California's first openly gay elected politician, Harvey Milk, was a feisty camera-shop owner turned political activist. He fought homophobia, commanded LGBTQ people to "come out," and struggled to build coalitions between oppressed communities. When fellow San Francisco city supervisor Dan White gunned him down in 1978, Milk became a martyr for the gay-rights movement. In advance of the Denver Gay Men's Chorus' performance of I Am Harvey Milk on June 8 in Fort Collins and June 12 in Denver, Westword spoke with critically acclaimed composer Andrew Lippa about the piece.
Westword: Talk about I Am Harvey Milk and the process of writing it.
Andrew Lippa: I was approached by Tim Seelig, the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, at the end of 2011. He told me that they were planning on doing a piece about Harvey Milk by commissioning ten to twelve different writers to each write a five-minute piece. I called him back and said I wasn't really interested in writing a five-minute piece. What I really wanted to do was write a sixty-minute piece. Would he let me write the entire thing?
He was surprised from my phone call, and we talked about it a little while. He got back to me a few days later. He must have spoken to all the other choruses and everybody agreed that they thought it would be an exciting idea. Tim came back to me, and he said that he wanted me to write the whole piece. Then I started thinking about how I would structure it.
I had the opportunity to go to San Francisco to visit with some people who were there the night that Harvey Milk was killed, people who were founding members of the chorus. It gave me good insight into the feelings of the gay community. It was actually pretty easy.
What came forward was what I didn't want to do as opposed to what I did want to do. I didn't want to write a biography. I didn't want to write a narrative. I wanted to write something that was, in its essence, impressionistic -- a series of movements that would add up to something. I realized that I could write one movement to represent each month that Harvey Milk was in office. That would be eleven movements, and then there is a twelfth movement, in which Harvey is a little boy singing about wanting to live a life like the operas that he so loved when he was a child.
In a way, Harvey Milk's life was somewhat operatic. Once that shape came to me, I realized how to do it pretty easily, and then it was just about actually writing the movements, which was a thrill for me, because I've never worked on that scale before.
Talk about your own connection to Harvey Milk. What draws you to him as a figure?
Well, there are so many things that came together all at the same time. My husband was the marketing executive at Focus Features and worked on the movie Milk. Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks were the lead producers of the movie Milk and they were also the lead producers of my musical Big Fish. Bruce Cohen had been a lead producer of I Am Harvey Milk in some of these larger presentations, including the one that's coming up in New York City this fall.
I had people in my life that I was very close to who had already had a deep connection with Harvey Milk's life and with all of the people in it. I'm Jewish. I live in New York City. I work in the theater. Harvey worked in the theater in his early career. Harvey came to his politics later in life, as did I. I was 48 years old when we premiered the piece, which was how old Harvey was when he was assassinated. And so, it just seemed like a lot of coincidences leading in the same direction and coming together at the same time. It was very fortuitous for me and felt very divinely inspired in its way.
Talk about what it was like writing political content and reflecting on that. In some ways, that seems different than a lot of your work.
It was different from a lot of my work and opened the door to a lot of new thinking for me, which is exciting. In a way, I'm writing political content, but ultimately, I'm writing emotional content, and that's the majority of what I do.
I have emotional concerns about the state of things. I've been drawn to Harvey Milk's life because of the emotional content of his command to "come out" and his firm belief that if we are invisible, we will be treated as such. If we keep ourselves locked away, then others will feel safe keeping us locked away. It's up to us to say we exist; we matter. There are countries all over the world where homosexuality is illegal. There are seven countries in the world where homosexuality is punishable by death. This is not acceptable. There are many places in America where being gay is still tantamount to being a social leper. There's anti-semitism in the world. In Brussels, there was the man who went into the Jewish museum and killed three people. It's incumbent on every generation to continue to make people aware that bigotry exists and that hatred exists and that it will flourish if we don't stand up and face it down.
Were you aware of Milk as a figure when he was alive? Did he impact your own coming out story?
I was thirteen when he was assassinated, so I had no awareness of Harvey Milk when I was a child. I grew up in Detroit. I, like many people in my generation, presumed that being gay was going to be a disadvantage, was going to be something where I wouldn't be allowed to get married and wouldn't be happy. All of these things are untrue. I have found my own little corner of happiness, and I have been married.
When you're dealing with this kind of emotional content, what's your process for approaching this lyrically and musically? Writing the text was really a wonderful dream experience for me, in large part because unlike a musical, there was no interest in traditional narrative storytelling, and yet we tell a story. I have no interest in traditional character development, and yet there are characters. It's not a musical, and it doesn't tell a linear story in a way most musicals do. The audience fills in the blanks.
Musically, I was given the opportunity to write for this large chorus of men, so I wanted to work in a way that uses choral techniques that would be emotional and new ideas for me. One that I'm most fond of is one that I wrote early, which is the second piece. It's called, "I Am the Bullet," and it is sung from the point of view of the bullet that went through Harvey Milk's brain.
The bullet says: "I have no allegiance. I have no opinion. I am just a bullet. I do what I'm told." In the middle of a piece, it asks the question: "What was Harvey Milk thinking when I went through his brain?" It answers, "I am the only one who knows." It's a very modernist piece of music, and I'd never written anything quite like it. That helped unlock the whole piece for me, the whole twelve movements, because I felt suddenly free to write anything I wanted to. There is a real lyricism that runs through the piece because I think that's in my blood. The entire work is much more modern than some of the things I've written.
Very modern and very poetic. As you're taking those kinds of risks, do you run them by other people? Do you have that kind of confidence to push forward? How does that work for you?
In the old days, I used to play stuff for people over the telephone. I don't do that anymore. I guess I do have the confidence that I know that if I like it, it will be something I'll want to share with people. I did send them to Tim Seelig as I would record them. I would send them to him because he was the one who was going to be the originating conductor. It was a wonderful process. Tim would write back if he had any thoughts. In general, he just kept saying: "Keep going. Keep going. Write another one." He was wonderfully encouraging.
James Knapp, the conductor here in Denver, was talking about how some in the Denver Gay Men's Chorus were nervous about a song that has a repetition of bigoted slurs in it. They were wondering if they could change the lyrics. He said no. You can't change the lyrics. Is that response common?
It's something that I heard from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. I haven't heard it from others. That particular piece is called "Sticks and Stones," and it was more of the idea that being called names actually can hurt you and that being called a fag is not funny. As a fat kid, I was called fat names and fat slurs. These things really do ruin your psyche. They really do hurt you. They really do form you. In a way, they're good and in a way they're not good. It all depends on a person and who you are. How do you respond to being called a name?
I think my sensitivities have turned me into the artist I am, and I'm glad I'm that artist, so I should be able to say that I'm grateful that I got called the names that I had to endure as a child. At the same time, those are painful, difficult things. I didn't want to write, "Oh, don't call me a fag. That's not nice." I wanted to say, "If it's okay to say fag, it's okay to say the n-word. If it's okay to say fag, it's okay to say any other epithet. It's so funny, the n-word I can't say to you on the telephone, but they say the n-word in the piece. They say "spic" and "chink" and "kike" and "camel jockey" and they say a lot of them. I started talking about gay epithets only, "Nancy-boy" and "faggot" and all of the negative terminology for gay men, and then it changes, and it couples those with racial epithets.
The point is, if you're allowed to say one you're allowed to say all, and the truth is you should say none of them. I made my point very clearly in that piece. At the end of our premiere in San Francisco, it got the longest ovation of any segment of the piece but for the end. It got a very sustained ovation, because the audience got it. They understood what I was saying. Hilariously -- I don't know if it's hilarious -- it has an explicit rating on ITunes. We had to put an E next to it.
I make no apologies for that movement, and I never allow anyone to perform it without the text as it is. When we license this piece for colleges and high schools, I will tell them that if they don't understand it and their audiences won't accept it, then just don't do the movement. I will not allow them to change out one word because they don't like it. Then it's just the same thing all over again. It's picking and choosing what words you think are okay and what words you think aren't. None of them are okay. There's my passionate answer. How do you like it?
I love it.
I Am Harvey Milk will be performed at 7 p.m. June 8 at Griffin Concert Hall at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and again on June 12 at Gates Concert Hall, 2344 East Iliff Avenue, at the University of Denver. Tickets for the CSU show are $16 to $18, and admission to the DU program, which includes a drag tribute to female gay icons, ranges from $18 to $40; purchase both online at rmarts.org or call 303-325-3959.
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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