“I AM HARVEY MILK”: Shown is an October 2014 performance of “I Am Harvey Milk” at Lincoln Center, with composer Andrew Lippa, center, in the title role. The piece has been updated and will be presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra on June 23 and 24 at the Princeton Festival, this time with Lippa conducting.
By Wendy Greenberg
Some 10 years ago, composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa was asked by the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus if he could write a five-minute choral piece about City Supervisor Harvey Milk.
A program of several pieces was planned for a tribute to Milk, an openly gay politician who was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978 at San Francisco’s City Hall. But Lippa said he was “so inspired by the idea, I considered it more than a creative assignment. I asked to write the entire program.” The full-length piece premiered in San Francisco on June 26, 2013, with Lippa singing the role of Milk.
That piece, I Am Harvey Milk, has been reworked and will be presented by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra at the Princeton Festival at Morven Museum and Garden on Friday, June 23 and Saturday, June 24, both at 7 p.m.
The piece celebrates Milk, who championed legislation against discrimination based on sexual orientation. But it is also a call to action, something Lippa agreed is needed in these times.
Lippa believes the piece addresses “the need to let people live their lives. Be yourself, be honest,” he said. In the piece, Milk sings: “I’m tired of the silence so I’m speaking out … Come out, come out, and become yourself. You’re not the one who is wrong.”
The lyrics, especially “come out” (sung 48 times at the end of the piece), are modeled after Milk’s famous “come out” speech that urged, “Gay brothers and sisters … You must come out.” He gave that speech on the ninth anniversary of the New York Stonewall riot on June 25, 1978.
Lippa wrote in a 2011 Huffington Post blog that Milk’s “famous ‘come out’ speech remains a reminder to all of us, gay and straight, that living an authentic life is the only way to live. Anything other than authenticity is a lie.”
The Princeton Festival’s I Am Harvey Milk is called a musical theater oratorio. Lippa said he considered different terms, because it has a story and characters, but is not a concert staging. It is theatrical but is part “classical music and the theater musical.” Lippa predicted that audiences who love both genres “will connect to it, and will care about Harvey Milk.”
The Princeton performance is directed by Noah Himmelstein, a New York-based theater director, and features Benjamin Pajak as young Milk and Adam Kantor as adult Milk. Pajak recently played Oliver Twist in City Center’s Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Kantor is a stage veteran of such shows as Rent and The Band’s Visit. The performance also will feature actress Scarlett Strallen, Family Equality CEO Stacey Stevenson, and the Princeton Festival Men’s Chorus.
When writing the piece, Lippa was struck by the connection he felt to Milk. At the time, he was the same age — 47 — as Milk was when he was assassinated. Both were gay, Jewish men who had grown up in New York. Milk even had worked for a time in the theater. Lippa wrote, “What I have come to learn, with Harvey’s words and life as my encouragement, is that I wanted to write about existence itself, about my right to exist, Harvey’s right to exist, to excel, to be accepted, to express gratitude, to soar.”
Lippa said he did not want to “tell a biography. For me, the biography is not interesting.” He wrote a series of events in Milk’s life, not in chronological order. As a child, Milk sings “An Operatic Masterpiece,” about how he wants his life to be big, and important. The next section, “I am the Bullet” tells the story from the point of view of the bullet. With childhood and death portrayed, “It gives the audience permission to ask, ‘What’s next?’” noted Lippa.
In Princeton, Lippa will conduct the performance, a skill that complements his talents writing music, lyrics, and the book for many of his works. In fact, he is now working on a musical piece from the movie about dance and life choices, The Turning Point, for which he created all three.
Among his Broadway credits are music and lyrics for Big Fish; the Tony-nominated music and lyrics for The Addams Family; and the book, music, and lyrics for Wild Party.
At the Princeton Festival, Lippa will speak to young musicians about portraying social change in art. “Art is social change” he said. “Every act of art is social change. It is life. Every day is about change.”
“That’s how I walk through the world,” said Lippa. “It’s incumbent upon you to be aware of everyone in the world. I teach young people how to do that, to let people lives their lives.
“I have no interest in preaching, but at the same time … a man lives at a time so unlike our own, but 50 years on we have to stand up and be counted.”
The Princeton Festival is holding two companion events in conjunction with I Am Harvey Milk. On June 17 at 2 p.m. the Princeton Public Library offers a free screening of the 2008 film Milk. On Friday June 23 at 4 p.m., Lippa will speak with young musicians about his writing process. The event, at the Stockton Education Center, is free and open to the public.
Tickets for the June 23 and June 24 Princeton Symphony Orchestra performances of I Am Harvey Milk at Morven range from $42 to $125; youths 5-17 receive a 50 percent discount with an adult purchase. Visit princetonsymphony.org or call (609) 497-0020.