"New World Waking!"

Steve Schalchlin returns to Olympia

By Molly Gilmore on July 27, 2011

It was a long and winding road that led songwriter, actor and pianist Steve Schalchlin from New York City to Olympia to perform a song cycle about a search for peace in a violent world.

Schalchlin will perform the song cycle, New World Waking! (along with selections from his musicals) this weekend, joined by students at South Puget Sound Community College and Olympia musical theater luminaries Josh Anderson, Christina Collins and Lauren O'Neill. It's a benefit for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Although New World Waking! has been performed from New York City to San Francisco, and with cast members including Jennifer Holliday and Piper Laurie, the song cycle was born right here in Olympia four years ago. It was born the day Schalchlin played John Lennon's piano.

"When I was playing Lennon's piano, I noticed that when you play the opening chords to ‘Imagine,' it sends out this peace," Schalchlin says. "Everyone gets really calm. I could see everybody sort of go ‘aah.'

"I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great to write a song of perfect peace?' "

Singer George Michael and his partner bought the piano and organized a series of concerts held in places where acts of violence had occurred and on the anniversaries of those acts.

The Olympia concert, held at the home of long-time Volcano contributor Alec Clayton and his wife, Gabi, commemorated the life of the couple's son, Bill Clayton, who committed suicide after he was a victim of gay bashing.

Schalchlin became friends with Gabi Clayton after contacting her through a web page about her son's life and death. He later wrote a song about Bill, which he played along with "Imagine" at the concert.

That song, "Gabi's Song," is the opening of New World Waking!, which is about violence of various kinds and the search for a song of peace.

The day of that concert - May 8, 2007, 12 years after Bill Clayton's death - was not the first time Schalchlin experienced the power of music.

He's been living with AIDS since the early '90s, when the illness was a death sentence.

"When I was very, very sick with AIDS - it was in 1995, before there were any good medications - I had been too sick to sit up at the piano for a couple of years," he says. "One day, I got up. I had built myself up. I played music all day long. Sometimes, I would lean my head up against the piano and just listen to the vibrations.

"And the next day, when I got up, I felt normal almost. I realized that the idea of music as healing is not merely a wives' tale or a nice thing that we say. My body had a chemical response to it.

"I'm a true believer in music"

His music has been healing for others, as well, among them the Claytons.

"It's an amazing song," Gabi Clayton says.

"There are two things that stand out about his performances," Alec Clayton says. "One is how passionate he is, the way he communicates with everyone in the audience. And the other is his humor. He deals with tragic stories, but he does it with tremendous humor."

Clayton, an art and theater critic and the president of the local chapter of PFLAG, recently wrote on his blog (alecclayton.blogspot.com) that he could not be objective about Schalchlin's talent.

Perhaps not, but he is not the only critic to gush. The Last Session - the first musical Schalchlin wrote with his partner, playwright Jim Brochu - won a number of awards, and the second, The Big Voice: God or Merman? was critically acclaimed. Songs from both will be included in this weekend's Olympia concerts.

In a New York Times review of The Big Voice, Honor Moore calls the piece "a hilarious and utterly enthralling evening of musical theater."

Steve Schalchlin

July 29–30, at 8 p.m., $20, $10 for SPSCC students
Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts
2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia
360.753.8586 or olytix.org