The oddest thing about interviewing World Wide Web fanatics is that they write about you before you write about them. The day before I’m to sit down and talk to Steve Schalchlin -- the writer of The Last Session, a funny, touchingly sentimental new musical about AIDS -- Steve has noted our upcoming meeting on his homepage, The Steve Schalchlin Survival Site. Every day in fact, Steve, a Los Angeleno with no hesitation referring to himself as vain, writes about Steve. “Though I’ve never had a hit record,” goes a line in the intro, “I’m on the verge of something extraordinary.” What follows includes a complete Last Session song list, links to other HIV websites and a full-hearted bio of Steve by Steve.
But as warm as it is in Schalchlin’s cool-green computer haven, nothing hints at what it’s like to meet eyes with him in person. Schalchlin’s eyes are blue and deep, so deep that it sometimes seems that the rest of him just hovers in the background. And that’s only the peering-in part. The looking-out part is even better. In addition to a contagiously goofball glint, someone appears to have filled his eyes to the brim with hope.
Three and a half years ago, Steve, a frustrated songwriter working as manager of a songwriter’s organization, sunk into sickness. “I came down with Pneumocystis,” he says. “For two years, I couldn’t work.” Then one day in 1995, a song, “Connected,” wafted into his mind’s ear. The lyrics, a mix of sweet longing and ill humor, compare being connected to an IV bag to connections between people. Writing those lyrics, Steve also found a way to reconnect to health. “There weren’t any medications that were helping me,” he says. “It was sheer will.”
By late winter 1996, that one song had close company. With a book written by Jim Brochu, his life-partner of 12 years, Schalchlin had produced a whole show. It’s about Gideon, a man whose hope is tapped, who calls together his best friends for one last recording session. They don’t know it, but he plans to end his life the next day. Before the evening is over, a young stand-in singer, raised a fundamentalist, shows up. With the song “At Least I Know What’s Killing Me” -- which includes the incredible but truthful lyric “I’d rather be me with AIDS than to have to be you without it” -- Schalchlin takes dead aim at narrow-minded religion and eventually wins over the kid. And the friends win Gideon over too, persuading him to stick around if he has even one song left in him to write.
Working on The Last Session, that’s exactly what Steve himself was doing. “I just wanted to have something to live on past me,” he says. The musical had its first public reading in March 1996. “I was at the peak of my health. My voice was soaring,” he says. “Except I was starting to get a cough.” Within days, his hope having completed its mission impossible, Schalchlin began to crash again.
That’s when Steve began his on-line diary. It’s the record, he says, “of a man dying before your very eyes who doesn’t die.” Schalchlin knew things had moved from bad to worse when he and Brochu took a cruise to Alaska. Overloading his plate at the buffet table for two solid weeks, he came back a pound lighter. With his body not absorbing food, he went on TPN, a surgically implanted hookup to a liquid nutrient bag 14 hours a day. Schalchlin thought it was a last resort, but he also found some hope in a new pill. Yes, Steve’s one of those Crixivan wonder boys. “It was like inflating an old tire,” he says of his second recovery. But his funniest song, “Friendly Fire,” a clever reworking of familiar military tunes, disabuses any notion the drug is a cure. “Over hills, hills of pills,” he sings, his emotionally frank voice getting more vulnerable as it reaches higher, “pills that give you chills and thrills, but your symptoms keep rolling along.”
Steve and The Last Session are rolling along, too. Director Mike Mills is mounting an Off-Off-Broadway production that begins in May at New York City’s Currican Theatre. His diary, now in book three, refers to the present as “living in the bonus round,” a place where hope is strong, but a complete wild card. As a friend of his said, taking protease inhibitors is like “driving down a highway at 90 mph at night with the lights off.” But with Steve’s eyes, it’s impossible to believe he’s really flying all that blind.