Composer Andrew Lippa is best known for writing the scores to major Broadway musicals like The Addams Family and last season's Big Fish. In 2011, however, he set out to create an entirely different piece of music that audiences do not encounter very often anymore: an oratorio.
First developed in the 17th century, these massive choral and orchestral works were used to tell a story and often took their inspiration from the lives of saints and biblical figures. (The most popular example is Handel's Messiah.) Lippa wrote his oratorio about a martyred saint of the gay rights movement: Harvey Milk. Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk was the first openly gay man to hold a major public office in the United States. He (along with Mayor George Moscone) was assassinated in 1978 by fellow Supervisor Dan White.
Lippa's I Am Harvey Milk will have its New York City debut on October 6 at Avery Fisher Hall with the composer playing the title role opposite Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked, the upcoming On the Twentieth Century). They will be backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the 120-member All Star Broadway Men's Chorus. Proceeds from this one-night-only performance will be used to create the Harvey Milk Arts Fund at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a not-for-profit organization serving LGBTQ youth.
TheaterMania spoke to Lippa about I Am Harvey Milk, his emotional experience premiering it in San Francisco last year in the wake of the DOMA and Prop 8 rulings, and the enduring power of Harvey Milk's message.
What made you connect with Harvey Milk's story?
I very much felt that I wanted to write something about my gay experience. It was very important for me to consider and write about one of our gay heroes. I went to San Francisco and met with several people who had founded the Gay Men's Chorus on the steps of city hall the very day Harvey Milk was assassinated. It was deeply moving.
The piece premiered with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus on June 26, 2013, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA and California Proposition 8. What was it like to perform I Am Harvey Milk that day?
It was an extraordinarily complex emotional experience for me. Our producer, Bruce Cohen, runs the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the nonprofit organization that was behind the Prop 8 case. They found the plaintiffs and recruited attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson. I got married to my husband, David Bloch, in California in 2008. Our marriage was supposedly invalidated by Prop 8 that year. Then, on June 26, all of that changed. The United States of America finally recognized us as married.
Has anything about the piece changed from last year?
Nothing, actually. It's not a musical. It doesn't have the same demands of story and tone and taste that a musical has. It's not a traditional piece of classical music either. It's a cross between musical storytelling and a concert work. That's unusual for me. As you know, musicals are written and rewritten and rewritten. This one is what it is.
Do you find writing a piece like this more or less challenging than working on a big book musical?
On the hierarchy of difficulty, I have found making an original musical where you don't base it on any preexisting work, is the most challenging. It can also be the most rewarding. Something that doesn't have the real demands of storytelling and character development and movement — although there is storytelling and movement and characters in I Am Harvey Milk, just not to the degree of a book musical — frankly, it's a little easier. And I welcome it. I want to write more things like that.
You're working with a full orchestra and choir of 120 voices, correct?
This piece can be as large as it wants to be. Our version in New York City is going to be pretty darn big. Bigger isn't necessarily better, but the amount of people we're going to have in New York City is larger than anything I could ever do on Broadway. It's not financially feasible there. To do this with several hundred people onstage is just a thrill.
Are you also thrilled to be reuniting with Kristin Chenoweth?
It's a dream come true. Kristin and I have a long relationship of collaborating over the last 15 years. Most recently I was a guest at her Carnegie Hall concert. I got to perform "My New Philosophy" [from Lippa's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which Chenoweth starred and won a Tony Award] onstage as the actor, not the pianist. Then she surprised me with a song I wrote. It's from the point of view of a woman at her brother's wedding and you find out during the song that it's a gay wedding. She sang it to me onstage. I had no idea she was going to do it. To have Kristin interpret this material and to sing with her...I don't have the language.
Why do you think Harvey Milk's story and message still resonates with the modern gay rights movement?
Harvey said the indelible, obvious truth: Come out. At the core of his philosophy is the notion that if we are absent or invisible, we will not matter. We must tell everyone we know that we are gay, as painful and difficult as that can be. Hiding or pretending or avoiding serves no one. In fact, it does harm to us as individuals and to the larger community. That's the moment I chose to dramatize at the end of the piece. You have to come out and tell them, I belong here and I have a right to exist. I am hoping I Am Harvey Milk can help spread that message to more people.
Click below to see a clip of Andrew Lippa, Laura Benanti, and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performing "Tired of the Silence" from I Am Harvey Milk: