BWW Interview: Andrew Lippa premieres UNBREAKABLE with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus at Nourse Theater

BWW Interview: Andrew Lippa premieres UNBREAKABLE with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus at Nourse Theater

This weekend marks the world premiere of Unbreakable, an original work by Tony-nominated composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa. The piece was co-commissioned by a nationwide consortium of ten gay choruses including the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, who will present the work under the baton of Dr. Tim Seelig, SFGMC artistic director, and stage direction by Robert Kelley, artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Broadway and concert star Lisa Vroman joins Lippa on stage in the principal soloist cast that also includes Britney Coleman and Marcus J. Paige.

RS: You wrote I Am Harvey Milk for SFGMC and it was described as part choral work, part theatre piece. Now SFGMC is calling Unbreakable a musical. Is it a musical? An oratorio?

AL: Well, it's such a complicated thing for me. Our producer Bruce Cohen said that he believes that I am creating a new art form, and I thought that was a grand and kind of lovely thing to say, even if it wasn't exactly true. What's an oratorio? It's not a very 21st-century word, but it's a story that is turned into solo music and choral music with orchestral accompaniment, and is presented in a concert format. That's Mendelsohn's Elijah, or The Creation by Haydn, or St Matthew Passion by Bach.

RS: Bernstein's Mass?

AL: Well, now you've really put your finger on it. I believe that what I'm attempting in I Am Harvey Milk, I Am Ann Hutchinson, now Unbreakable is all in service of being inspired by Bernstein's Mass which I've actually never seen. I've only been involved in a production of it when I was in college.

Mass has a subtitle: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. I believe Unbreakable is that kind of a theatre piece. There is a story, there is a dialogue between the chorus and the soloists. We're using costumes and pieces of sets to tell these stories. We're using actual themes. They're musical themes but they're played out in a mise-en-scène kind of way. Is that a musical? Maybe. It's like that old question: Is Porgy and Bess an opera or a musical? Is Sweeney Todd an opera or a musical? The minute I answer it, that's when people will stop being interested. So I'm not the one to answer that question. My answer is, you know, "Whatever sells more tickets." (Laughs) It's a marketing thing. I think if you tell people I wrote a musical, people know that's what I do, so, it's like, "Oh, it's a new musical by Andrew Lippa!" and then they come. Some people may say, "Well, I've never seen a musical like that." Some people may say, "Well that's not a musical." Some people may say, "That's the best musical I ever saw." All of those responses are fine.

RS: Just as long as they come.

AL: Just as long as they come.

I Am Harvey Milk was a complete surprise. I didn't know what I was doing and that, for me, that's the key to art-making. If I know what I'm doing, I'm not interested in it. I want the mountain to be difficult to climb, because where's the challenge in doing the thing you know how to do.

So that's how I see Unbreakable. It's a new way of looking at storytelling for me and I hope that our audiences will see the virtue in that and understand that what we're doing is part theatre and part concert. I hope that engages them.

RS: With I Am Harvey Milk, you made a really deep dive into a very specific piece of LGBT history, and now you're going really wide. Talk about the process of setting those boundaries and the dramaturgy of figuring out what to keep and what to leave out.

AL: Absolutely. One of the things that is primary to me in this work is that we're not doing impersonations. We are emotionally representing the stories. That's a big distinction. We're not impersonating [transgender activist] Sylvia Rivera, we're not trying to do a biographical sketch of Sylvia Rivera. What I wanted to do was capture the essence of Sylvia in the way that I'd read about her and the footage I'd seen of her, and pick a moment in her life. The same thing is true about Gertrude Stein. I'm not writing about Paris or her long relationship with Alice B. Toklas. I'm writing about a moment in time where she's contemplating, "Should I love this woman or should I not?"

There's a story about the boy in Harvard in the 1920s who was called to a Kangaroo Court that is called by the president of Harvard in 1920 to prosecute people for homosexual behavior or alleged homosexual behavior. What is this boy going through at this moment? Is he going to kill himself because he's been discovered in 1920 and he's been outed in this way?

Each of the stories has an emotional idea.

There are fourteen movements. In the simplest way, I could line up fourteen emojis and tell you these are feelings that we're gonna cover. That the overarching idea is, what does it feel like to be gay in this century and be connected to our brothers and sisters and queer antecedents, all of the people who came before us. They're not really our ancestors because we're not technically related to them, but we are related to them in a deep, deep way. Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, socially, we are connected to all of those people.

I picked stories that most people don't know. I mean, people obviously know about AIDS and that AIDS became called AIDS in the 1980s, but the movement that deals with AIDS is called "Forty-One" and is taken, with the permission of the New York Times, from some quotes from their article on July 3, 1981 that said a rare cancer was found in 41 homosexuals in New York and California. Some of the lyric is directly from that article.

The key to all of it was the notion of going from light to dark to light. That is the journey of Unbreakable. It starts with the possibility that they will throw stones at you. That they will hurt you, they will try to stop you. If, however, you just stand firm, if you just promise to be unbreakable, then you'll get through it. It ends with the notion that good things take time.

I was in a store in Columbus, Ohio where I live part time and I saw a greeting card that read said, "Good things take time." I thought, "Oh, that's fantastic, because that is the truth about progressivism, about love. That is the truth about educating a child. That is the truth about anything that is worth making, like a musical, or a play, or a novel. Ask Jeffrey Eugenides how long it took him to write Middlesex and he'll tell you it took nine years. Good things take time. If we insist things happen now, we're not being realistic and mature. We're not looking at the world. Yes, we must agitate. Yes, we must ask for it now, but we also have realize that it will and does take time. Otherwise, how can you fight for it? How will you be John Lewis? How do you spend your life fighting for something that you get in tiny little pieces and you keep getting pushed back?

So, we go from the idea at the beginning of the piece of "do nothing but be firm" and the end of the piece says, "Yes, but know that if you continue to go forward, the change will come."

Unbreakable will be performed at the Nourse Theater June 22-23, 2018. [ Website ]

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