Musical theater veteran Darren Day will head the cast of the European premiere of The Last Session, featuring music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin and book by Jim Brochu with additional lyrics by John Bettis and Marie Cain. As previously reported, Guy Retallack will direct the production, which will play the Tristan Bates Theatre, September 25-October 27.
Set in 1996, the musical centers on Gideon, a gay songwriter living with AIDS, who enters into a recording studio intending to make a musical letter of farewell to his partner. An unexpected visitor named Buddy -- who shares Gideon's Christian faith but is thrown by his idol's sexuality -- changes the plan.
Day, who will play Gideon, performed in the West End and national tour productions of Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and the national tours of We Will Rock You and The Rocky Horror Show. TV credits include the role of Danny Houston in Channel 4's Hollyoaks.
All they talked about was his character, even though his other accomplishments in this life were vast.
He had the ears of the world’s leaders in politics, the arts, culture, education and religion. He had collected every popular artistic award possible and probably every community service commendation. He had more than a few iconic songs that everyone in the world knows, and he helped create one of the greatest and, at the time, revolutionary pieces of musical theater in history.
But this was the quote that hit me.
“When you were with Marvin, you liked yourself better.”
Maybe this quality was why, aside from his talent, that he was able to secure all this real world achievement, because performance art needs collaborators, and if people want to work with you because you make them happy to just be around you, perhaps there’s a great life lesson learned there.
But can one even learn this kind of kindness? This kind of innate rejection of the Me, Me, Me Syndrome that so many insist is necessary to make it in this business? Or is it just a magic combination, that genius and character can suddenly make an appearance in a human being. One whose character is as great as his genius when his genius is off the scale?
Here’s a story I heard:
If he detected an unhappy person in a room, he would personally find out how to put them at ease and make them feel included. No matter how small that person’s role in whatever proceedings were happening. He would, himself, go get some water or a tissue or whatever. He’d take that person aside.
He saw other people. In the room. They were as important, to him, as he himself was.
For preacher’s kids like me, this sounds very much like the image that’s presented of Jesus. But this memorial service was a synagogue. I had this same deja vu at a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio.
And now, here in this giant open room, a Manhattan upper east side temple, the person they were describing, if I were Catholic, was a capital-s Saint.
He was a genius who preferred playing to the folks in the cheap seats. To draw them into the arts.
His wife, Terre, told us that if she was stressing over something, and losing sleep, he’d jump up and down on the bed at six in the morning, writing and singing whole musicals about the problem, refusing to quit until both were cuddled together in convulsive laughter. (If I did this to Jimmy, just call homicide. First, for me. Followed by the person who dared me to do it).
The feeling of loss was palpable. It was so sudden. It came so unexpectedly.
Jim and I actually ran into him only a few weeks ago outside of 54 Below. We were headed to the open mic, which means it was Sunday afternoon..
The normally jovial Marvin seemed distracted and stressed; out of sorts. Jim congratulated him on the good word coming out of Nashville -- people are liking his musical adaptation of “The Nutty Professor,” which he is / was doing with Jerry Lewis. He mentioned the Liberace movie and mumble, “lots of work. lots of work.” And then he hurried off.
Jim remarked to me, “He didn’t look good.” No. He didn’t.
The place was packed. Oy, and what a place.
2500 people at least. Tall 20-story ceiling. Stained glass windows.
When we arrived, we joined our friend Russ Weatherford, and, at the door a boy said to us, “Center aisle.” He handed us a piece of paper. Now, at Catholic funerals, you usually get a little program. Who’s gonna speak, sing, etc.
This looked like a mimeographed copy of some lyrics. Something you might hand out at a 1980 rehearsal. “What I Did For Love.”
I thought, this is perfect. I had heard of a volunteer choir....
We made our way to the center aisle, but there was a line. Then Jim saw some empty seats over on the left, so we went back over the entered aisle left. Got up to the empty seats and there was a rope and security guard. Oops.
Suddenly, a woman we did not know came over and waved us in, “It’s okay.”
What was this VIP seating? No. It was family. How this woman knew our faces or even knew that we were included as family, I’ll never know. It was like a magic trick. Or maybe she let anyone in who asked.
We sat down. Suddenly, Jim saw Donna McKechnie there in the center aisle. He signaled her over. Her face broke out is a big grin and she joined us, me in the middle.
This was the GREATEST place to be.
A Chorus Line. Donna was there at the start of it all. She played an iconic role in his show. She danced an iconic dance.
“Look!” she said, leaning in front of me, Jim on the other side. “I just found this picture.”
I saw people on there I couldn’t identify. 70s style long hair. Clothes a little loud and flowery. Sideburns. Jim named them all. But one I remember.
Michael Bennett. The man who conceived it all. Who died of AIDS before the Crixivan suddenly started saving us. .
“Do you remember,” Jim asked Donna, (my sides were starting to sweat from the two bodies pushed up against mine, leaning across me), “I was in California and I called you and said I was coming to New York. And you said, ‘I have an extra ticket to A Chorus Line.’ And I asked, “What’s that?’ It was maybe the third performance. After it was over, I couldn’t move! I think you didn’t get the job.” [Meaning her character not getting the job. She played a star auditioning to be in the chorus of a show because she’s out of work and she’d rather just dance in the chorus than do nothing.. In the earliest incarnation, she doesn’t get the job.. They changed it, eventually. Audiences needed to see the win. We love her too much for her to fail.]
I remember seeing an an old archival video in black and white. Well, god bless youtube. This won’t duplicate the experience, but it’s a record of The Number. For readers who don’t like musical theater, you may not get the style of music, but the message and the passion about needing to do the one thing in life that you love the most is universal. In her case, to dance. And watch Donna’s head snaps.
Surrounding us in the side aisles was a volunteer choir of 600. Great people of the theater were in that choir, including Sheldon Harnick, my favorite lyricist in the world.
When they sang, the sound came from all sides. Rich and thick. An aural blanket that became like water, warming us.
It was chilling. It was heavy.
It was angelic.
I turned on my video camera to catch the music. Again, can’t duplicate the experience.
“Everyone who talks about A Chorus Line relives it as if they discovered it themselves.” Heard afterwards.
If that’s not the mark of an effective show, what else is? And now here we were in with an overflow crowd of admirers. But it was a different scene, the day before.
The wake.. I know the term wake, but somehow, I couldn’t remember if I’d ever been to one, even as the son of a country preacher. I tend to forget funerals.
And, since I let Jimmy handle the schedule of events for our lives, i.e. he drags me around as if I were a dizzy professor husband, I didn’t realize we had two separate Marvin events on the calendar.
Marvin Hamlish's casket at the wake.
Marvin Hamlisch’s wake was at a small funeral home on the east side. (We never go to the east side--too many canyons and expensive stores). We entered the small hallway. Men in black suits, white shirts and identical blue/black ties directed us forward to a small gathering room. From the foyer, we could see a room filled with flowers, mostly yellow in color. Several combination bouquets featuring lollipops and rainbows.
Four or five rows of pews faced the casket, which was just a few feet to our right, meaning we were entering the side of the room. The back of the room was to our left, so we walked that way, to the back of the center aisle, waiting for our turn to approach the casket. There was one party at the casket. We were next.
I saw what looked like 10 or so family members sitting in the front row. All the kids were dressed nicely and their hair combed. They seemed like typical kids. A little squirmy, but quiet. At the piano was a skinny young black-suited guy with white skin and a mop of windswept black hair casually playing Marvin’s music.
“Can it be that it was oh, so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?”
(I was puzzled by all this, of course, because I was expecting a huge crowd. Hadn’t I read there was going to be a big service? With big crowds and celebrities?)
Ahead of us at the casket were three ladies. They were huddled together and crying. We were the only ones waiting. (Where’s the big crowd?)
Finally, it was our turn. I noticed that the pews were mostly empty. We walked up the aisle. Two of the ladies had left. The other one turned to us.
I’ve never seen a more radiant face. We met on a theater themed cruise about 10 years ago, Jim and Marvin both did shows. It was Marvin’s wife, Terre. Jim said he and Terre hung out a lot on that cruise, and laughed. Now, they were hugging each other and crying.
I remember meeting Marvin on that cruise, but Jim is the one with the social skills. I think I probably just stared at him, goon-jawed. I feel much more like Barney Fife than Andy Taylor.
I noticed the flowers on the casket. Small yellow buds that cascade together into pile of color. “I like the flowers.” “Oh,” she said. “Yellow freesias. Marvin’s favorite.”
Terre said, “Marvin would have like it if you sat for awhile and prayed. We didn’t really have a chance in L.A. and, well, you know L.A.”
Did she just make a joke? She did. I think I love this woman.
Then it dawned on me. She was greeting everyone and comforting them in THEIR grief.
We took a place in the back pews. I bowed my head and realized I didn’t really know that much about Marvin. Not really. Not who he was. But if who he was, personally, is anything like Terre...
I looked around the room. 10 people. Maybe 15. “It’s early,” Jim said.
We sat and watched people quietly stroll in, after signing the guest book. Some stayed. Some didn’t. Terre greeted them all and escorted them to the closed casket. .
Susan Lucci came in with her husband and they quietly sat in the second row. We knew Susan from having acted on All My Children (my one great screen credit -- a guy with his back to the camera, standing at a ticket counter--a favor from the producer, Jackie Babbin, to my parents who loved watching it at home. Jim was the priest who married Bennie and Donna).
At one point, I saw a man approach Terre. He pointed at the piano. She nodded and they said something to cute, skinny guy. They changed places.
He played a Marvin song. Not ostentatiously. Not with any flourish or pomp. The few of us who heard it listened quietly. After he finished the one song, he quietly got up, and windswept boy returned. I wondered if he was someone famous or of note. He probably was.
As we exited, I noticed a media-looking guy with a video camera, but he didn’t seem to be interested in us.
Jim eventually realize I’m an idiot and he explained that the funeral would be tomorrow.
I caught Jim Brochu talking to Marvin Hamlisch backstage,
after a performance of Zero Hour.
Here, they posed for a picture.
Jim told him, "Joan Crawford said to always be on the right when you have your picture taken."
Marvin asked, "Why?"
"Because it means you always get your name first in the caption."
At which point, Marvin playfully wrestled his way past Jim to get on the right.
Marvin Hamlisch, Jim Brochu.
So, back at the funeral.
I sitting about halfway back in the huge spacious synagogue. I got Jim Brochu on one side. Donna McKechnie on the other. Down the row is Brian Stokes Mitchell -- who sat in our living room 16 years ago and heard the score from The Last Session -- I see Leslie Gore. Susan Lucci again.
I look up. It’s the biggest, most beautiful sanctuary I’ve ever seen in my life. (Is sanctuary a Christian term?) It manages to be majestic and restrained all at the same time. Every inch of the elaborate ceiling was detailed. And no pillars. No obstructed view, like in the big Gothic cathedrals.
There are two pulpits. One on each side. They look like balconies.
Everyone hushes at once. A rabbi steps out on one and sings mournfully in Hebrew. (I sang Hebrew when Michael Sugar took me to his synagogue in Los Angeles. They give you the lyrics written out with the English alphabet. I pronounced them like Spanish.)
Then, a rabbi on the other side says, “Our first speaker is president William Jefferson Clinton.”
Really? What? On video?
Nope. He walked into the room. He was right there. Took his place at the podium quietly and described the kind of person that’s rare in our world. A genius/virtuoso with a true heart. A humble man who walked with giants. A man who never said no. A genuinely kind person. “The rarest of combinations.”
Person after person got up, but my favorite was the family rabbi. “Marvin’s mother brought him to me when he was 15 and said, ‘My boy is gonna be the biggest composer in Hollywood.’” He continued, “She underestimated him.”
He loved talent. He nurtured talent. He gave money for music education, helping thousands of students. The room felt warm. I nodded off. Donna punched me awake. I’m glad she did. Hey, I got AIDS. I fall asleep a lot.
The choir sang “What I Did For Love.”
Everyone stood. There was no attempt at a master of ceremonies. We all just did it together.
“Love. Love is never gone
As we travel on
Love’s what we’ll remember”
Now, everyone’s singing. None of them are using the lyric sheet. They know the words.
I put my arm around Donna.
The song ends. No applause. Total quiet.
“Jews don’t applaud at a funeral.” -- Heard afterward. (Also heard that it’s not necessarily true, that it’s not a hard and fast rule). Well, it was this day. And no one gave us any rules..
Oh, people tried. Once or twice some, no doubt, Christian or heathen clapped. But it was met with deafening silence. I kept trying to control my own self.
Several weeks ago, they applauded at Celeste Holm’s funeral, in “the little church around the corner,” Episcopal. People loved Celeste, too. They told funny stories and laughed together. But, then the priest, at the end, invited us to give “One last ovation for Celeste”. It felt good to do that. To exult in the midst of the sadness.
But there was something very moving and profound about maintaining silence, too. I loved how the whole crowd seemed to know.
Looking around me, and judging from the stories, I think everyone was still in shock. It was the kind of mourning you have for someone who is so good, and so wonderful, and who is always so “unrealistically” positive, you take them for granted.
I mean, let’s face it. Someone that genuinely kind and good. Makes you feel a little guilty that you aren’t that way. And, yet, you so want to be them, that just being around them makes you feel you’re doing it.
They don’t announce themselves or parade themselves around. So, when they slip quietly out the back door, it’s only then that you realize what you’ve lost.
Being sweet and kind and nice. That doesn’t make good TeeVee. That’s why the Desperate Housewives make more money than anyone else on TeeVee.
He had a moral value, they said.
“He never said no.” He said yes to every charity invitation. Every appeal for money, presumably.
“You liked yourself better when you were around him.”
Idina Menzel sang “Everything Is Beautiful At The Ballet.”
Again someone tried to applaud. A loud, ringing smack that got stopped dead in its tracks.
Eventually, the casket was hoisted by six guys and brought down the aisle. The family and close friends followed.
We filed out. It was raining.
We saw friends. We saw celebs being interviewed. Chris Matthews.
But there was no fanfare. No TA DA!!
Just mourning. Just silence.
The silence left by a man who was admired for his musical legacy and who was dearly and deeply loved.
A dear friend of mine is going through an unimaginable situation. The kind that would wilt and destroy most of us. And he's doing it with dignity, grace and more than a little piss and vinegar. Reminds me that what most of us consider "tragic" has nothing at all to do with actual tragedy; but is, rather, an annoyance we've inflated well beyond its actual nature.
This past Friday, in a major New York City ER with a kidney stone.
We arrived about 6. The pain came on all of a sudden. We had been meeting with Bob Bartley, the director of Character Man, Jim's new show.
A nurse, who resembles Nurse Jackie, whom we had met before was at the intake desk. Said it was a very busy night, but escorted us right in.
"Your pain level is worse than that girl's toenail."
A guy jumps up and runs over to Jim and says he is a huge fan! He asks for pictures to be taken. We assume it’s a theater fan who saw Zero Hour. But no...
He and his grandmother, back in Winslow Arizona, had seen him on “Millionaire.” Jim asked him his name and he replied, “Rhett Butler.”
We follow the yellow line through two sets of doors, past multiple desks in a very big room. The cubicle/rooms for incoming patients surrounded the room. The doctors and nurses and staff were on islands in the middle.
They took us to the same booth where Jim’s toe was previously looked at. On the gurney next to us was the body of a black man, his head and face covered. He was lying on his side, cradling a small pink tub filled with a clear green/black fluid that had obviously come up from his stomach. Floating in it was black islands of matter. It made me nauseous, so I turned away.
A dead guy next to us? We kept looking and peering to see if there was any movement.
Jim took a chair at the foot of the bed very patiently. He had the NY Times crossword puzzle in his hand. I had my own book, “Thunderstruck,” a true story from London, early 1900s, partially about a maker of potions who knew nothing about medicine but was a practicing medical expert, doling out elixirs, and some famous murder and Marconi and the invention of the radio.
I was doing everything I could to not think about how much pain I was in.
A woman came in immediately, pushing a tray with a computer on top. She got all of our relevant info, insurance, etc.
Then, we waited.
The doctor arrived. A very attractive young woman in blues. She asked me what was going on and I told her I knew all the symptoms. I’d had kidney stones four times before. We don’t have to do any imaging and I’m in a lot of pain.
I was also angry because we were going to debut a new musical piece I’ve been laboring over, Kyrie Tremulare. It’s the most complex piece of pure composing -- as opposed to songwriting -- I’ve ever done. And since Mark is out of town, and I wanted Stephen singing tenor, I decided to conduct the piece myself.
I had already spent the afternoon making 20 copies (4 pages, front and back). I had also been, here in the early morning hours, been standing up, headphones on, conducting it.
I know I’m a total spastic while conducting. I’ve never really done it except for a brief summer in Dallas when I was 19, from which I ran, screaming back to the safe arms of my band, waiting for me back in Jacksonville. I had no capacity to work in the adult world at that time. I probably still don’t.
But I had, on the spot, conducted a rehearsal the week before. And I was forgetting simple things, like giving pitches, how to run parts, etc. It all felt so overwhelming, which is why I started practicing in the dark. (It was pretty fun).
So, to be lying here in agony, knowing I’d have to cancel Sunday, I couldn’t bear it. No! I HAVE to be there!
The doctor agreed we didn’t need imaging, but they needed some pee. Of course, I had none. I had been furiously peeing, and drinking water, from the moment I felt the first bolt of pain hit me in my back and run down to my testicle. In fact, at first, I thought I had just sat on one.
I gave her my printed out list of the many medications I’m on, plus the names and phone numbers of my doctors. She loved me for that. Loved me.
“A nurse will be in soon. We’ll hydrate you and relieve some of that pain.”
We waited about 15 minutes when another woman came in. She was also a doctor, looked at my charts, agreed with the previous doctor. She was cute. Younger. Said the nurse would be right in, but that they’re suddenly really busy tonight. I said I understood.
My task was to get some pee into the flask. Jim went and got me a bottle of water. So, I drank. And I read. Marconi was just this kid, living with his mom in Italy when he got the idea about transmitting waves through the air. He was now in London and all of London scientific society was against him. How dare this kid come from some backwater in Italy -- a foreigner! -- trump the greatest work of the Royal Society. He didn’t even know the basics of electricity!
I peed. I peed more. Little trickles. But I was guzzling (not too fast) and going. Eventually, a couple of inches in the cup.
But where’s the nurse? We have the curtain open and are watching it all. The staff seems very efficient. They’re walking this way. That way. Sometimes they look at me. Something they don’t.
Jim asks me what state did Springsteen name one of his albums. I said Nebraska.
We notice the dead guy. The sickening tray of viscous green/black.
I’m reading. I’m drinking. I’m peeing, little bits, every few minutes.
Out of the corner of my eye, something jerks. It's the dead guy. He's alive.
Jim gets up and leaves for a moment. I pick up the puzzle. I immediately see the pun solution to one of the big riddles: The Shod Of Iran.
For three hours we do this.
But somewhere in the midst of all that, during one of my peeing sessions, I suddenly felt less pain. Had this been like the first stone I ever experienced, I would have killed myself waiting three hours. I remember dividing each second into micro-thousands watching the nurse slowly approach with the pain medication that time.
But, am I feeling a bit better? I hurt, but the intensity is gone.
Dead guy moves more. He's rather attractive. An attendant comes in and tells him he's being moved to a room. He doesn't seem to comprehend very much.
Three hours. I tell Jim let’s get out of here. We’ve been abandoned.
He says no. You can’t do that.
So, I notice that both doctors are down the hall, attending to someone who is obviously in dire need. I get up and walk over, steadying myself on a desk. The person behind the desk sees me, but doesn’t stop me.
I watch the two doctors rushing to save a woman. They have monitors hooked up to her and are looking at some image I find indecipherable. They’re quietly and quickly doing everything they can. I just want out. But I don’t want to interrupt. Occasionally, each one looks at me. But they don’t stop what they’re doing. I think, Okay, message sent.
I go back to the bed and wait, watching the fluttering curtains as they dash in and out.
The orderlies roll the dead guy out, who, by now, has been on his feet and then back down again.
Finally, I see doctor one, rushing my way. Not to me, but in my direction. I raise my hand and just give a tiny signal, hoping she has two seconds. She disappears. Then suddenly appears.
She gives no sense that she’s annoyed with me.
I tell her, “Look. I just want to go home. The I.V. nurse hasn’t arrived. It’s been three hours. If you would just prescribe me some pain pills, I’ll be out of your hair. Cased closed.
She said, “I need to run your urine. I’ll get the nurse to do it right now. If there’s blood, showing evidence of the stone, then yes.”
I think it took 15 minutes, max. A nurse came in and opened up a foil package. Big white pill. “Just open your mouth.” She shoved it in. I was so happy.
“I also have an injection for pain. Where’s the I.V.?” she asked.
I replied, “It never came.”
She said, apologetically, “I thought Christine had done that.”
I was too happy to be going home to raise any objection to the fact that we had been deposited there are forgotten. I’m sure they would have noticed me if I had started screaming. Which I didn’t. I made it through the night.
I was never so happy to be home, in my life.
I went to bed, crossing my fingers, hoping the stone had truly gone away.
Next day, I was sore and weak. But fine. I would get to conduct my song!
We even went to lunch with the Isers, friends of ours from Los Angeles, involved in theater there. We mourned the death of a dear friend, Joan Stein. Jim said she was one of the producers of The Last Session. Or had something to do with the production.
It’s a huge loss for the L.A. theater scene.
I was getting tired. So, we came back home and I laid down on the couch and just slept. Slept all day long. I could tell that my body had suffered a great deal of trauma, enduring all that pain for so long. The last time I had a stone, it lasted, I think, two weeks. Ever since then, I’m the most hydrated person on the planet, and that’s probably what saved me.
I’ve left Marconi, meanwhile, on the bluffs in America, winds knocking down the poles he erected to send a signal across the ocean, a feat the British scientists said was an impossibility. They were wrong.
The doctor with the potions, his wife has left him, though he's better off for it.
And I’ve written my first serious composition. I’m not Beethoven, by any stretch of the imagination. But, I think, for a first effort, it’s not bad.
The piece is in Latin. Translated, it’s someone begging for mercy.
I was certainly begging for a little mercy on Friday night. And how wonderful that it was granted.
As a diabetic, one of the few cereals I could enjoy was Special K Protein Plus. The sugar level was 2 grams. (I'm not supposed to eat anything above 3 grams). It was one of the few cereals featured on low carb websites.
So, yesterday, I grabbed a box without looking at it.
When I got it home and started to open the box... I saw this little strip across the top: NOW TASTES EVEN BETTER!
I'll be truthful. I agree that it wasn't the best tasting cereal in the world. But if I needed it to be sweeter, it was easy to sprinkle on some Truvia or Splenda. Taste problem solved. And it didn't take much.
But as soon as I saw that NOW TASTES EVEN BETTER! banner, I knew I was in trouble. I looked at the side and, sure enough, sugar content: 7 grams. More than THREE TIMES the sugar as before. Which puts it completely out of my diet.