Culture / Entertainment

REVIEW: ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall

Altena San Francisco, I am broken. But you welcome the broken to come and to heal. San Francisco, be my lover… I am lonely and frightened but you surround me. I am wanted and welcome and perfect with you around me.

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Image courtesy of

In the month that I was born, gay activist and politician Harvey Milk was killed in cold blood in his office in San Francisco. The timing of my birth and his death has long led me to feel inspired by and connected to his life’s work.  So, when my wife and I were invited to attend the New York premiere of Andrew Lippa’s “I Am Harvey Milk” at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall (a benefit for The Hetrick-Martin Institute), of course we accepted without hesitation.

After a bit of a fiasco at will-call, the inestimable Whoopi Goldberg introduced the show to wild and sustained applause from the nattily-dressed packed house. She was immediately followed by Cleve Jones, who memorialized Harvey Milk’s life and career. After these short remarks, the house lights lowered completely and the show began.

The seemingly universal queer experiential themes of brokenness, loss, and self-loathing are explored in Lippa’s breathtaking oratorio. Harvey Milk was a martyr for the queer cause and one of its earliest U.S. organizers in the 1970s. His life is not biographized in this work chronologically, but instead the show explored the strength that Milk had to have to blaze the trail for the rest of us.

The oratorio is unique in that it involves three main performers (in this case, Kristen Chenoweth as Milk’s mother; Noah Marlowe as the young Harvey Milk; and Lippa himself as Milk), a full orchestra on stage (Orchestra of St. Luke’s), and a tuxedoed 120-man strong choir behind the orchestra (All-Star Broadway Men’s Chorus). The timing was particularly auspicious because of the breaking Supreme Court decision on the same day to decline to hear arguments against same-sex marriage in five U.S. states. In an amazing coincidence, the San Francisco premiere had been on the day in June 2013 that the Supreme Court struck down DOMA. Both of these events, and other significant LGBT political achievements, were commemorated on the screen behind the choir with updated news clips and photos, to huge applause.

The work opens with an excerpt from Puccini’s La Boheme, with the young Harvey Milk conducting his imaginary audience. Adult Harvey Milk joins him in a rousing introduction that presents Harvey’s youthful self-confidence that indeed he would be somebody, imagining his life as “an operatic masterpiece” whose end should not be feared. For the audience aware of the tragic actual end of Milk’s story, of course, this is a very emotional entrance to the production.

There is no time to be lulled in Lippa’s production, however, as I am the Bullet comes next. This song takes the perspective of the bullet that killed Milk by piercing his brain. The bullet follows only the orders of the shooter, it claims. The bullet imagines that Milk felt pain but at that moment was thinking of music and light. The strength of the men singing becomes evident at this time. It is a dark, dramatic, unusual choral piece that leaves the audience breathless.

The arc of the show follows Milk from election to death thematically. Milk is elected to office and somewhat incredulous that he is “the first gay man” to have done this. Friday Night in the Castro remembers the energy of the gay meccas of the 1970s, before AIDS decimated both the population of young gay men and much of the nightlife and fun of the time. I can honestly say that I never expected a disco ball to light the hallowed classical hall that is Avery Fisher at Lincoln Center. It was pulled off magnificently, however, and had the entire 2,700+ audience participating as the chorus broke into dance with incredibly synchronized clapping for a group of 120!

Was I Wrong? deepens the theme of difference and loss as the soprano/mother-figure (in this case, Chenoweth) asks herself and young Harvey if she should have done something differently, accepted him more. It was very moving to me as a parent, knowing the pain that she may have had trying to understand her child’s difference. It is a story of coming out to those who mean the most, and whose rejection we fear the most.

A particularly challenging piece to listen to is Sticks and Stones, that uses some of the epithets that have been used against us, to challenge us to understand how words truly do hurt. The rawness of the words cuts through the audience and forces us to listen.

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The pinnacle of the production for me was the song San Francisco, a work that explores the need for many of us queers to find our home and community in a chosen family outside of our birth family, often in a major metropolitan area such as New York or in this case, San Francisco (the oratorio was originally commissioned for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus).  The lyrics speak for themselves: “San Francisco, I am broken. But you welcome the broken to come and to heal. San Francisco, be my lover… I am lonely and frightened but you surround me. I am wanted and welcome and perfect with you around me.” It is the most breathtaking moment in the show, and I can only imagine that at performances in the city itself, there was not a dry eye in the house. The rich sound of the choral performers filled the large hall with a musical embrace and a shared feeling of “yes, now we are home.” After this song, a plea to the city to take in those of us who may not fit in in our “Iowa towns,” it is challenging to conclude the show in a composed way.

Milk’s mother-figure again appears to encourage us to “leap before you look,” which my children particularly appreciated when I played it back to them this evening. All of us need to do this sometimes, to take these risks to improve and change the world.

So yes, I am Harvey Milk. You are Harvey Milk. We are all Harvey Milk, and Jane Addams, and Langston Hughes, and Cleve Jones, and Audre Lorde, and every average ordinary queer person who ever walked even one step ahead of us. The music brought me to tears multiple times both last night and as I listened again to the piece repeatedly today, the day after. The world can only imagine the good works that Milk would have performed if Dan White had not raised a gun to his head and to that of George Moscone, the first mayor to sign gay rights legislation into municipal law.

What is the takeaway message from “I Am Harvey Milk?” It is Milk’s greatest theme as well and the leitmotif of the finale – to come out. Lippa wrote, “Come out to your friends, to your parents, to your boss. To your neighbors, to your sons. To your daughters, out to all your fellow workers. To your cops. To your doctors, to the shops where you spend money, to your god. To your teachers, to yourselves. Come out to yourselves! Come out!” The greatest change can be achieved when we cease, worldwide, to be reviled and despised, and instead valued for our unique perspectives, and this can only happen if we make ourselves visible and counted! Thank you, Harvey, and Andrew Lippa.

The original San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus version of I Am Harvey Milk is available on iTunes.

Spruce Lake Theatrical’s performance of I Am Harvey Milk is available on SoundCloud.

Harvey Milk commemorative stamps are currently available from the United States Postal Service.

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  1. Deborah Goldstein says:

    Seriously, I got goose bumps reading this review. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there. Such an inspirational man.

  2. Jan Kaminsky says:

    Thanks for saying that, Deborah. I am listening to it a LOT this week and finding great inspiration. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be exactly who I am, and people like Harvey Milk make me proud of our heritage, honestly. Listen to it if you get a chance, you will not regret it!

  3. Thanks, Jan for this “nattily” written review. What a terrific cast as well. Hoping to see it. Cheers.

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