In 2011, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus reached out to Andrew Lippa with a commission proposal. Along with a number of other out composers, they offered him the opportunity to write a five-minute work about the late activist and politician Harvey Milk.
Lippa’s response: He wanted the whole hour.
The resulting oratorio, “I Am Harvey Milk,” has become a pillar of the modern choral repertoire. In addition to its San Francisco premiere, the work has been staged in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo., with the Princeton Festival presenting a new production in New Jersey on June 23 and 24.
Although Lippa came of age as a gay man in the years following Milk’s assassination, his awareness of Milk’s legacy did not come until later. In 2008, Lippa’s husband at the time, David Bloch, worked as a marketing executive on “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning biopic. “That film was very much in our house for a year or so,” Lippa said in an interview.
He was deeply moved by the finished product when he saw a screening in New York City. “I couldn’t get out of my seat, I was crying so hard,” Lippa said. “I couldn’t believe that our story was being told, and that the world had changed for me because of those two hours. I went out of the theater into the world, and the world was still the same. It was like when my dad died: the world hadn’t changed for everybody else, but it had changed for me. That was the depth of my experience of getting to understand who Harvey was.”
“I Am Harvey Milk” depicts the character’s life as a gay man in the 1970s and the political revolution he helped to catapult as the first openly gay member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, as well as his death at the hands of Dan White, a former colleague. The musical language encompasses opera, Broadway, pop and disco.
“Harvey was an extraordinary music lover, and he had a vast knowledge of music and respect for it throughout his life,” said Noah Himmelstein, the production’s director. “The beginning [of the piece] is a boy summoning an orchestra and a community, so it begins very spiritually and emotionally with music that pricks up your ears. That is followed immediately by his death, all in the first 10 minutes. It’s an exhilarating 10 minutes, because where can we go after that?”
Himmelstein, an associate artistic director of Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, as well as a freelance director, has been involved since the first workshop in 2013. Preparing to approach the piece again, he found that it continues to resonate as the LGBTQ community encounters new obstacles and opportunities.
“I’ve been fortunate to do it five or six times, and each time it’s very new,” Himmelstein said. “That is a credit to Andrew, because each of the movements look at a different aspect of the queer community. Some are extremely specific and personal moments, and some are multidimensional, where we are hearing a multitude of voices express an idea. Because the work exists somewhere between opera and theater, the canvas can be that wide, open and free.”
The current mounting came about through Lippa’s friendship with Rossen Milanov, music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Milanov also leads the Columbus Symphony in Ohio, where Lippa lives part-time with his husband, Tom Regouski. “Tom and I had dinner with Rossen and his husband Bob at our home, and he said to send him the materials, because he wanted to get to know the piece,” Lippa said. “He reached out and said, ‘We would like to do this at the Princeton Festival and for you to conduct it,’ which will be a first for me.”
Although Lippa has performed the role of Harvey Milk in past concerts, and can be heard on a live recording made with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the title role will be taken in Princeton by out actor Adam Kantor. Scarlett Strallen, a veteran of Broadway and the West End, will perform a soprano solo role, and the Princeton Festival Men’s Chorus will take on the choral duties. Benjamin Pajak, who recently appeared in the Broadway revival of “The Music Man,” plays Young Harvey.
For the first time, the Princeton production will also feature four monologues representing the perspectives of anti-gay leaders of the time, including White and Anita Bryant. They will be read by Stacey Stevenson, chief executive officer of Family Equality, an advocacy group for LGBTQ families.
“Because of that, this sort of qualifies as a world premiere of a revised version of ‘I Am Harvey Milk’, which is exciting,” said Lippa. “Bigotry and hatred never go out of style. All we can do as artists is to program and create pieces that offer a way to reach people who might otherwise not be so receptive or understanding. It is political art and ‘artivism’ in a way, but I also want it to be emotional and entertaining. I think ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ strikes that balance.”
The Princeton Festival will present “I Am Harvey Milk” on June 23-24 at the Performance Pavilion at Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton, N.J. For tickets and information, visit princetonsymphony.org/festival/.