I Am Harvey Milk premiered June 26, 2013, with San Francisco's Gay Men's Chorus under the direction of Noah Himmelstein. The date of the premiere coincided with the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriage in the U.S. The oratorio, which culminates in a video montage of social history and progress, concluded with a last-minute visual of the groundbreaking news that DOMA had been found unconstitutional.
Lippa (Big Fish, The Wild Party, The Addams Family, jon & jen) penned original music and lyrics for the piece that utilizes some of Milk's actual words for the text. The San Francisco premiere was recorded and is now available for download via iTunes.
In I Am Harvey Milk, the composer-lyricist portrays the first openly-gay man to hold public office in California, along with Tony Award winner Laura Benanti (Gypsy, Women on the Verge) as the soprano soloist. They are joined by the 300-member SFGMC. Dr. Timothy Seelig conducts the oratorio that has orchestrations by August Erksmoen and accompaniment by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony.
The piece will have its New York premiere Oct. 6 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth will star alongside the Tony-nominated composer. It will premiere in L.A. July 19 with Lippa performing alongside soprano Alexandra Silber. Himmelstein will direct both upcoming productions.
Big Fish producer Bruce Cohen, Robb Nanus and Jessica Leventhal produced the work. Below, Lippa gives readers a look at the inspirations that shaped I Am Harvey Milk, alongside audio tracks from the cast album of each of the 12 movements in the oratorio. Click through to begin.
Overall, I Am Harvey Milk is in 12 movements because I wanted 11 of them to represent the 11 months Harvey Milk served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The 12th movement (the prologue) allowed me to start the piece with Harvey as a boy which, for me, was important because I wanted to show how, as children, we are who we are despite what we grow into.
1. "An Operatic Masterpiece":
This movement begins with an excerpted recording from Puccini's La Boheme. As I share a birthday with Puccini (Dec. 22), I found this irresistible—even if it's madness to begin an original work with 45 seconds of Puccini. It just felt right to me for Young Harvey to revel in the operatic music he so loved.
Harvey Milk's passion for opera was evident from an early age. As a child, he went to see operas at the Metropolitan Opera House. Harvey begins the oratorio as a child, singing about his yearning to have a life worthy of the passionate stories he so loved watching on stage. The first draft of this movement was a solo for the boy soloist with the men's chorus but, after taking a closer look, I realized that the young Harvey Milk needed to meet the older Harvey Milk. That's when I added the adult Harvey, and had the boy and man sing to each other. Looking back on my own life I sometimes "sing" to my younger self. It seemed a fitting way to start the piece.
2. "I Am the Bullet":
I thought about what the second movement should be, following something as hopeful as "An Operatic Masterpiece." I realized that I should go to the end of the story. I wasn't sure what the shape of the oratorio would be yet, but I knew I didn't want to present a traditional narrative. So, chronologically starting at the beginning when Harvey was a boy and then going to the end when Harvey was assassinated opened the rest of the evening up to be whatever my imagination wanted.
I thought about the idea of an inanimate object – in this case, a bullet – and how it has no responsibility to do the right thing, to be held to allegiances or opinions, and how this thing was the last thing to encounter Harvey Milk. It sings:
I AM NOT A VILLAIN
I AM NOT A HERO
I AM JUST A WITNESS
AND WHAT DID I SEE?
WHAT WAS HE THINKING?
I'M THE ONLY ONE WHO KNOWS
The bullet – the accomplice in Harvey Milk's death – is the one who tells us what Harvey was thinking in that final moment.
3. "You Are Here":
This is a solo for Harvey with the chorus supporting him. I wanted to capture the excitement of the first day of work for this man as he stepped into City Hall and looked around, realizing that this place that had never before welcomed a gay elected official was now welcoming him.
4. "Friday Night in the Castro":
I was a child in the 1970's and grew up with disco music. Sexual liberation was happening at the same time as the change and growth in the gay community's political life. Music – in every era – has been crucial to defining social movements and, like it or not, disco was the music of gay progress. Pre-AIDS crisis, the music of free love, bad girls, and boogie nights was very much a part of San Francisco’s gay center, The Castro.
5. "Was I Wrong?":
Part of my gay experience – a large and ongoing part – is the constant act of coming out to "them." Every new encounter with my husband and a hotel clerk or a Facebook request from a high school friend I'd all but forgotten about or meeting that cousin of my dad's I didn't know I had. Chief among my fears and struggles, especially early in my life, was the fear of losing my mother's love when she learned the truth about me. This movement is from the point of view of a mother or a sister or a lady in a red state who found herself in the middle of holding onto old, fixed beliefs and reconciling them with the man (the son, the friend, the brother) she says she loves.
6. "A Decent Society":
I saw a documentary about AIDS and the men who, in the early days of the crisis in the United States, worked to get lawmakers to approve new drugs. In an interview, one of those men talked about how people do things that have great potential to harm themselves: We smoke, we overeat, we lie, we cheat, we have sex with strangers. He suggested that in a decent society we don't shun the people who hurt themselves, we don't banish them or treat them as lepers. We have a responsibility to care for them. I wanted to write about that.
7. "Sticks and Stones":
Hate speech is hate speech. To me, there is no hierarchy among words that denigrate people because of their skin color, ethnic background, sexuality, etc. This movement – given an explicit rating by iTunes because of the use of such language – asserts that name-calling can and does hurt us and that the words used against gay men and women are just as foul as the "N" word.
Some of the singers who have performed this work have been worried about the language. Some people have asked if I could change some of the words, especially for less sophisticated audiences around the country. My answer is an emphatic "no." Hate speech is hate speech. I don't want to soft-pedal it.
8. "Lavender Pen":
The idea of this song borrows a tiny bit from Stephen Sondheim's "Someone In A Tree." It's the notion of being witness to something historic and then singing about it. In this piece, Harvey Milk watches Mayor George Moscone sign the first non-discrimination bill with sexual orientation language passed by a major city. The story goes that as Moscone was about to sign, Harvey handed him a lavender pen, lavender traditionally being a color often associated with gay men. I love singing this one mostly because I get to sing a high A-flat at the top of my lungs at the very end!
9. "Thank You, Mrs. Rosenblat":
Betty Rosenblat was our next-door-neighbor and became my mother's best friend after my family moved to the United States from England in 1967. She was as American as my mother was British. Mr. Klein was my 5th-grade teacher. It feels good to thank the people who have helped me in my life. Whether that thank you is, as is the case of Betty Rosenblat, posthumous or whether we are prompted to thank the people in our lives right now who have profound impact on us, it feels good to offer a thank you to the people I've known and to the people, like Harry Hay and Barbara Gittings – gay leaders before Harvey Milk – for all they did to make my gay American experience a little smoother.
It's the only trio for the soloists and it's in multiple meters.
10. "San Francisco":
This is a love song to a city. I moved to New York City in 1987 in part because I hoped the city would love me as much as I had grown to love it before I even moved there. I wanted to find friends, lovers, success, happiness, but most of all I wanted to get away from Michigan which, at the time, felt like a place that didn't want me and wouldn't accept me. San Francisco was, for so many gay men, a place of hope and possibility and acceptance.
Though written for the soprano and the chorus, this is actually something I think Harvey might have said. He certainly seemed like someone who did leap before he looked. I particularly love this movement. Perhaps it's the rhythm of the accompaniment that gets me going. Perhaps it's the idea of forging ahead in spite of the odds. Perhaps it's because it’s the only movement with a large section in a 3/2 time signature.
12. "Tired of Silence":
I knew, early on, I wanted to end the piece this way. I wanted the words "Come out!" to be the last words of the piece. When I was writing, it occurred to me that Harvey never stopped saying these words nor did he ever stop demanding every gay person come out. I decided to keep repeating it and, when that section begins, the accompaniment is a version of the opening theme "I want my life to be an operatic masterpiece" under the repeated words "come out."
This movement brings together all the performers for the only time in the oratorio and, when they enter, the soprano and boy soloists sing reprises of the movements they sang earlier (the soprano sings from "Was I Wrong?" and the boy sings from "An Operatic Masterpiece") while the chorus and Harvey sing about all the people we (the listener) should come out to. Eventually, the singers all join together on the final "come out" section and end on a triumphant, a cappella chord in D major. Why a cappella? It's a musical way of saying "all we need is us. We, our voices, our clear message, is all we need." Why D major? Because the oratorio begins in D major and it's my way of suggesting that we end as we begin, we are what we are from a very young age. Harvey, though he changed greatly through life, was always Harvey, always had his passions and his foibles. Starting and ending in the same key but with very different pieces of music feels like the connection I feel right now, as I approach 50, to my childhood self.