Is there a difference between religion and show biz? Seemingly not, as both worlds share in common over-the-top performers, distinctive costumes and headgear, and most importantly, the presence of an audience. The relationship between these realms of performance and their connection to gay identity is the subject matter of The Big Voice: God or Merman?, currently enjoying its New York premiere at the Belt Theatre.
Though containing sixteen songs, The Big Voice, part of that theatrical sub-genre known as the "autobiographical show," feels more like a play with music, given its emphasis on personal narrative and storytelling, than a full-fledged musical. The creators of the show, Steve Schalchlin and Jim Brochu, are also the work's sole stars, as the two recount how they came to terms with their sexuality and how they found each other as romantic soul mates. Influencing both men was the profound role of religion in each of their lives: Brochu grew up a Catholic in Brooklyn and Schalchlin was part of an evangelical Baptist family in Arkansas.
The first act of the show alternates between Brochu's flamboyant tales of adolescent gay sex and theatergoing with Schalchlin's rural struggles of growing up in the Bible Belt, and culminates in their meeting on a cruise ship where Schalchlin was working as a piano player. Arguably, Brochu's story is the more interesting and entertaining of the pair. Brochu explains that as a young boy, he had hopes of being chosen as the first Pope from Brooklyn. Looking for a sign from God that the papacy would be his life's destined vocation, Brochu buys a recording of Pope Pius XII, but is underwhelmed by the Pope's thin and reedy voice. Disappointed, Brochu throws on his turntable another record that he randomly picked up at the store: Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun. This time the bells, whistles, and lights go off (literally) for Brochu who finds "God" in the voice of Merman and musical theater. In a chain of fortuitous events, Brochu goes on to meet Merman and his life (at least tangentially) becomes wrapped up with hers. Brochu's well-written narrative and flair for storytelling (under Anthony Barnao's direction) really bring the show's themes of religion and show biz together in meaningful and inventive ways.
In claiming that Brochu's story is more interesting that Schalchlin's, I by no means want to disrespect or invalidate Schalchlin's life struggles, which as I describe in a moment are quite profound in their own way. My preference to favor one story over the other leads me to pose, though, what is a difficult question, namely, Are all personal autobiographical stories worthy of stage treatment? Given that we usually can't force into our lives the sorts of plot twists that will make for gripping narratives, are autobiographical shows theatrically limited by the sheer reality of the performer's lived experience?
These questions come center stage in act two where instead of the first act' s funny and witty discussions of religion, show biz, and Merman, the show turns to Schalchlin's being diagnosed with AIDS. Clearly, such a life experience and pronouncement is searing personal drama of its own kind, a physical and emotional hell that probably cannot really be fully grasped by those individuals who are not HIV positive. And yet, as difficult as this is to ask, is it enough? Is it enough to tell Schalchlin's story in the way he does, a fairly linear narrative of diagnosis, sickness, despair, and anguish for him and his partner Brochu? Is it enough, in a time when AIDS has sadly become a mainstream issue due to its insidious attack on world health, in a time when we have had twenty years of AIDS plays, to present Schalchlin's tale in the straightforward plaintive way that he and Brochu have scripted it? Does his personal tragedy necessarily make for good theater?
It is a question I cannot answer. For many who have seen this show as well as Schalchlin's last AIDS-inspired musical The Last Session, his works do inspire hope, particularly in those suffering from AIDS. I won't downplay the importance of theater to serve as a source of inspiration, but one would hope that writers would also find unique and new ways to tell narratives that we've heard many times before.
Part of the unevenness of the show also results from the lack of theatricality of Schalchlin's songs. Drawing on an inspirational Christian light rock style of music (perhaps fitting given the show's thematics), many of the numbers that Schalchlin sings, for which he accompanies himself at the piano, sound alike and tend to comment on the stories he tells, rather than pushing the narrative forward. Considering that Brochu is such a musical theater lover, it's surprising that there weren't any brassy songs for him in the show invoking the spirit of Merman. Whether or not one should see The Big Voice: God or Merman? is a decision that I will leave up to the reader, for just as each of our lives is different and unique, so too are the reasons that we each find theater meaningful and resonant.
New York Musical Theatre Festival