On June 26, 2013, hope and reality seemed to converge when the oratorio I Am Harvey Milk, which tells the story of one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had its world premiere in San Francisco. Earlier that same day, the U.S. Supreme Court had declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional, a victory for same-sex couples.
The heightened poignancy of the production is easy to imagine. The 12-song work by composer Andrew Lippa is richly emotive, from the first notes of young Harvey Milk singing, “I want my life to be just like an opera at the Met/Three hours in the dark where love is found in one duet.” From there, Milk’s story unfolds in an impressionistic, nonlinear narrative that depicts key moments in his barrier-breaking political career: his arrival at San Francisco’s City Hall after being elected, his handing of a lavender pen to San Francisco mayor George Moscone to sign a watershed LGBTQ civil rights bill. Milk’s 1978 assassination by fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White occurs in the second song, “I Am the Bullet,” a choice by Lippa that keeps the focus on Milk’s accomplishments and message of acceptance, rather than the hatred he fought against.
New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden wrote that the work eulogizes Milk as a “courageous, saintly social prophet.”
“Mr. Lippa’s accessible, melodic score is devoid of highbrow pretension and dissonance, but it couldn’t quite be called pop,” Holden said of the 2014 New York premiere, which occurred on the day the Supreme Court let stand rulings in five states that allowed same-sex marriage. “His words are an exhortatory public poetry with the expected rhetorical flourishes.”
The New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus brings I Am Harvey Milk to New Mexico for the first time on Thursday, March 21, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. All 60 vocalists in the 38-year-old troupe perform, as well as three soloists: Bill Brooks as Milk, twelve-year-old Allen Dominguez as the young Milk, and soprano Ingela Onstad as a mother/muse figure. A second performance will take place at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho on
Aaron Howe, artistic director of the Albuquerque-based chorus, explained that the NMGMC’s production of I Am Harvey Milk will have some staging, particularly among the soloists, as well as visual elements such as projections. Songs like the disco-infused “Friday Night in the Castro” will feature choreography involving the entire chorus.
Howe became interested in I Am Harvey Milk after seeing a performance by the gay men’s choruses of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Twin Cities at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. “It was just super powerful and a really poignant message. Harvey Milk’s message of, everybody, you’ve got to come out, and you’ve got to tell your friends that you are gay and let people know — it’s a very compelling idea,” Howe said, referring to Milk’s famous appeal to live an openly gay life. (In “Tired of the Silence,” Milk sings: “Together is better than alone/The hate won’t vanish on its own/Come out, and believe yourself/Put faith in those who care.”) “One of our missions in performing this piece is to be an encouragement to those who may be considering coming out, or maybe people who know people who are coming out, and need that support from their friends and their relatives to encourage them to do the right thing.”
Brooks, who has appeared in Broadway and European touring productions, called it an “incredibly important piece.” “To be able to do such a powerful piece, to remind people that they can be who they are without fear in this world, and to stand up and speak. They have the power. If everyone stands up and speaks together, it’s quite a powerful thing.”
Composer Lippa originated the role of Milk during the 2013 production by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. That troupe commissioned the piece, along with gay men’s choruses in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Vancouver, and
It started when the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus approached him about creating a five-minute piece about Harvey Milk. Lippa was interested, but he wanted to make it run an hour.
“As I saw it, it was my turn,” Lippa wrote in the Huffington Post. “Harvey was forty-eight; I’m forty-eight. Harvey was born Jewish; I was born Jewish. Harvey was gay; I’m happy. Most of all, I wanted to find out how I felt — what I really felt, thought, needed, wanted, dreamed about, feared, loathed, craved — when it came to being a gay man, a gay man in a world made much better because of people like Harvey Milk during that epoch when I was thinking that being gay was something one had to subdue or overcome or endure.”
Lippa’s other credits: music and lyrics for several Broadway musicals, including The Addams Family and Big Fish, as well as off-Broadway’s The Wild Party (for which he also wrote the book). His theater background is evident in the music of I Am Harvey Milk. “This one definitely has moments of men’s chorus — very lush, thick harmonies that you might not necessarily hear in a musical,” Howe said. “But I would say the melodies feel very like Broadway to me. ... Some of it is done with some complex time signatures, and things like that, that you might not see in a musical, so it’s got kind of that classical choral sound to it.”
Onstad, who is the sole female performer in the piece, noted the differences in singing the Mother/Muse and the operatic roles on her résumé (including roles with the Santa Fe Opera). “There’s sort of a directness to musical theater that I enjoy and a greater simplicity of line and delivery. And that can make the communication of the music and the words that much more powerful, because of that directness. Also being that it’s in the vernacular, the English, that goes a long way, too.”
Brooks said that he hopes people will “come away from this piece with a sense that there is still hope, that hope is never gone, that people should never give up, that people do make a difference. Even one person can make a difference.” ◀
▼New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus presents I Am Harvey Milk
▼7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
$20-$45, ticketssantafe.org, 505-988-1234
▼3 p.m. Sunday, March 24
V. Sue Cleveland High School Concert Hall,
4800 Laban Road NE, Rio Rancho