Holding Back Tears At The Last Session

How snobbish we can be! Not you , of course. Me. There I was-taking a chance on theater, which is an extremely risky thing to do, like taking a chance on love. I knew nothing about the show I’d gone to see. I liked its title. So I went to the tiny 47th Street Theater to take a chance on The Last Session , thinking, unfairly, that I could always sneak out at intermission, if I must.

I was reminded happily of a friend of mine, Peter, who loved the theater but shrewdly hedged his bets. He liked to book dinner for after the show at two different times-at the intermission and when the show ended. He therefore ensured he always enjoyed himself at the theater. Because if the show survived the intermission, we went out to celebrate; if not, we went out to commiserate. Either way, we had a good time. He enjoyed life!

But I’d gone alone on a whim to see The Last Session , and the playbill listings I glanced at before the curtain went up didn’t thrill me, in my snobbish way. “As a director, Jim has helmed over 25 productions, including Can-Can starring Yvonne DeCarlo at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City and The Barrymores starring Perry King at the Pasadena Playhouse …”

“Steve is a songwriter, musician and performer who is living with AIDS and is currently on Evening Star Records out of Los Angeles. Theatrical credits include several revues at Dallas’ Grand Crystal Palace; and Startime and A Wonderful Worldful of Christmas …”

Hmmm. Wonderful Worldful is a mouthful. But this much I knew before The Last Session began. It was a musical! I didn’t know the work of anyone in the five-member cast, but impressively, two have their own bands-Grace Garland’s G-Spot band, and Amy Coleman’s Flamin’ Amy Coleman Band. A third, Bob Stillman, a Princeton graduate, is a singer-songwriter whose songs are often performed by other artists around town.

I had to remind myself that if you haven’t heard of anyone listed in the playbill, it’s no reflection on their talent. It just means they haven’t had a break till now. And the 194-seat theater, home to The Last Session , was full. Curtain up!

But my heart sank a bit. The curtain went up on a recording studio where a youngish, depressed man named Gideon, who has AIDS, plans to kill himself. Not-I couldn’t help but think at the time-a fun-filled evening of laughs (though we were to laugh). The sensational premise and gamble of The Last Session is that Gideon, a songwriter, calls together three singers for a last recording session. It will be his last will and testament-a suicide note in music, a blistering message sent to us as if delivered by a messenger high on dying.

Now, that’s some card to throw down, and some challenge. William Finn’s Tony Award-winning Falsettos was the first AIDS musical several seasons ago, but the Sondheimian Mr. Finn didn’t go nearly as far as the music and lyrics of the brilliant and angry (and, in the end, incurably sentimental) Steve Schalchlin of The Last Session.

Somebody’s friend tried moonstone

therapy;

Somebody’s friend tried some new drug

That came from Cleveland

Drawn from a bug

They found in England;

Somebody’s friend got cured of H.I.V.

But when I ask if I could meet some-

body’s friend,

They say, It’s not my friend-

It’s a friend of somebody’s friend.

The outstanding score isn’t without its pro forma sentiment, but there are songs of love, bigotry and rage that are without equal in the musical theater today. The raw, uncompromising lyrics to “Somebody’s Friend” remind us of the desperate, fruitless search for a cure for AIDS via rumor of a friend of a friend, or of “an H.I.V.-free circus, with an H.I.V.-free clown.”

The memorable best of The Last Session packs a similar emotional wallop as the best of Rent -without the downtown tourism. Mr. Schalchlin’s lyrics unflinchingly protest the tragedy of AIDS in ways that stun you in their candor. In “The Group,” group therapy members listen “in a kind of trance” to theories of celestial retribution where no one stands a chance. In “At Least I Know What’s Killing Me,” the dying hero bitterly condemns Bible Belt ignorance; in “Connected,” as if delirious, he imagines us all linked to one another, like patients to a bottle.

Then again, the soaring, nightmare visions of “Friendly Fire” are a virtual rock mini-opera, a fantasy sequence of hard-edged, witty music hall irony savaging the drugs that kill-

I’ve got a battleground in my body

Where there is no DMZ

‘Cause I’m so full of medication

I’m like a ravaged nation

And sometimes it feels like

My medicine is killing me with

Friendly fire!

It’s as if the composer-he of A Wonderful Worldful of Christmas -created The Last Session in an inspired fever. I’ve since learned that he did. Mr. Schalchlin was dying of AIDS when he began writing the extraordinary songs that poured out of him. He was encouraged to keep writing by his partner, a writer named Jim Brochu (who became the book writer and director of The Last Session ). The songs kept Mr. Schalchlin going somehow, though he was on the brink of death. Then, 15 months ago, new AIDS drugs saved his life and brought a stunning recovery.

The Last Session has its faults, as I’ve hinted, but having no heart isn’t one of them. The inner drama involving a prejudiced young Christian fundamentalist is overfamiliar. (The Southern Baptist hick believes “a man can’t be a Christian and a fag at the same time”-but relents.) Ultimately, Gideon’s friends persuade him not to take his life, and we suspected they might. The show has simple arguments, simple revelations and a very fine score, as black gospel dramas-popular, unsophisticated forms of revivalist pageants-do.

But we don’t care about its flaws, only its heartfelt, cathartic effectiveness. Judging by the response of the audience, it’s an inspiring and deeply moving little musical, and good therapy for some. What would my old theatergoing buddy, Peter, who died of AIDS, have thought of it? I can tell you.

He would have canceled the intermission dinner reservation-a supreme compliment! Then, over a late supper and a martini or two, or three, he would have raised his glass to everyone involved with The Last Session , and everyone he had lost.

Holding Back Tears At The Last Session