The Ethel Merman Disco Album is widely regarded as one of the ultimate musical theatre camp curiosities. To listen to Broadway's quintessential belter, whose career began in 1930 and ended with her death 54 years later, attempting to reach a new audience by way of the 1970s club scene is to hear something hilarious, heartbreaking, and pathetic, but nonetheless rippling with an inexplicably alluring artistry.
Ridiculous as the record was and remains, you'll appreciate it as never before when you experience the moments of oasis-like refreshment it provides amid the arid desert of The Big Voice: God or Merman? Only a couple of its tracks are used in this bleary dual-autobio musical at the Actor's Temple, but they - along with some numbers from Merman's cast recording of Gypsy - are probably the best choice made by the two writer-performers who have thrust this thorny show into the withering spotlight.
Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin are professional as well as personal partners, who met over 20 years ago aboard a cruise ship in the Bermuda triangle. They discovered a shared passion for music and an unhappy history with the Catholic church that brought them together, and - despite going through some rough spots - their bond was too strong to be severed by artistic disappointments, personal disagreements, or even AIDS.
It was Schalchlin who faced - and, presumably still faces - the last. (The musical The Last Session, for which he wrote the songs and Brochu the book, is loosely based on his own experiences.) And when The Big Voice finally arrives there in Act II, it acquires the most heart and humanity it ever possesses. Getting there is not, sadly, half the fun.
Of the two, only Brochu can sing (and not spectacularly), and neither he nor Schalchlin is much of an actor. Under the right circumstances, that could give the show an amateurs-make-good vibe that would make them endearing rather than grating, but when neither man is remotely believable as himself, that's an irreparable scratch in the theatrical vinyl. If director Anthony Barnao exerted any influence on Brochu and Schalchlin, it's not evident from what's onstage: The men's puffed-chest, "Are we funny yet?" performing style never works, and grows tiresome after about five minutes. (This is, for the record, a two-hour show.)
There's not enough story here to support a show of this length. Brochu's recollections of straying away from the priesthood at the unwitting behest of Merman herself (whom he met after a 1959 performance of Gypsy) and Schalchlin's of growing up gay in the intolerant South do not comfortably intertwine, at least with the bathetic treatment they receive here. While the book of Brochu's section is funnier and more concise (his time in military school is worth a chuckle or two, and his Merman anecdotes are choice), the songs in Schalchlin's scenes carry more than their half of the dramatic weight: There's an especially touching number called "James Robertson" about a traveling evangelist, and Schalchlin's descent into angry melancholy after his AIDS diagnosis brings some much-needed honest serenity to the show.
But very few of the others have any notable musical appeal, and they're sung so shakily that much of the time they barely seem like songs at all. If they had more connection to the surrounding drama, that might not be an issue, but Brochu and Schalchlin never make this story relevant beyond its own insular world. The theme suggested by the title - what you want versus what you're supposed to be - might lead to a decent musical with this subject matter, but no show with a book this approximate, a score this forgettable, and performances this rudimentary would succeed. As the audience probably won't enter the theater with any preexisting associations with the material (The Last Session ran almost six months in 1997-1998), this is a "four strikes and you're out" situation.
One can sympathize with both men, especially Schalchlin, whose resilience is nothing short of inspiring; but sympathy can't be a show's sole building block. The Big Voice: God or Merman? has been kicking around New York since at least 2004, when it premiered at the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival, and even after two years, Brochu and Schalchlin are apparently still looking for a way to make their story matter and sparkle. To both of them I say: Happy hunting.
The Big Voice: God or Merman?