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, October 30, 2012

Skyping the London Cast Recording of The Last Session.

A hurricane was bearing down up on us when I got a call from TLS producer Rob Harris in London. He was there with the adorable Huw Allen, his associate producer. They were in Angel recording studios with John Yap, who is producing the JAY Records release of the original cast. Huw had just snapped a pic of them at their mics. 

The London cast of The Last Session recording their original cast album.
Also, he had Skype. So, we started chatting. And by the time it was over, I had attended the entire session, listening to the various takes, correcting a few lyrics and cheering them on. Since they had just finished their month-long run, they were a tight unit, and the fans will be able to hear the show they saw and heard sung on stage, with all the vocalizations and harmony intact.

Our goal was not to gussy it up, but to let them sing from the heart just like they had been doing all month.

Simone Craddock as Vicki. Darren Day as Gideon.
Photo: Doug Craib
And that means getting them in all their raggedy glory. 

The Last Session is supposed to be a bit messy. Unlike a lot of the hulking musicals one might see today, where the score is on a click-track and you all but see the exact same show every night -- like watching a movie, where, if they suddenly were playing a tape, you'd never know the difference -- TLS is raw and alive. 

Love it or hate it, it's a show where the actors are filled with genuine emotion. The issues and the pain run just deep enough that they know they're singing something real. Yeah, it's a kind of Vaudeville, too. But that's what gives it its power. Ultimately, you surrender to the fact that it's not plastic. Not artificial. It has flaws. Just like life.

The keyboard player is live and the singers are free to act their songs, varying the tempos night to night and letting the emotion of the moment sway their performances. 

AJ Dean as Buddy.
Photo: Doug Craib
The first time I heard AJ sing, it sounded like Ray Charles had walked into the room. This devotee of American music dresses like James Dean and plays in a rockabilly band when he's not acting. What took me by total surprise was how touching, honest, intense and focused he was as an actor. Like the other more veteran players, he is a completely present actor. 

His Buddy was as heartbreaking as it was authentic. He was singled out in many of the reviews. I'm thrilled for him. 

Lucy Vandi as Tryshia.
Photo: Doug Craib
Lucy Vandi is like a big prize in a small package. A very professional package. Not only is she a deeply sharp actress who can level Vicki with a raised eyebrow, but when the warm dark tones of her voice have you crying, she can, on a dime, suddenly rise up in a virtuoso brassy riff that knocks you on your ass, and then extends the note and the riff long past what seems like human capacity. And all of it perfectly on pitch.

I told her she's going to have every theater queen in the world falling at her feet when they hear how she ends "The Singer and the Song." It's an "I'm Telling I'm Not Going" tour de force that raises the hair on your head while managing to only sound like it's going to fly out of control, but instead comes in for a soft landing. Brilliant.

And she did it every single night. This woman is a star. I'm not even sure how they found her.

She told me that life for an actor is hard, and that she was really grateful to find Tryshia. I saw her process. She carefully constructed her solos, trying out things, one by one. Testing every possible variation. She had to. Much of "Singer and the Song," the big 11 o'clock number where the character "improvises" a song (structurally based on an earlier one, "Preacher and the Nurse"), I left in much room for improv.

 But the truth is that it's a very careful balancing act. It's the first time someone is singing something that hasn't, in the world of the play, been already written. We have to believe that she's doing it. And then we have to see her drag in the others, one by one, including making Gideon follow along on the piano.

And then deliver the big satisfying note.

And she does it.

And it's fantastic live.

This professionalism showed in the studio. Because we're recording it live, just like in the show, she had to do it several times. Every time, on the money. Wow. She may not be a diva off-stage (she's actually sweet as hell), but she can play one on a stage.

I treasure the time we spent together in the dressing room. We felt a kind of personal intimacy that, if a camera would have been on, would be been ruined. I would love to have had this whole experience video taped. But real life just can't happen on camera. Unless you are on one of those "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" shows.

Darren Day listening to playback.
Photo: Doug Craib
Since I didn't know Darren's work given the fact that he's mostly been on British TV and stage, I wasn't aware of his tabloid history, which the press teases him about. And I didn't know he'd been on the original British "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" show.

Several times, reviewers expressed complete shock at how soulful and quiet his performance is as a "gay songwriter." As one put it, his tabloid reputation precedes him, and they weren't remotely prepared to take him seriously. In fact, I heard someone ask if this was a joke.

But joke it was not. And as his reward, he's received the reviews of a lifetime. Even those who criticized the book or the music still admitted they were genuinely moved by the sweet stillness that comes through in his Gideon. Turned out that he's quite a good actor.

He never raises his angelic voice in anger and yet, he has a powerful presence that brings a quite center to the drama onstage. He's real. You totally believe him there. Every world-weary sigh. And there's a moment when he leans his head on Jim, and it's so touching. A simple gesture. Yeah, we do like Darren. And that makes us like Gideon. We don't want him to die.

This is how I've found him in person, too. A genuinely kind person. He said to me that this show is a kind of redemption for him. But I said that he was a redemption for the show. Two things coming back to life. Our little show and a one sweet survivor.

He sings Gideon's songs so well because he has lived them. Lived the emotions in them. He has looked into the eyes of death. He knows what post-life looks like and he doesn't want that. He has a beautiful wife, who I met and fell in love with, immediately and kids.

He wants to live. The tabloid guy that crashed the car into a tree did not.

And maybe that's why we are so very well connected. The exact right actor finding the exact right show at the exact right time. AIDS was/is my tree.

Many young actors here in the City despair because of how hard it is to make a living, get work, etc. And then how hard life is after you do get work. Traveling. Working long hours. Working nights. And they say they do all this but nothing is happening for them. Many find it intolerable and go into another line of work. If they're sane, anyway.

But when those years suddenly become valuable is when people can walk into a room filled with strangers, look at you, believe you, and be transported for two hours.

Timing is the uncontrollable element. You can take all the classes in the world, make all the connections, but when the right person finds the right role at the right time, it's like the Universe has moved them into position on some grand chess board for a reason. Maybe it's just to learn a little lesson. Maybe it's to inspire others.

Rob Harris just posted on Facebook that our tiny show raised $5,000 US for MAD Trust. The actors held buckets every night after the show.

In the case of Darren Day and The Last Session, if nothing more happens than the healing we've brought to each other -- in his case, saying "Yes" to the producers to do a little known musical about AIDS for very little money at a 68 seat fringe theater, even making him audition several times! giving us precious expensive press exposure we otherwise would not have gotten -- it would have all been worth it.

Music Director Thomas Turner.
Photo: Doug Craib
Because Tom Turner would be playing the score every night, it was mandatory that he understand the kind of Baptist Texas piano that I play. I don't play it intentionally, mind you. It's just what's in my bones. Blues and Redneck Gospel Rock with a touch of Country and a dash of early Elton John (because I did have a record player). HOW I play my music is not something easily expressed on a piece of paper. There has to be a certain feel that's inherently built in.

For instance, when I play the piano, I can also hear an imaginary drummer and bass who've been playing in my head for a very long time. I have to find a way to make people playing my music hear that drummer and bass or else it will sound like the first time I played "I've Got You Understand My Skin" in a public bar and didn't know to give it a swing feel because "play this in swing feel" wasn't written down on the sheet of paper.  I think it's just 4/4.

I don't call myself a "great" musician. I'd rather write music than drill it. But I have been playing since I was 7, and I'm 59 now. I have a few chops.

So how did Tom do? At the end of this session, he would show me his bloody fingers. We made the decision to record the show using a real piano rather than the synth keyboard that, by necessity, we have to use in the show. It makes a huge difference because now everything is organic and real.

But his performance was spectacular. It's almost weird to hear someone playing like you play. And then improvising new riffs that are totally consistent with your playing. Hey wait! You're not supposed to play me better than I play me!

This would really be put to the test later on in the session.

Ron Emslie.
Photo: Doug Craib
Producer Rob Harris was out at the pub one night for trivia night with Simon, his partner. Rob and Guy Retallack, the director, had been seeing actor after actor for the role of Jim. And you'd think that since it's largely an off-stage role, it'd be easy. But you'd be wrong. Rob knew exactly what he wanted, but he wasn't finding it.

So, he and Simon decided to stop in for a pint, play a little trivia, and just relax at a local pub. Rob immediately took notice of the guy who was the emcee, Ron Emslie. He was putting up microphones, hooking up cables, running the joint and was a hilarious master of ceremonies.

And he's also a classically trained actor who has worked on stage with many, of not most, of the greats.

(TLS TRIVIA: Ron Emslie was in the cast of the West End musical BUDDY, about Buddy Holly with Charles Esten, who played Buddy Holly. who is now on the new smash American TV series, Nashville, playing a singer/songwriter. Charles Eston also played the role of Buddy in the first LA workshop of The Last Session.)

And that's how Jim was found. Guy planned a much more active role for Jim. He felt we should see him more. And, it turns out, he's also a musician. So, we were able to work in some guitar on "At Least I Know What's Killing Me" and "Somebody's Friend."

Ron Emslie was a find. He's the perfect balance. He's completely real. Utterly real on stage. He comes out as the recording engineer, you know he's done this before. And he has an acid tongue for Jim's angry, witty interjections, usually aimed at Gideon. I still hear a bit of the British in him, so I decided that Jim is a British ex-patriot who Gideon met when he first went out on the road. Why not? LA is the land of dreams.

Simone Craddock.
Photo: Doug Craib
Simone had one of the hardest jobs, vocally. She had to find her own way of singing Vicki. Amy Coleman is rather iconic in the part among fans of the US productions. Amy and I still sing together on occasion and she's kicking hard in blues bands in New York.

Vicki's big solo is "Somebody's Friend," which is not only the angriest song in the show, but is a flat-out rocker. Amy had those Janis Joplin style pipes. Simone, however, does not have that kind of voice.

Unlike Darren's voice, which has echoes of Bob Stillman's angelic qualities, and AJ's Buddy, which at times finds that same soulful edge that brings Stephen Bienskie's voice to mind, Simone does not sound like Amy. She would have to find her own way.

At the first rehearsals during tech week, I was amazed at how she had managed to recast Vicki's voice into a country blues soulful vibe. Clear as a bell, but with an amazing dexterity to bend all over the notes, without it ever seeming flashy or showy. This was not an imitation of country singing. This was country singing.

She told me later that she is from Australia and that her dad played and sang in a country music group. And that she would sing with them.

Of course. You can't fake those things. It has to come from inside.

I suddenly remember that at the first photo shoot on the set, the photographer asked someone "How did you fin all these session singers who can act?"

Simone is also a veteran actress who has such ease on the stage, you can't look into those big, gigantic eyes and not be hypnotized. We flirted a lot together. I love this woman.

AJ Dean
Photo: Doug Craib
This is a very happy cast. They truly like each other and formed a very tight bond.
There in the back is John Yap of JAY Records, producing the session.
Photo: Doug Craib

Darren Day, unposed.
The main gay paper said he looks like a good-looking Elton John.
Photo: Doug Craib
Somebody's Friend took a trip to Chinatown.
Photo: Doug Craib


AJ and Tom prepare something special.
Photo: Doug Craib
Strictly for the fans, there will be a Bonus Track on the new cast album.

I'll give you a clue. It involves a song that is both sung and not sung.

Today, we take on Darren's solos. I will report back later.

BTW, they say the worst of the hurricane has passed. Lights went out from the Battery up to 34th street. We overlook 42nd street in Hell's Kitchen. So, we maintained lights and electricity and was spared the brunt force of the wind and floods that apparently have made a mess on the east and south parts of the island.

And the cat is fed.

Steve Schalchlin
Your Living in the Bonus Round correspondent
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