For many, just trying to live a normal existence with the extra challenge of coping with a life threatening disease is a huge struggle. Yet, it’s how you deal with it that makes all the difference. Now, one new web series sets out to prove that belief in entertaining and memorable fashion through its unique brand of humor mixed with outstanding original songs.

Having launched its first season of 8 episodes on July 16th via its official web site, YouTube and Vimeo pages (see additional links below), the hilarious new musical comedy MERCE follows the life of an out and proud gay man named Merce (played by series creator Charles Sanchez) who despite being diagnosed as HIV positive, continues to maintain an upbeat and optimistic view of life; one that guides him through good times and bad.

Having moved from the small Texas town of Weatherford so that he could chase his dreams of romance and personal acceptance in the Big Apple, Merce still maintains daily contact through Skype with his mom (played by series director/co-producer Tyne Firmin). Now that he’s in New York City, Merce has left behind the backwards surroundings of his old hometown, and his ex-fiancee Holly-Lynn-Jo-Rae Culpepper (played by Colleen Hawks).

MerceMERCE’s incredible cast is also stocked with veteran New York actors and actresses who are already making a significant impact on stage and screen, plus outstanding original songs written for the show by composer Ken Kruper (more on that ahead) as Merce is joined by three magical gay male fairies in a series of unforgettable musical sequences.

Along with Broadway vet Pierce, each episode features Bess Eckstein as Merce’s friend and roommate Corvette, plus appearances by Tom Shane, Ryan Daniel Pater, Amanda Bruton, Brooke Alexander, Ed Davis, and Rich Graff (who plays notorious gangster Lucky Luciano on the new AMC drama series THE MAKING OF THE MOB).

For Sanchez, himself HIV positive, MERCE grew out of an extremely low budget, yet incredibly funny series of video monologues about life and love in New York City called MANHATTAN MAN-TRAVELS. Having written each of those monologues, Sanchez originally hoped for a close friend and aspiring videographer to help him visualize the words he wrote.

When that budding partnership unexpectedly came to an end when his friend got bitten by the love bug, Sanchez called on his longtime friend (and soon to be co-star/production partner) Firmin to pick up the slack. As he explains, Firmin and Sanchez worked to refine each script, while attempting to produce a quality series with limited money and resources.

“We did two seasons of that, and it was totally ghetto! Our only budget was, like, what we felt like eating that day,” remembers Sanchez. “Tyne shot the first season on a Flip cam, and the second season on an iPad (we upgraded!). He edited those videos on iMovie in his apartment.”

Merce2As time went on, though, Sanchez knew he wanted to take both his series, and its production quality, to the next level.

“After doing two seasons, I wasn’t really interested in doing a third unless we really did it 100%. We (Sanchez and Firmin) talked about it, and decided to try and see if we could really make it a real series. Raise money, bring in professional artists, etc.”

While making several changes to Merce’s story, including moving him to the more economically feasible Brooklyn community of Sunset Park, Merce’s HIV positive status became more prominent as Sanchez worked on the scripts for his new series – and for good reason. “I’m HIV+, and one thing that really bugs me is that no one in mainstream media is writing a modern HIV story. Every story that comes out is from 30 years ago, and is tragic,” says Sanchez.

Having been all too accustomed to dire, negative portrayals of that experience through film, TV and real life accounts of those who’ve lived with, and unfortunately died from AIDS, Sanchez sought to bring viewers an uplifting, entertaining, and decidedly modern view of what life is like while HIV positive.

“DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and THE NORMAL HEART are important stories that need to be told, but they’re history. I wanted to use MERCE to show that people can live complete, full lives with HIV today. That you can even have joy and great friends and a sex life, just like anyone else. That having HIV isn’t an automatic death sentence anymore.”

Just how Sanchez chose to bring that message to viewers is perhaps the one thing that truly makes MERCE unique and memorable. “Friends have told me that they think it’s subversive to make an HIV comedy,” he says. “I think laughter is a great way to diffuse the tension that can come with the mention of HIV, and humor can teach people a different point of view. It can change people’s minds.”

Merce3For a major example of just how significant of an impact MERCE has made on gay and straight viewers alike, including how its mix of over the top comedy and show stopping musical numbers can attract more viewers to the show, look no further than a story Sanchez tells of how a real life friend reacted to watching each episode.

“I have a straight, male friend (well, I have several, but there’s this one that I’m referring to) who I showed the season to, and he said that halfway through, he’d forgotten that Merce had HIV. That’s amazing! And exactly my point,” Sanchez says. “I hope that the idea of an HIV musical comedy brings people to the series, that they watch the whole thing because it’s bawdy and funny, and that maybe, it changes their perception of what a person with HIV looks like.”

Most importantly, Sanchez and Firmin set out to accomplish that goal through the series’ protagonist. “Besides the desire to create a modern HIV story, another element that interested both Tyne and I was wanting to show a middle-aged gay man, single and dating in New York,” Sanchez says.

“Merce is flawed and rash and not conventionally handsome, but is told over and over again how fabulous he is. And I think we all are fabulous, and simply need to be reminded of it from time to time.”

While Sanchez knew from the start who he wanted to play Merce’s mother (Firmin), plus that of the constantly conspiring Marvello (played by another longtime friend, Andre Daquigan), and his former fiancee (Hawks-Pierce), finding the rest of the series’ acting and singing talent proved to be an eye opening exercise in the finer points of the casting process for both Sanchez and Firmin.

Merce4“Tyne and I are actors, and seeing which performers came in prepared and gave 100%, versus those who acted like they’d rather be scraping gunk out of their toenails than performing for us, (was quite a learning experience),” says Sanchez, who adds that the casting process also came with some exciting moments. “A fun element, though, was that I had all the actors who came in to audition for the Fairies do a really crazy, campy, silly dance routine. I wish I had video of that! Priceless.”

Hoping to also bring viewers great musical sequences in addition to its distinctive style of comedy, Sanchez and Firmin sought to find someone who could create original songs that would add to MERCE’s storyline, while contributing memorably to each episodes of the series. As Sanchez recalls, that search yielded a few worthy candidates, but one proved to stand out from the rest.

“We searched for a composer, and after meeting several, narrowed it down to three. We asked them to write us a sample song for the show, and Ken Kruper, being an overachiever, wrote three,” Sanchez says. “They were all brilliant, so we brought him on. He’s a wickedly funny composer, and terribly versatile. It was almost like he was with me when I originally came up with the ideas!”

The end result was music that Sanchez feels enhances every episode of MERCE, while being so memorable and effective that it could easily be at home in a big time Broadway musical. That high quality of production came thanks to the series’ musical director Michael Forman, who worked alongside Sanchez and Kruper to bring each of the show’s original songs to life.

Recalls Sanchez: “We recorded the score at Millrose Music across a couple of days, and that was amazing. I really think the score sounds as good as any original cast album out there.” Then, it was time to transform Sanchez’s scripts into what would become a fully realized production. Although he and Firmin were relative newcomers to the world of web series, the time they spent filming each episode of MERCE was incredibly rewarding.

Merce5“Let me tell you, in the almost 3 ½ weeks that we shot, no one fought! No one had a diva moment and walked off set in a huff or anything like that,” says Sanchez. “Tyne was fantastic in working with the actors and crew. And we had all these miracles. Every day that we shot outside, it was beautiful.”

Despite several key costumes and equipment being unexpectedly stolen from the show’s production unit during filming, including several wardrobes that had to be quickly replaced, MERCE’s 8 episode shoot went off without a hitch.

It was also quite a workout for Sanchez on both sides of the camera. “I didn’t realize when I was writing it that Merce is in every scene! And how much work that would be. I was exhausted the entire time. And I stuffed my face with goodies for 13 hours a day for 3 ½ weeks.”

Thanks to the talent and dedication of line producer Samantha Slater, director of photography Johnny Coughlin, art director Darian Brenner, costume designer Emily Foley, hair/makeup designer Dana D’Adamo, and the entire cast and crew of MERCE, Sanchez and Firmin accomplished their goal of producing a show that all involved could be proud of.

Most of all, says Sanchez, MERCE demonstrates that when life just can’t get any worse, it’s how you choose to view it that makes all the difference. “The tag line for the show says it all: ‘Life can be positive even when you’re positive’. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you handle it. And support from family and friends is invaluable. Tyne put it great one day when he said, “life is better with a song, a dance and a bawdy joke!”

Note: Sanchez says that MERCE is not currently closed-captioned, but that he does plan to add that feature to each episode in the future. In addition, he and Firmin are also seeking to raise additional funds to complete post production for the series. Tax deductible donations can be made through the show’s official web site.





TWITTER: @MerceTheSeries