Heartland Men’s Chorus finds meaning in ‘I Am Harvey Milk’

Lisa Gutierrez | Kansas City Star

zstzt.St.81The song is called “Sticks and Stones.”

The first time the Heartland Men’s Chorus sang it preparing for this week’s show was a little dicey for some of the guys.

The song includes a litany of gay slurs, words of hatred that would have to come out of their own mouths, harmoniously no less.

They would have to sing that word, the f-word.


How many times they’ve heard it, how many times someone has called Greg Maupins that name, whispered under the breath.

Cowards shoot from the shadows.

“It’s usually something as you’re walking by,” says the retail sales manager, a member of the chorus for 15 years. “It’s close enough so only you hear it. That’s when those names come out.”

There’s a lot in “I Am Harvey Milk” that resonates with Maupins and his fellow chorus members, who will perform it this weekend with members of another gay chorus, the Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis.

The oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa — part theater, part choral performance — celebrates the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

In the era of Donna Summer, leisure suits and disco naps, Milk ran in San Francisco to give gay people a voice. He asked much of them at a time when even the cops were harassing gays. He challenged them to be visible, to live their lives authentically. He asked them to come out of the closet.

His stump line became iconic: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.”

1cNCQW.St.81On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were gunned down at city hall by Dan White, a former city supervisor. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of the slain activist in the 2008 movie “Milk.”

As a gay advocate himself, chorus member Randy Hite knew Milk’s story well but says some younger singers did not until they started working on this production.

“It’s so important that we tell our stories. We have to keep them alive,” says Hite, who works for the U.S. Postal Service. “And, as a postal employee, I’m so excited that there’s a Harvey Milk stamp coming out this year. In a way, with this music and that stamp, it’s kind of like his time has come.”

The night of the assassinations, the fledgling San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus made its public debut on the steps of City Hall during a somber candlelight vigil for the slain men.

To mark its 35th season, the San Francisco group — and five gay men’s choruses, including Heartland — commissioned this work. Audiences that saw the premiere in San Francisco last year were moved to tears.

“I saw the chorus with candles in their hands, and it took my breath away,” wrote one reviewer for Broadway World. “As they stood onstage, more members walked down the aisles re-creating the candlelight vigil that happened 35 years ago. You felt Harvey’s presence in the hall.”

Lippa, the show’s composer, portrayed Milk that night. Heartland member Tom Lancaster, a professional actor who has sung with the chorus since 2000, will fill that role in Kansas City.

“For me, there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to represent this man. You’re playing an American civil rights hero,” says Lancaster. “I did a ton of research … tried to get the specifics of who he was in my bones. But it’s a very basic story of a very simple man who tried to get a platform for his voice.”

Lippa, the Tony- and Grammy-nominated composer of “The Addams Family” and “Big Fish,” has said in interviews that he felt a special kinship with the older Milk, who took office about the time of Lippa’s bar mitzvah.

“I Am Harvey Milk” is less chronological biography than it is a musical highlight reel in 12 movements that celebrate key themes of Milk’s life.

One of Lancaster’s favorite songs is “San Francisco.” As the choruses sing, images of the city appear on a screen where photos and footage of Milk’s life are shown throughout the performance.

“It’s almost a prayer to that city and what it meant to gay men and women as a place where they could go and come out,” Lancaster says.

Hite was also moved by the tribute to the city that so famously gave harbor to the gay community.

“There’s a line in that song that says, ‘I am broken,’ ” Hite says. “That’s an emotional line for me to sing because there have been times when I have — as we all have — been broken.”

Maupins, who came out when he was in his late 20s, connected with a song called “Was I Wrong,” sung by soprano soloist Sylvia Stoner.

“Like a lot of people who have had children come out to them, my parents went through this whole deal: ‘What did we do wrong? Why is it this way?’ ” Maupins says. “It took me time to convince them that this is who I am , and as far as I have memory, this has been a part of me. Don’t try to take responsibility.”

He told his dad that being gay didn’t negate anything he’d accomplished thus far in life. He was gay when he went college, and he was gay when he served in the Air Force.

“You can’t revoke your pride now,” he told his dad. “You can still be proud.”

The show ends with a song called “Tired of the Silence.”

As images of public figures who have come out flash on the screen, the choir sings “Come out, come out, come out. …”

Dozens of times they sing it, forcefully, passionately, like preachers calling souls to salvation.

Saturday and Sunday

“I Am Harvey Milk,” a celebration of the life and legacy of civil rights icon Harvey Milk by the Heartland Men’s Chorus and Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis, has two performances: 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th St. Tickets are $15-$40 through HMCKC.org or 816-931-3338. Soloists include Tom Lancaster, Cam Burns and Sylvia Stoner. Thirty minutes before each performance, Stuart Hinds, director of the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America, will talk about “An Emerging Community: Gay Kansas City in the ’70s.”