Men’s choruses use song to declare ‘I Am Harvey Milk’

Any Wilder | Columbia Daily Tribune

Heartland Men's Chorus

The Heartland Men’s Chorus of Kansas City will team with the Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis to present selections from Andrew Lippa’s “I Am Harvey Milk” on Saturday at Missouri United Methodist Church.

Men’s choruses from Kansas City and St. Louis will combine forces Saturday to present a free concert with musical selections from “I Am Harvey Milk” by Grammy-nominated composer Andrew Lippa. Tim Seelig, artistic director and conductor of the Golden Gate Performing Arts and San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus — who conducted the world premiere of Lippa’s production in San Francisco — will conduct.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus of Kansas City and the Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis will converge on Columbia for a daylong rehearsal Saturday, followed by that evening’s performance.

“I saw that as an opportunity for us to” perform “in the Columbia community,” said Heartland Men’s Chorus Executive Director Rick Fisher. “We were there several years ago and had a really great experience doing an outreach performance, … and it’s time for us to return.” The concert is a preview performance, presented by the University of Missouri LGBTQ Resource Center; in late March and early April, the two choirs will perform in Kansas City and St. Louis, respectively.

The music centers on the life of Milk, an openly gay man who made history when elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He helped pass a gay rights ordinance for that city before being murdered in 1978 by another city supervisor, Dan White. With the recent coming out of MU football player Michael Sam, Fisher called the Columbia concert timely.

“The Columbia community — and the nation — have really been focusing on this issue,” he said. “It’s interesting … the emphasis of Harvey Milk’s life and legacy is that you have to come out and that when you come out, it’s going to make a difference in society. He was talking in a time when no one talked about being gay, when it was secret, covered up and hidden. I think we have seen, over the decades since he was alive, how that call has really manifested itself in the reality that society has become more accepting.”

Tom Lancaster, an actor who sings the part of Milk and has been a member of the Heartland Men’s Chorus since 2000, agreed, citing recent news reports about gay rights struggles around the world. It’s not necessary to have an interest in or know much about Milk to enjoy the songs, he added.

“The great thing is that it’s specific to his story, but it’s also so universal. The songs touch on themes that literally anyone can relate to, from bullying to the importance of teachers in our lives to the inspiration of music.”

Lancaster never thought of himself as particularly political before joining the chorus, but as he has witnessed the power of song to affect people and help change attitudes about social issues, it has “really tuned me into a kind of advocacy I didn’t know before,” he said. The all-volunteer chorus, composed of gay and “gay-sensitive people,” often addresses social issues through song, performs benefit concerts for various organizations and focuses on community outreach.

The experience of singing about, or hearing songs about, deeply charged issues really has the power to inspire, he continued. “I’ve seen audiences cry; I’ve seen members of the chorus onstage moved to tears. … That’s what’s kept me a member of the chorus all these years. We get letters and emails following performances almost routinely, from people who are coming out, or people who are learning to accept a son or a daughter, or people who are challenging their own belief system.”

“We combine the music and the entertainment with a sense of activism and using our voices to create social change,” Fisher said. “The thrust of the piece is not as much to tell about Harvey Milk as an historical character, but it’s about encouraging the listener to find the Harvey Milk within themselves — the person that is the hero. Harvey was an ordinary person that did extraordinary things. We all have that capacity.”

This article was published in the Sunday, March 2, 2014 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline “Joining forces: Men’s choruses use song to declare ‘I Am Harvey Milk’.”

This article was published in the Sunday, March 2, 2014 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline “Joining forces: Men’s choruses use song to declare ‘I Am Harvey Milk’.”