Littleton’s Town Hall Arts Center went right to the source for insight into its latest production — the musical’s creator

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4min 31sec
Courtesy of Steve Schalchlin
The Last Session composer Steve Schalchlin, with writer Jim Brochu

Littleton’s Town Hall Arts Center is in the second year of producing a series of limited-run shows in addition to its regular season of musicals, with the goal of challenging audiences with seldom-seen shows.

“I really wanted to focus on titles that talk about the human experience, the way that art can change people's lives, or just not something that's in everyone's everyday experience,” explained Director of Programming Matthew Kepler.

That description fits this week’s production, “The Last Session.”  The music and lyrics are by Steve Schalchlin, who based it partially on his own life. 

Schalchlin challenged his partner of 38 years, Jim Brochu, to turn the songs he was writing into a play. 

The story he came up with centers on Gideon, a singer/songwriter who has made the decision to take his own life in order to end his fight with AIDS. But not until after one final studio recording session. And what happens when an aspiring performer who knows nothing of Gideon’s real identity or his struggles, arrives in the studio.

Brochu says the script was given to him in a flash of grace  

“The two main characters, Buddy and Gideon, the way I describe them now is, they're a blue state guy with his beliefs and a red state guy with his beliefs who find a bridge and cross the bridge,” Brochu said. “They may not change their beliefs, but they can certainly sit down and have dinner that night.”

The musical debuted Off-Broadway in 1997.

“It plays like a comedy, and the songs are kind of deep.” Schalchlin said, “They were about my own journey in dealing with the emotions that I felt while living with AIDSs. And so there's a real rollercoaster effect in the show.”

Although it might seem hard to imagine how a story about a person living with HIV/AIDS could inspire a musical comedy, Schalchlin said that’s actually the whole point. 

“The way you get through stuff is, you deal with the heavy stuff, and then you learn to live with it and laugh about it,” Schalchlin said. “And that's what healing is. Healing is about laughter and music.” 

Schalchlin was excited to learn about Town Hall’s production of “The Last Session.” Usually when local theater companies decide to do a show, they acquire the rights to put it on without being directly in touch with its creator. But this experience has been totally different.

“It's not every day that you get to direct a show in Littleton, Colorado, and then be speaking with the actual playwright and composers of a piece that ran off-Broadway,” said director Peter Dearth.  The entire  production team has been communicating with the writers, which he describes as “a gem, dramaturgically.”  

Dearth said the pair is hilarious, and that’s reflected in the show. 

“What I love most about the show is that the songs are all very real about Steve's experience with HIV/AIDS; it's music therapy on display,” said Dearth. “He journaled by sitting down at a piano, writing these songs. He healed from the writing process of creating these songs. And then Jim took all the songs, connected them with some dialogue (and) created a musical out of it.” 

Both creators have been extremely generous with their help from the beginning, according to music director Joel Paszkowski

“We reached out to Steve about the scores, and he was just like, ‘yeah, here you go.’ And (he) sent us a whole Google file of the whole show and was like, ‘yeah, use whatever you need.’ said Paszkowski, adding that Schalchlin made himself available to answer questions from the whole cast.

Paszkowski noted Schalchlin gave them insight into how organic and fluid the show is; “Steve saying, like, “hey guys, this was all sort of improvised during a couple of nights or a session. A lot of these songs just kind of happened and came out, so do with them what you will.”

Talking to Schalchlin gave Natalie Oliver-Atherton a fuller insight into the musical and its power. Oliver-Atherton plays Tryshia, whom she describes as Gideon’s best bud.

“There are songs in this piece that he's saying actually saved his life,” she said. “The writing of them actually saved his life; he found new energy and a new will to live as a result of writing them.”

Brian Watson, who plays the lead role of Gideon, feels it is a tragedy that not many people have ever heard this show. 

He sees it as a chance to have “people sit next to each other from all different walks of life, (who) have very varying perspectives on all of the different topics of this (play), and be able to come together and share and connect.” 

The Last Session” plays at Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton from Nov. 3 through 12.