BWW Reviews: HARVEY MILK 2013 with SF GAY MEN'S CHORUS and ANDREW LIPPA Celebrates the Human Spirit

By: Jul. 04, 2013
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Hodges and Hodges attended an historic night at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco as droves of people came out to celebrate the 35th anniversary season of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (SFGMC). Thirty-five years ago the Chorus made their public debut on the steps of City Hall during the candlelight vigil held for slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, was adamant that gay people needed to come out because it gave the gay community -- and those still in the closet -- hope.

His life and his legacy were celebrated in the world premiere performance of Harvey Milk 2013: I Am The Legacy and I Am Harvey Milk -- respectively Act 1 and Act II.

"I Am The Legacy" featured a variety of performance pieces submitted by artists from around the San Francisco Bay area. "I Am Harvey Milk," starring Andrew Lippa as Harvey, soprano Laura Benanti as Harvey's mother and Noah Marlow as the young Harvey, was created (words and music) by Tony and Grammy nominated Andrew Lippa. The entire night featured the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus accompanied by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony.

The auspiciousness of the occasion wasn't lost on anyone - especially since Prop 8 plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier were in attendance. (We talked to them afterward and their review of the show was glowing!) Following on the heels of the Supreme Court decision to strike down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and to declare Prop 8 unconstitutional, Nourse Theatre was the place to be! We could both feel the energy in the theatre and it helped to build excitement and anticipation for the performance ahead. What a night!

Nick: When the curtains opened and the lights dimmed, I saw the Chorus with candles in their hands and it took my breath away. As they stood on stage, more members walked down the aisles recreating the candlelight vigil that happened 35 years ago. You felt Harvey's presence in the hall.

Linda: There was a powerful sense of community permeating every corner of the theatre. It was beautiful and truly set the stage for the performance. I'm guessing that there were a lot of people there who were at the vigil all those years ago, including special guest Cleve Jones who later opened Act II.

Nick: What many may not know is that Harvey Milk recorded himself on tape saying that it was to be played if he was assassinated. He clearly knew that he was a target. As the Chorus members processed, Harvey's words rung out, "I feel it's important that some people know my thoughts....Brothers and Sisters! You must come out, come out, come out!" I couldn't help but think that every person in that theatre knew his thoughts and heard his message of hope and even of joy.

Linda: The joy and lighter side of the evening was definitely felt in the hilarious number "I Met A Boy" with music and lyrics by Steve Schalchlin. Schalchlin's song highlighted how gay men dealt with homophobia in their respective times - back to 1958 and then to the present. The Chorus had fun making jokes during the rollicking number.

Nick: I'm so glad that I was born in the late 80s.

Linda: Agreed. Those were different times, Nick. It was very hard just to be out in the 50s. But Harvey was right - coming out made gay people visible. And when a gay person is your friend, neighbor, or family member - you stop being afraid.

Nick: Act I ended the anthem "Give 'em Hope" with music by Joseph M. Martin.

Linda: The lyrics, (by Pamela Stewart), were based on the words of Harvey Milk. "You've got to give 'em hope." Approximately 5 minutes in length the song built slowly, weaving Harvey's words into a stirring anthem that was bright with melodic harmonies and, you guessed it, hope. It brought the house down.

Nick: And that was just Act I!

Linda: Lippa had a tough act to follow but Act II was every bit as good. You couldn't go wrong opening it with Cleve Jones, the man who started out as a student intern in Milk's office and became a close friend. He voice was shaking when said that he was one of the first on the scene after Harvey had been shot.

Nick: That moved me to tears. The imagery he used was very powerful.

Linda: But the night wasn't all a tearful remembrances of Harvey. There was much shared about his own hopes and dreams and what it meant to him to be the first out, gay person elected to office.

Nick: More than simply a biography of his life, Lippa's genius was in capturing key moments and suffusing the songs with the essence of what Harvey must have been feeling at the time. The song "I AM THE SUPERVISOR: You Are Here," in particular defined the heart of Harvey's awe and even doubt about his tremendous undertaking.

Linda: That was my favorite song. Lippa's strong Broadway tenor, backed by the Chorus, was sublime. The song was humorous as well as powerfully poignant. "...First Gay Man - elected to - I'm that Man / Elected to -Gay and Jew, Jew and Gay / What would the Pope say? / What would my mom say... / First Gay Man, elected to represent / Expected to change and cope...give them hope...!"

Nick: That song made me feel like I could become anything I wanted to be. It was followed by "I AM THE CASTRO: Friday Night in the Castro" and featured the Chorus with fantastic solos by Ryan Bobadilla, Alex Goro, Cyrus Mallare, Scott O'Brien and Drew Staffen. It was a fun tribute to the 70's dance scene in the Castro when Harvey was there. Loved the disco ball and the "Staying Alive" moves.

Linda: The song, "I AM THE MOMENT: Lavender Pen," spoke to the fact that Harvey had given Mayor Moscone a lavender pen and when they got the gay civil rights bill passed, Moscone signed the bill with that pen. Again, Lippa was able to capture an awestruck Harvey, hardly able to believe that he was witnessing the signing of this oh, so very important legislation. "Someone with a pen in hand / Took a step. Took a Stand / And we did it with a lavender pen." Nothing less than inspiring.

Nick: Absolutely. And the song "I AM SAN FRANCISCO: San Francisco," succinctly and beautifully conveyed the feeling that so many gay men had who moved here from places like Iowa, hoping to live authentic lives in the City by the Bay. You could feel the vulnerability woven throughout. "...San Francisco, I have no one / I am hoping / You'll hold me / I am broken but you welcome the broken to heal / San Francisco, be my lover / Make me real."

Linda: It makes me so proud of the Bay Area. That song reminded me that in March of 2000, the Bay Area's five counties were the only ones to vote solidly against California's Prop. 22 - which restricted marriages to opposite-sex couples. But not anymore. Those days are gone.

Nick: The last song, "I AM Harvey Milk: Tired of the Silence," was such a fitting finale. We are all Harvey Milk. "Together is better than alone / The hate won't vanish on its own." SFGMC outdid themselves with Harvey Milk 2013. Harvey would have been so proud.

Linda: I Am Harvey Milk soars even as it moves you to tears, joyously celebrating the human spirit and our shared humanity. You cannot help but be touched by the message and the magic of Harvey Milk as brought to life in Lippa's work.

HODGES AND HODGES: Dear Harvey Milk, SFGMC and Andrew Lippa - thanks to you, we've all got hope.

Harvey Milk 2013

SFGMC Artistic Director and Conductor Tim Seelig

Orchestrations by August Erksmoen with accompaniment by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony

I Am The Legacy, features a variety of performance pieces celebrating the legacy of Harvey Milk submitted by artists from around the San Francisco Bay Area.

I Am Harvey Milk by Andrew Lippa, was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, along with Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, Dayton Gay Men's Chorus, Denver Gay Men's Chorus, Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus and Heartland Men's Chorus. Following this World Premiere Event, the piece will be made available for choruses to perform from Coast

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Photo courtesy of Glenn Steiner Photography