1987. The Olsen twins make their debut on TV's Full House. Debbie Gibson is on the radio with "Only in My Dreams." Dreamboat Zac Efron has his shirt off all the time; he is born that year.
The worldwide AIDS crisis is in full swing, with mostly gay men dying brutal deaths, activists screaming for attention and help from the government, begging for research, medicine, a cure. Begging for help.
I move to New York City from Phoenix in the summer of 1987 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I'm 19, fresh faced, and raring to take the New York theater scene by storm. I'm in love with cheesy musicals, the kid who's practicing tap while waiting for the subway. Full of hope, and without a thought that I could ever be diagnosed with HIV.
My first job out of acting school is in an AIDS education show for kids. There are five of us in the multi-racial cast, and the concept of the show is five high schoolers going to see a movie called "Attack of the Killer Virus." Half of the show we play the high schoolers and the other half we're characters in the movie. I play the "sensitive" Tony who's worried about what everyone thinks of him. In the movie part of the show, I team up with a fiery, soulful girl who plays a personified AIDS. I'm her goofy henchman, ARC (AIDS Related Complex—remember that?), and together we plot to a be-bop beat how we are going to take over the world by traveling "In the blood, oh yeah! In the blood!"
A few years later I'm cast in another HIV education show for kids. In this one, besides another sensitive character, I played a syringe. Seriously. I'm in a black cape, seducing this poor blonde girl with my chemical contents. In my show-stopping number, I sing to her, "You've caught the eye of this needle, and this needle wants you now. Right after you bleed'll be the best you've felt, and how!" Not exactly Sondheim. By the end of the song, our innocent has succumbed to my charms, becoming addicted, and thereby (we assume) catches HIV and dies of AIDS.
Neither one of these shows addresses a cure. Truthfully, in the 80s and 90s, any talk of cure is a fantasy, a romantic and beautiful dream. The best we can do was scare people into using condoms, abstain from sex (as if!), and not share needles. All this fear feeds the idea that sex is shameful and dirty and forbidden. AIDS is God's punishment, and people diagnosed positive are irresponsible and deserve what they get.
Fast forward to 2015, and the world has changed a lot. Caitlin Jenner comes out as transgender. Taylor Swift tells us to "Shake It Off." Zac Efron takes his shirt off in a movie no one sees called We Are Your Friends. I'm an out and proud gay man, living healthfully with HIV.
There are no HIV shows for kids or anyone else. Anytime HIV is mentioned in a movie or on TV, it's tragic and sad, even in these miraculous times of life-saving HIV meds. Shame and fear are still the only ways we hear from mainstream media about HIV.
In response to the lack of affirming HIV storylines in movies or television, I, along with my producing partner Tyne Firmin, create a bawdy web series about a man living with HIV who's not sad, sick, or dying. And it's a musical, of course! Season one of Merce comes out in 2015, spreading the idea that "Life can be positive when you're positive!" The show wins some awards and is written up in every major HIV publication. The show is even picked up by the LGBTQ streaming app, REVRY and seen on OUTtv's media outlets in Europe.
The success of the show prompts people to ask me about a second season, but I struggle for ideas. I'm sure what I have to say in a second season that could be relevant and interesting, and could be made funny and charming for a musical. I start to compose scripts, but the story line is flat, and I'm not sure how to spice it up, or if a second season is even necessary.
One night, I'm out to dinner with a friend from out of town. We're sharing spicy cold sesame noodles at my favorite Szechwan place, and she's telling me about her work with a research team working on a cure for HIV. She says that whenever she goes to conferences to tell people about the amazing possibilities of the new science, they aren't interested. Even medical professionals who've worked in the field for decades shockingly say to her, "We've already solved the HIV problem."
As we're talking, I realize that I've never thought about a cure. Never. I've been living with HIV since I was diagnosed in 2003, and once I was put on an HIV cocktail, I've been pretty healthy. I've had a few bumps, some secondary conditions to HIV, some dramatic surgeries, but I've been able to live a relatively normal life by taking daily medication and seeing my doctor regularly.
But what if I didn't have to? What if there was not just the functional cure of medication, but an actual cure: a scientific breakthrough that would erase the HIV from people like me. What would that actually be like? What would it feel like to not have HIV anymore? How would it change my life? It shocks and saddens me that I've never thought about it, never even entertained the idea.
When it comes to HIV, we rarely hear about a cure. The only time I hear about the idea is when some charlatan in a foreign land touts a sure-fire remedy, being kept secret by a conspiracy. It's a natural potion, made by duck urine, the sap of an obscure bush in the rainforest, and unicorn tears. That kind of hooey both cracks me up and pisses me off. The other time I hear regularly about a cure is from long-term survivors of HIV. Those heroes that pop up in my Facebook newsfeed, mournfully reminding that "all I want is a cure and my friends back." Both seem impossible achievements.
But the idea of a cure gets my imagination cooking. How can I bring the conversation of an HIV cure into my musical comedy world of Merce? I'm not a medical professional, and certainly no scientist. What could I say or do to bring about a conversation about a cure?
I decide that since I've no practical knowledge to bring to the table, what I can bring is hope. Until the scientists find the chemical answer, the thing that can bring about a cure is love for one another, caring for each other. Treating every person, positive or negative, with love.
This idea gets me excited, and I dig into writing Merce, Season 2 with gusto, adding a scene where Merce is struggling after a health problem, and his boyfriend Remington comforts him. Amazing composer Adam Rineer writes a beautiful ballad where Remington says, "You've got me to hold your hand. You've got me to listen and try to understand. You've got me to catch you when you think that you won't land. That's what my love is for: my love will be your cure." The song is so lovely, that we decide to have the company sing it as well, to tell the world that love can be a cure.
So here we are at the end of 2017. Bruno Mars just took home seven AMAs. There was an earthquake in Delaware (what the hell?). And Zac Efron is in a new movie with Hugh Jackman (a musical!) where both of them leave their shirts on.
Merce, Season 2 has been filmed, and is in the process of being edited for a (hopefully) Spring 2018 release. We're putting out the company version of the cure song in time for World AIDS Day 2017. Maybe this song can help to give hope for a cure to people who haven't even imagined it.
Some may call the sentiment of the song cheesy, certainly schmaltzy. In this world where we have so much cynicism and negativity, a big hunk of hopeful cheese sounds delicious. And cheese might just help bring about change.