Thursday, April 27, 2017

25: A Premature Retrospective gets its first official review.

Thanks to Theater Pizzazz!

"...these two charmers were retrospecting through a totally refreshing evening with some great material."

"Blake Zolfo self-confidently lures an audience in."

"Mr. Zolfo proved himself to be not only sweetly funny with a strong, beautiful voice, but a guy who holds back a little and sticks with the emotional truth of a moment."

“'He Was Too Good to Me' (Shirley Horn) and ”Manhattan” (Sara Bareilles)—“I’ll tiptoe away so you don’t have to say you heard me leave”—were subtle and riveting."

"A strong vocal team... beautiful harmonies."

"The concept was clear: Blake, 25 years old, is too young to retrospect and Steve, on piano and vocals, sardonically supported the retrospective. But along the way, one realized that in our Justin Bieber world, 25 is older than 15; and our culture is good at assigning failure at any age."

Steve Schalchlin, Brandon Flynn, Blake Zolfo.


 







Saturday, April 22, 2017

Playing Music.



Though I do read music, I hate playing scores. My mind sees the notes that comprise the chord on a page and will fight to play anything except those actual positions, preferring to find my own chord spellings.


However, entering rehearsals on this show with Blake Zolfo -- they've asked us to return next month, May 25th -- I dutifully tried to learn how to play music he brought in. Particularly, his tap number, "What's The Point?", by John Kander and "Dreamscape" by Stephen Schwartz. Lots of notes on those pages. I drilled and drilled every morning, wanting Blake and Andy Gale, our director, to be proud of me. Wanting to get them "right," as if John and Stephen would be there in the room grading me.


(If I hit all the notes, do I get an "A"?).


But, to be honest, in rehearsal, I sucked. By having to stick so closely to the score, all the life was drained from my performance. It's just not how I play.


So, finally, in a desperate attempt to not sound terrible, I typed out the words, wrote out the chord names over the top, and threw out the score, preferring to improvise.


And the result was magical. Suddenly, they were vibrantly alive. Musical friends wondered where I had "gotten" those very sophisticated yet soulful new arrangements. Marveled at how "specific" and "innovative" it all sounded.


I didn't know how to tell them I was just making it all up on the spot because I couldn't play them the real way. The only conclusion I can come to is that, over these 63 years, I've developed a "style." It's reflected in the songs I write.


It also explains why, over the years, I struggled with writing out scores for my own songs. I almost never play them the same way twice. This can be disconcerting for a performer who needs a consistent arrangement. I might write out an arrangement and, the next day, think, "I would never play that."


But, when you're dealing with a real musician/singer like Blake, who immediately goes with the flow and feels the music, and is able to also be improvisational "in the moment," it means, for the audience, we're all getting a totally unique moment. A new show every night.


In many ways, I miss getting work, probably, because I don't have conservatory training and learned most of my skills in various bands, but I also feel sorry for musicians who cannot do this. Who cannot play a note unless it's all written out for them. Who don't understand "feel."


Last night, according to everyone I trust, and perfect strangers, was a complete triumph. Both Blake and I felt at ease, the audience was screaming at us like we were the Beatles or Beyonce, and yet, we had moments of perfect silence, helped immeasurably by the obviously well trained waiters at the Metropolitan Room, who never disturbed a single moment.


Cabaret is tricky. People want to hear songs they know, but they also want a fresh take, new material if possible, and human interaction. The art of it, when done correctly, makes you feel, at the end, as if you know the person on the stage, that they've opened up their hearts, generously.


By all accounts, this happened last night. And now we do it again in a month. I hope, if you weren't able to make it, that you come this next time.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

BroadwayWorld announces Friday night's show

Worst Song Title Ever

Last night at dinner with our friend, Mary Jo Catlett, who is in town for the opening of "Hello Dolly" with Bette Midler, the waiter told us of the most romantic moment he had with his new beau: When the boyfriend said, of the site where they met,

"I'm gonna delete my account for you. Would you delete yours?"

Our waiter responded to him, "Yes! I had already decided to delete mine!"

And now a year has gone by for them.

As a songwriter, I'm sitting there thinking, "I would delete my account for you," is the worst idea for a song hook ever.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Blake and Steve at the Metropolitan Room on April 21.


Come have fun with us!

Blake Zolfo & Steve Schalchlin in
25! A Premature Retrospective

A cabaret directed by Andy Gale

April 21, 2017
7pm
The Metropolitan Room
34 W. 22nd St. NY NY
Phone: 212-206-0440

LINK FOR TICKETS

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Frederick Douglass, Rise Up!





Recorded live. St. Clement's Episcopal Church, NYC, Sanctuary Choir. Vocalist: Steve Schalchlin. Music & Lyrics by Steve Schalchlin. Video by Jim Freeman & Steve Schalchlin. Fr. Jeff Hamblin, priest. Darryl Curry, Minister of Music.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Frederick Douglass and Religion.

A week ago, we sang the Frederick Douglass song I wrote. The video will be available soon. And just when I thought I was done...

I performed a speech of Frederick Douglass' in church this past Sunday. I hadn't planned it. It was the speech about slavery and religion -- and how the religious leaders of the time -- so blithely accepted discrimination with a Biblical defense. And I spent the whole week memorizing it.

Christian leaders were on the forefront of maintaining this cruelty. But... many were not.

He used Christianity as one of his main sources for arguing, logically, for the end of slavery. He also knew the Constitution and used it in his arguments. He was a devout Christian.

So why bring up slavery and religion? Aren't we nicely over it? I can tell you why. It's in the DNA of our country and our faith. Until I read Douglass, slavery wasn't real to me. Yes, I had seen images of floggings, etc. I understood the human physical suffering.

It's the mental anguish that is the true torturer. A whipping ends. The mind endures. The shame, humiliation, degradation. When you read the words in the mind of an ex-slave, you may not have been through his experience, but you will know those feelings, if you are a creature with any kind of compassion.

We have all felt those things. Now, imagine them going on all day, every day. Never could I have told my family, back when I was in the closet, what was going through my head. They probably just thought I was weird or selfish (which I am, too, but that's not today's topic).

I felt from another world entirely, but I was dancing in this one. Desperately trying not to get found out. It was the 60s and 70s. Though much had changed, acceptance and understanding for those "of my kind" simply didn't exist in the bubble of east Texas.

Not blaming anyone. Not shaming anyone. None of you (back then) could have known. I was a very good liar because I used religion to enforce the lie. It's a type of self-help thing attached to the idea of miracles. If you live the "miracle" "as if" it were true, then it would become true. So, it wasn't a lie if I "stepped out on faith." I just pretended.

It's not the same thing as slavery. It's not the same thing as racial prejudice.

So when I get into the mind of a brilliant thinker who began as a slave, I get as close as I can get. Only a fool, I would tell myself, would turn away from this kind of insight, wisdom and knowledge.

What makes the Douglass journey so rewarding is that he handled it all with genuine wit. He could laugh at it while slicing it into ribbons. He could triumph because he had the mind to triumph.

He was free because he never accepted himself as anything but a full human being. A free mind can do anything. Once I let the chains of whatever is holding me back in my head loose; once they are cleared out, then suddenly there is clarity.

Just being inside his mind has changed me. And it's going to go on changing me because, as is written on a site dedicated to him "Every Month is Black History Month." And even more piercing, every month is also white history month. We are all the products of history.

So, I thank 45 for bringing him back to me. And for those of you who read this far, thanks for letting me occupy your mindspace with my thoughts.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Frederick Douglass Tribute.


On Sunday morning, Feb. 19 at 11am, we will attempt to bring Frederick Douglass into the beautiful chapel at St. Clement's Church with a new composition I've been working on. (Our choir is a highly trained, world class choir with magnificent voices and Broadway credits. I'd be a fool to not use them. I'm so excited. If you're planning to come, come early because we'll be in the tiny chapel rather than on the stage in the main theater).

For weeks, I have been obsessing over this great man, reading all his speeches and rereading his autobiographies. I feel wholly inadequate to the task, so I will have to pray for his spirit to rise up and guide me -- and us.

But the only way I truly know how to learn about him is to listen to his words as I say them aloud in my work sessions. Listen to the meticulously careful way he allows his deeply felt, pain and anger to be expressed. Graceful, humble, hilarious, truthful, gentle, unrelenting, credible, sometimes with sarcasm so subtle that it feels more like a loving parent's gentle rebuke and yet so pointed, a razor-sharp, ninja slice so deadly, that no logical argument against it, however brilliant and twisted, is even possible.

Naked, without his mother, alone on a dirt floor. He rose from the bottom of a corrupt society. He had nothing to lose. So he told the truth.

Imagine that. Someone who tells the truth.

In our day, and just as much in his day, clever people are/were able to use just enough of the truth to form an acceptable argument for those predisposed to the message. This happens on all sides. This is the human condition. This is not merely about politics. A good con man knows this.

This is who we are.

But every once in a while some voice comes along. And you know the voice is telling a truth that is grounded in a deeper place.

Someone with nothing left to lose, who has already seen the worst horror, has already lived the worst atrocity, there is nothing left that you can do to him except try to lock him up again.

The Fugitive Slave Act speech that Douglass gives, where he exposes the fact that this law returned the entire country into a slave state, meant that every word and every movement of his could land him in some hellhole, naked on a plantation in Mississippi or Alabama. (Though world famous, had a very angry and frustrated "owner.")

So he simply told the truth.

I experienced this myself when I thought I was going to die, 20 years ago. When I had nothing left to lose, when I knew that my end was coming, a different kind of chemical must've invaded my head from someplace deep inside because I can remember the exact moment when it went away, and I thought to myself, "Is this what life used to be like?"

And I've been chasing that state of mind ever since.

It is like a transcendent experience. No way to convey it it to you. Because there is only my memory of it. Then there is the description of my memory of it. Then there is your reception of the description of my memory of it. And finally, your conclusion about the reception of the description of my memory of it.

I have been yearning to find that state again. To accept my death so presently that I can get my those chemicals pumping back into my head again. That state of mind.

And I found it. I found it in the writings of Frederick Douglass. It is there. It is unmistakable. It is wise. It is final. It is thrilling. It comes from direct experience but it's only a state of mind. And everyone knows it when they hear it.

To be born again.

And it is there in the hand and the pen and the voice and the words and the spirit of Frederick Douglass.

How do you put that into a song?

Or maybe I should be asking myself what, besides music, can capture it?

And once again I shrink from the monumental task. How could I ever write anything that would be worthy? I wonder if Linn-Manuel Miranda asked himself these questions when he was reading about Hamilton? There must've been a moment when he said I know this guy.

I have not gotten there with Fredrick Douglass. And no, I'm not going to write a musical where I portray Frederick Douglass. White people playing black people has already been done and it doesn't really work for me.

But if he is watching me and guiding me, which he literally is because his words are right there in front of me, then the best I can do is just tell the truth. The only way I know how. With utter simplicity and a piano.

And I do have one thing working in my favor.

A deadline.

Thank God for deadlines.

#FrederickDouglassRiseUp #BlackHistoryMonth

Thursday, February 02, 2017


Rise Up, Frederick Douglass.

The autobiographies of Frederick Douglass are FREE.

They are also be the most harrowing, the most lovely, the most forgiving, the most thrilling and the most important books I have or ever will read about the American experience.

Ten years ago or so, while trolling through the "free books" online, randomly enjoying all this new accessibility, I found them. I had heard of Douglass, but like most people, I knew very little about him. I wasn’t researching anything. They were free! That was the promise of this new connectivity.

They weren't easy to read because, at the time, the only copies I could find were photos of the pages in a low-rez pdf.

If you've seen or read "12 Years A Slave," it was nothing compared to what Douglass endured. And then he was friends with Abraham Lincoln.

Born in a shack, naked for much of his early childhood. Illegal for him to be taught. Torn from his mother, who hiked miles every night to hold him just for a moment and then hiked back to start her day as a slave on another plantation.

Started learning when he looked at the master kid’s lessons, surreptitiously. Traded lessons for favors with poor "white trash" kids. Beaten nearly to death multiple times. Then he escaped, helped by an abolitionist.

When he first spoke to an abolitionist group up north, he reports that many/most thought he was like a trained monkey, reciting words that had been given to him. Even those opposed to slavery still had no clue that Black people had minds and brains, and could even be smarter than the self-satisfied White people who lived then (and now).

Faced with his towering intellect, they suddenly realized they were not the smartest people in the room, and they didn't know how to process this.

He should have been the president after Lincoln. Imagine that as an alt-universe.

I’m glad President Trump stumbled over this. It might seem a small thing to those who support him. And who knows? Maybe I’m misjudging him. Maybe he knows all about Frederick Douglass. Maybe that’s just the way he talks. I’m willing to give him benefit of the doubt.

But what I really think needs to happen is for people to learn about Frederick Douglass.

Look in that mirror.

And if you don’t see yourself and your own humanity, go back and pick up his book and read it again.

His story is the epic I’ve been wanting to see dramatized for a decade now. I don’t think I can write it. But I know I can write about him. In fact, I just did.

I think he can teach us a lot more than any of us even know. Thank you, Mr. Trump. Without you, Black History Month would be little more than a series of Google doodles.

Rise up, Frederick Douglass.

Rise up.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Prospero's Kidney Stone.

In class yesterday, I was doing a speech from Prospero which evoked deep feelings of mortality. It all felt so intense, I had to leave class after doing the scene.

But, actually, I was passing a kidney stone. I think I'm still passing it. I know the little tickle well. Thankfully, I'm not in pain. Just discomfort, like when you kind of sit on one of your balls and it didn't hurt so much as just cause a lingering ache, and you can't quite find a way to sit that doesn't feel like you're squeezing it again.

So today, I must drink lots of lemon water and convalesce. And pee.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Violence of the Tongue.

Ridicule of your opponent is strictly forbidden in a legitimate peace movement. #MLK called it Violence of the Tongue.

This is why it's ineffective in persuasion.

#MLKday #peace #nonviolence #resistance #soulforce

Faithless Love - Blake Zolfo & Steve Schalchlin

Listen to us sing! One final show on Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 7pm at The Metropolitan Room.