Classical Music

Broadway composer Andrew Lippa on I am Harvey Milk

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.

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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.

Read on for more from Andrew Lippa.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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