Kristin Shafel Omiccioli | KCMetropolis.org
Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk made history in 1977 as the first openly gay person elected in California, serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After nearly 11 months in office, Milk was assassinated by recently resigned fellow city supervisor Dan White, who wanted his position back. An early advocate for gay rights, Milk’s legacy has been immortalized in films, books, opera, and now a new 60-minute oratorio by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish, The Wild Party). KCM executive editor Kristin Shafel Omiccioli spoke with Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) executive director Rick Fisher and HMC member Tom Lancaster about the HMC’s upcoming presentation of I Am Harvey Milk.
Kristin: I listened to a recording and it’s clear that, while Milk and his life are the central focus of I Am Harvey Milk, the themes run deeper than simple biography and go far beyond politics. Can you speak to some of the broader themes—bullying, activism, community, hope, pride, authentic living, etc.?
Rick Fisher: The piece is not really biographical, and listeners wouldn’t necessarily walk away knowing Harvey Milk’s life story. To provide the background, we’ve marshaled a number of educational resources in conjunction with the concert. These include showings of the movie Milk and the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, notes from the composer in our printed program, a pre-concert talk 30 minutes prior to curtain by Stuart Hinds of the Gay & Lesbian Archives of Mid-America (GLAMA), and extensive background information on our website. All of the themes you listed are found within the musical—universal themes of contemporary relevance, even 35 years after Harvey Milk’s assassination. What is remarkable is that they are drawn from the life and work of a man who was not particularly remarkable by most accounts. Yet he stepped forward and did remarkable things, becoming a hero and a martyr for what he believed. Lippa’s goal was that every single person who hears this would somehow resonate with the person who was Harvey Milk and look for the part of Harvey within them—the hero. Thus, the title: I Am Harvey Milk.
Tom Lancaster: It’s been interesting to experience reactions of chorus members during the rehearsal process. Some didn’t know anything about Milk when we began; others only knew his name or had seen the 2008 movie. But during rehearsals, chorus members started to relate to Harvey’s story in very specific and personal ways. The song “San Francisco” is about the promise that city held for so many young gay people in the 1970s. During rehearsals, members of the chorus talked about “their” San Francisco. For some who grew up in rural Kansas or Missouri, they looked at Kansas City as a place where they could find other people like them. In some cases it was a first love that was “their” San Francisco. Some even shared that HMC is “their” San Francisco—a place where they could be safe and be accepted and heal.
The song “Sticks and Stones” includes repeated use of the word “faggot” and other slurs, and chorus members have talked with one another about what it means to sing that word, and they’ve shared their experiences with childhood bullying and name calling. For some it’s been a difficult process to sing those lyrics. They’ve had to work past the hurt experienced hearing those words in their lives. [Guest conductor] Tim Seelig has been very helpful in getting chorus members to form a personal connection with this material, and because so many of the themes are so universal, it’s been easy to do.
KSO: With people in the public eye coming out more frequently (U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam) and freedom to marry sweeping states one by one lately, how timely is it that we look back at the life and work of Harvey Milk now? His accomplishments obviously still resonate.
RF: Milk was one of the early generation of pioneers for LGBT acceptance and equal rights. In recent years, we have seen remarkable advances in civil rights for LGBT people. This is the legacy of Milk and other early pioneers, who courageously came out at a time when that was neither safe nor accepted. Today, young people are coming out at increasingly younger ages. It is so important that we remember where we came from, honor our heroes and teach our history, and this musical provides a compelling way to do that.
TL: It was surreal to rehearse this material and read news of LGBT victories and challenges happening at the same time. One day there would be a ruling striking down a ban on same-sex marriage in a particular state. The next day, I’d read of proposed legislation allowing people to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Civil rights struggles in Uganda and Russia were in the news cycle as we were rehearsing. When Michael Sam came out, there were journalists on television asking why, in 2014, it was even important to come out publicly. But it is. I still know young men and women who are closeted among some family and friends. Just a few days ago, I had a friend tell me he couldn’t post certain pictures on Facebook because his boyfriend isn’t out at work. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way still to go.
KSO: What was HMC’s role in the commissioning process for I Am Harvey Milk? How did the partnership with the Gateway Men’s Chorus for these performances come about?
RF: The commissioning project was launched by Dr. Tim Seelig, artistic director of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, who conducted the world premiere last June and will be our guest conductor for the KC performances. He invited other gay men’s choruses to join in the project, and HMC enthusiastically signed on, along with four other groups in North America. [A conductor, singer, teacher, and author, Seelig] was previously on the faculty of Southern Methodist University and is Conductor Emeritus of the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas, Texas, which he conducted for 20 years. HMC last collaborated with Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis in 1997. Former HMC artistic director Dr. Joe Nadeau and GMC artistic director Al Fischer had discussed collaboration for several years, and this program emerged as the perfect opportunity. Recently, a joint rehearsal of the two choruses allowed for an out-of-town preview performance in Columbia, Missouri. So, the choruses literally are sharing this music and its important message across the state of Missouri.
KSO: What can audiences expect at your I Am Harvey Milk performances? I love the publicity artwork, by the way—will we see more of Bill Nelson’s art in the Folly? Will there be props, costumes, and acting as we usually enjoy at HMC shows (like For a Look or a Touch, for example)? How are two large choirs (!) going to fit on the Folly stage? Will your orchestra be expanded as well? Do you have any special guest artists for I Am Harvey Milk?
RF: I Am Harvey Milk will be performed with about 180 singers on stage, three marvelous soloists in the lead roles, and a 17-piece orchestra. The musical will be enhanced by projected visuals that have become a distinctive and distinguishing feature of HMC performances. The lead soloists will be in period appropriate dress; Young Harvey, played by Cam Burns, will appear as a boy in the 1940s; Harvey Milk, played by Tom Lancaster, will look very 1970s. Sylvia Stoner plays the role of Soprano, representing various female characters in our lives such as mother, teacher, etc.
TL: It’s a very collaborative concert. Dustin Cates will conduct HMC in the first act, and Dr. Seelig will conduct I Am Harvey Milk, which makes up the second act of the program. Gateway Men’s Chorus will perform a solo set in the first act and join HMC for I Am Harvey Milk. And we’ll have two guest performers: soprano Sylvia Stoner and 13-year-old Cam Burns. Sylvia’s “character” does not have a name; she serves as a female voice throughout the piece—Harvey’s mother, his teacher, his own conscience. Cam plays young Harvey Milk. He first joined HMC at a preview performance of the work in Columbia, and he was phenomenal—many members of the chorus and the audience could identify with his character. He begins the piece singing “I want my life to be just like an opera at the MET. Three hours in the dark where love is found in one duet.” People wept when they heard him sing those lines, partly because of the tragic end Harvey Milk met, but also because it is so easy to identify with being that child searching for love and escaping into a world of music.
KSO: Tom, as the work’s titular character, what about Harvey is guiding your portrayal of him?
TL: I’ve sung with HMC since August of 2000. I joined the chorus three weeks after moving to Kansas City from Houston, Texas. I’ve sung as a soloist with the chorus before, and I’ve worked professionally as an actor in and around Kansas City. I prepared by doing a lot of research: reading the Randy Shilts’ biography of Harvey Milk (The Mayor of Castro Street), watching the documentary and the feature film, and re-reading the play Execution of Justice about Dan White’s trial for the murders of Milk and George Moscone. The research was very helpful but the thing I try to keep in mind is that Harvey was an ordinary man who fought to get a platform for his voice. In archival footage, his contemporaries often describe him as an “unremarkable” man—but he saw injustice and ran for office to change his community.
KSO: No doubt the title alone points to how we may all be like Harvey. What would you like concert-goers to take away from the show?
TL: My hope is that this piece stirs a passion in every member of the audience. It certainly did for me. I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but experiencing this story has made me more vocal. It sparked a fire in me to speak out—to realize the tremendous power in coming out and living life authentically. One of Harvey’s biggest objectives was to convince the gay men and women who heard his voice to come out to their friends, neighbors, and coworkers. It’s hard to fight against equal rights when you can put a face on those being denied equality.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus will present I Am Harvey Milk on Saturday, March 29 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 4:00 p.m. at the Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Mo. For more information about HMC or to purchase tickets, visit https://hmckc.org.