weren't designed with music in mind. You either can't see or hear the band properly. The entertainment and stage area always seems to have been the very last thing they thought of. As if, all they were thinking about were table cloths and the bar, and "Oh, yeah. Why don't we put the band over there in the corner?" (At Feinstin's, for instance, the room is so narrow, the more than 2/3 of the audience is to the side and back of the performer).

But the owners of this club hired Broadway designers (Tony Award winning John Lee Beatty, designer; architect Richard H. Lewis) to both lay out the room and do the lighting and sound. The minute you walk into this place, you feel like you're in a movie set come to life.

As if a speak-easy from the Prohibition era had suddenly been liberated and given a once-over. The walls are filled with black and white photos of flappers and prohibitionists. Even the men's bathroom was black-tiled and filled with illustrations and cartoons from the 20s.

The rich woodwork and leather gave the room a comfortable, warm feeling. So much more welcoming than the industrial coldness or Japanese spareness that leaves you feeling like you can't lean back without breaking something. Oh, yeah. And the chairs are comfortable and padded, just like the table tops. No clinking of glass or noisy tops here.

Why doesn't every club owner think like this when they open a place? Why would you spend all the money it takes to launch a new club, and then neglect the one thing the people are coming there to see, the show? Because restaurateurs are used to thinking about the food and beverage service. It's what they know. For too many of them, they think of the entertainment as being that annoying part of the night where it's too loud to hear the customer's asking for more drinks. We're not even as important, to them, as the signage.

Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times
So, you see, for me to be talking atmosphere and design is something. I know it counts. But, as a musician, the only thing I was concerned about was the band. The sound. The lighting.

And if I had only seen the stage and heard the band, that's what I would have imagined the club's owners to have most thought of. For instance, the ceiling is high enough that the band is elevated. You don't have to look around someone else to see the singer. No heads in your way.

Behind the band, is a textured wall with lights shining up, able to cycle through every color in the spectrum. There are lighting instruments in front, on the sides and providing back-light.

Next week, they open with Patti LuPone. If you are one of her many ardent fans, I would tell you to fly across the country to see her here. You will feel like you're in her living room, like she could lean down and whisper in your ear. 

They're also planning late night music with no cover, no minimum. Meaning, working show folk can drop in after their own shows, and can afford to come and hang out. In fact, the bar area is situated over to the side, so that you could have a great conversation with someone and never interfere with the entertainment or people trying to listen to the entertainment.

Because the club is situated right below Studio 54 (where the wonderful old Jimmy Stewart vehicle, "Harvey" is playing starring Jim Parsons from "The Big Bang Theory"), it's in a perfect location. West side. Theater district. (Too many other spaces are stuck over on the East Side, where most show people don't venture).

The other secret weapon in all this is programming director Phil Geoffrey Bond. He brought the Laurie Beechman Theater to great heights, and knows who all the most talented people in this town are. But the Laurie Beechman, while I love it, too, is small and a bit cramped with a tiny stage. 54 Below is wide and tall. You never feel you're underground. There's air to breathe! And world class performers!

So, why am I telling you all this? Because New York City needs great cabaret performance spaces. That's why. It's an artform in flux, because today it encompasses so much more than just the classic American songbook. It's a place where songwriters who write words that matter can be heard.

Or, more, it's where audiences LISTEN. It needs great listening spaces.

I want people to come to this and hang out, and see shows. I want it to survive. Hell, I intend to play this room. As much as I loved Therese, what I really wanted to do was jump on that stage with a band and kick some ass. So, I will! (They're going to be featuring "up and coming songwriter" nights. Sign me up!)