Andrew Lippa is one audacious composer. A few years ago, he received an unsolicited email from Dr. Timothy Seelig, conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC). In it, Seelig stated that SFGMC was seeking commissioned works from 10-12 composers, inviting them to write a five-minute piece based on their experiences and observations about Harvey Milk. Milk (in case you happen to be of the millennial generation or are just now crawling out from under your rock), was the first openly gay politician who served on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1978. He served for a mere 11 months before being fatally shot by his former colleague Dan White.
Lippa was “floored and thrilled” by the email, so he called Seelig immediately. “I am so excited that you’ve asked me to write a five minute piece about Harvey Milk,” he told the conductor. “But I don’t want to write a five-minute piece. I want to write a sixty minute piece!” Lippa couldn’t believe that he was so bold to suggest it, but they both discussed the reasons before agreeing to a project that would become I Am Harvey Milk. After a 2013 debut by SFGMC, this powerful concert and theatrical event has been performed by other gay choruses throughout the country. This Monday night, October 6th, it will make a New York City premiere at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.
Lippa pointed to his kinship with Harvey Milk, “Harvey spent most of his adult life in New York- as have I. Harvey was raised Jewish-as was I. Harvey was 48 years old when he was assassinated- I was the same age when the piece premiered. Harvey’s interest in gay politics came later in life-as did mine.” Lippa’s husband was also the marketing director for Focus features, the studio behind the oscar winning bio-pic Milk starring Sean Penn. The producers of that film were also the producers of Lippa’s Broadway musical Big Fish. Obviously, universal forces were working to his favor. Lippa interpreted this as a sign and an opportunity to write about his own gay experience and his relationship with this heroic politician. He had no idea that the individual songs would morph into full orchestrations and a recording , nor did he consider playing Harvey Milk himself. “I wrote the piece and kept sending demos to Tim (Seelig)”, Lippa recalls. “And he just kept encouraging me to send more!” Lippa prepared a workshop performance of what he had written in New York and presented it to Seelig, producer Bruce Cohen, and approximately 100 others. Lippa was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. “I had never seen anything like it in my entire career” he said. “I literally had people approach me when it was over, asking me how much money we needed.” After visualizing the potential, an equally forthright Seelig said, “We can’t do this with a 10-piece orchestra. We need 25 pieces- at least!”
Lippa also recounted the nearly unanimous decision by his private audience for him to play the role of Harvey Milk. ” I was a little reluctant at first because I wanted this to be a piece about Harvey Milk and not Andrew Lippa. But I agreed to do it in San Francisco.” Since then, he has done it in Los Angeles and will perform on Oct. 6th as well. In March, Seattle audiences will see the composer take center stage, followed by stops in London and Australia. It’s safe to assume that his reluctance has waned.
The night that Lippa’s choral worked debuted in San Francisco also proved to be synergistic. Earlier that day, June 26th, 2013, the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8, making marriage equal and fair for all gay couples. Bruce Cohen, who not only produced the piece, is an outspoken gay activist who was on the board of the non-profit group which help defeat DOMA and Prop 8. Cohen was in DC the night before the announcement and was on the Supreme Court steps the morning of June 26th. Cohen recorded footage of the event and then hopped a plane to San Francisco, where the director and visual designer included that same “hot off the press” footage into a video presentation for the evening show. “The energy in San Francisco that night was unreal,” Lippa said. “In the same city where Harvey had achieved such incredible feats, there we were celebrating yet another milestone in gay rights. It was indescribable on that particular day.”
Lippa believes that Milk’s legacy has endured due to a very simple concept. ” Like our greatest spiritual teachers, Harvey’s message was to come out…be present.be in the room and let them know who you are. Be true to yourself and people will find their way around their own prejudices. His message was terrifically unencumbered and it has inspired countless artiststic works.”
The advice has also resonated with heterosexuals. Lippa explained, “The final movement in the work is a song called “Come Out” in which the chorus sings those two words 49 times and triumphantly ends with the proclamation to literally come out. When we performed it for the first time in the NYC workshop, a straight man in the audience said, ‘I’m not gay and even I want to come out after that!’ That is exactly what I had hoped would happen. Everyone holds some secret about themselves that they don’t want other people to know. the term “coming out” is just not for homosexuals, but is a human need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The idea of being seen and seeing others sometimes sounds like a radical notion, but Harvey understood that if we are seen, then we exist.”
Lippa will be joined on the Avery Fisher stage by Tony Award winning actress Kristin Chenoweth and the All Star Broadway Men’s Chorus, which is comprised of actors who have worked or are working on Broadway. This production will also bring more dancing, more projections, and the inclusion of the World class Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the largest group of musicians that has ever performed the piece.
“I’ve written 7 or 8 musicals” Lippa said. “I love writing them and I’ve got another one coming up ( it will be based on Jules Feiffers’ children’s book The Man in the Ceiling). But I am also interested in writing a partner piece for I Am Harvey Milk. We’ve had a lot of interest in something that is fuller length and suitable for a theater or opera house. I’m just starting to write it now and will hopefully do another workshop.” In the meantime, Lippa is taking dance lessons and enjoying his title of an ordained inter-faith minister.
Composer.Performer.Dancer.Activist.Humanitarian.Minister. The real Harvey Milk must be shining with admiration from the celestial grand staircase above.
I Am Harvey Milk is a one night event. Monday, October 6th @ 7:30 PM at Avery Fisher Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza. For tickets and information, visit http://www.iamharveymilknyc.com .
For a video preview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAhRAqRFmgw#t=84.
For additional information about Andrew Lippa, visit his website: http://andrewlippa.com/