“I Am Harvey Milk” Shares Universal Message

Ciara Reid | Liberty Press

"Harvey Milk" rehearsalFor many, the 2008 film Milk was an introduction to Harvey Milk and what he was able to accomplish in terms of LGBTQ rights, as a politician and gay rights activist in San Francisco. The film depicts these accomplishments and his tragic murder.

On Mar. 29th and 30th, audiences at the Folly Theater will get to experience the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC)and the Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis tell the powerful story of Harvey Milk in the form of 12 emotional songs.

The choruses will be two of five gay men’s choruses nationwide that have commissioned “I Am Harvey Milk” this year. Additional performances will be held in St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri. “I Am Harvey Milk” was written by composer Andrew Lippa, a Tony and Grammy award-nominated composer.

“One of the best parts about this project is knowing it will be performed all across North America this year,” says Tom Lancaster, HMC chorus member who will be performing the role of Harvey Milk. “To be part of something that far-reaching is exciting.”

He says the HMC production will be notable for its size; they will have more than 200 voices in the chorus. Also notable is the presence of Tim Seelig as guest conductor. He conducted the world premiere of “I am Harvey Milk” in San Francisco. “Tim is a legend in the gay choral movement,” Lancaster says.

For Lancaster, the opportunity to portray Harvey Milk is the role of a lifetime. “To play an iconic, historical character is challenging, but Harvey’s passion comes through so strongly on the page, it’s very easy to identify with him,” he says. “I’ve been preparing since December, watching the film Milk and the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.”

Lancaster’s preparation also includes reading Randy Shilts’ biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, and the play Execution of Justice, which is about Dan White’s trial for the murders of Milk and George Moscone, who was mayor of San Francisco at the time. Lancaster says that even though there isn’t the chance to lapse into impersonation, as the piece is sung through, he hopes to channel the essence of Harvey Milk.

The performance, which features 12 songs, is not a meticulous biographical retelling of Milk’s life; rather, it focuses on several critical moments in his life, including the signing of the anti­discrimination bill that he sponsored. The songs, Lancaster says, touch on universal themes that everyone can relate to.

“’Thank You, Mrs. Rosenblatt’ speaks to the importance of teachers in our lives–from the teachers who taught us in school to those who ‘taught’ us by their fight for LGBT civil rights,” Lancaster explains. “’Friday Night in the Castro’ is a disco-influenced number that illustrates the mood of the Castro District of San Francisco in the 1970s. There is even a song sung from the perspective of the bullet that killed Harvey Milk.”

The performance of “I Am Harvey Milk” serves as an important reminder for the LGBTQ community to remember heroes like Milk, who have helped pave the way for progress in this country. For Lancaster, it gives the chorus members a chance to share Milk’s story, along with his significance in history.

“The battles he fought during his political career are the exact same battles being fought today, especially here in Kansas and Missouri,” he says. “We can draw inspiration from Harvey as we fight the political and religious battles that challenge us every day.”

Those who attend a performance will most certainly be moved by the power and emotion of the music. The finale in particular will stir emotions. The finale of the piece has the chorus singing the words ‘come out’ over and over again, each time with more and more force,” Lancaster explains. “It’s so simple, but it’s profound. One of Harvey’s greatest hopes was that every gay man and woman that heard his story would come out to their friends, to their families, to their communities – that we all would find the strength to live our authentic lives. And there is tremendous power in that.”

Each time Lancaster sings the 12 songs in “I am Harvey Milk,” he is moved by its overwhelming optimism. “Telling this story on stage is a deeply empowering experience, for the men on stage singing and for everyone who hears it,” he says.