CD Review/Original Cast: I AM HARVEY MILK (San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus)

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by Tony Frankel on December 29, 2013

in CD-DVD

I AM EXHILARATED

In 1978, on the night of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations, an unprecedented candlelight march brought mourners to San Francisco’s City Hall. The newly formed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus canceled a rehearsal for their upcoming debut concert and opted to perform at the makeshift memorial service. It was there on the steps of City Hall that the world’s first openly gay chorus sang in public for the first time.

Now, 35 years later, SFGMC commissioned Broadway composer Andrew Lippa to create a tribute to the slain supervisor. The result is a 12-piece song cycle that had its world premiere in June, 2013 at the newly refurbished 1600-seat Nourse Theater in San Francisco. The concert was recorded and is now available on CD.

Andrew-Lippa-performs-in-the-world-premiere-of-I-AM-HARVEY-MILK-San-Francisco-Gay-Men’s-Chorus.I Am Harvey Milk is an oratorio: A dramatic but unstaged musical composition for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, based on a religious theme. The religion in this case is the spiritual awakening of a long-repressed community, and the music is as diverse as the citizens therein. The result is a staggering and immediately accessible triumph. This rousing and thrilling work bristles the senses and proves to be the best work yet from Lippa, best-known as composer and lyricist of The Wild Party, The Addams Family, and Big Fish (which just closed after 98 Broadway performances).

The reason for Lippa’s successful music and lyrics this time around is that he is not attached to a clunky libretto. Instead of a biographical retelling, I Am Harvey Milk takes pieces of Milk’s life and turns them into songs both general and personal. It’s remarkable how original these songs are, given they can be reminiscent of Broadway luminaries such as Schwartz and Kander (although the tunes are never derivative).

The opening number, a prelude in which the Young Harvey (boy soprano Noah Marlowe of Mary Poppins) sees his life as “An Operatic Masterpiece,” is emotionally stirring, haunting and memorable—I have played it over and over. The 11 remaining songs are subtitled for each of Milk’s last 11 months in 1978, each with a heading that begins “I AM” (I AM THE SUPERVISOR, I AM THE MOMENT, et Laura-Benanti-Andrew-Lippa-and-Noah-Marlowe-with-the-San-Francisco-Gay-Men’s-Chorus-in-the-world-premiere-of-I-AM-HARVEY-MILK.al). The unchronological order was confusing at first, but the sequence makes sense musically.

The threatening and melancholic choral work “Sticks and Stones” validates how name-calling can feel like a physical attack, a seeming triviality but an impetus for the gay rights movement. “San Francisco” is a paean to the city which is not just a healing force for broken-spirited émigrés but a soul mate as well. Remarkably, one of the most triumphant sections is “Friday Night in the Castro,” a perfect pastiche of the Paul Jabara-esque 70s disco that blared during Milk’s rise to power; the standout soloists from the chorus rev up the energy (that wild applause you hear during the song was acknowledgement for a giant disco ball that descended over the performers).

Lippa himself portrays Milk, and his strong Broadway chops are used in “Lavender Pen,” a joyous ode to Moscone’s signing of the first gay rights bill; the bouncy “You Are Here,” a celebratory and triumphant acknowledgement of Milk’s win for a supervisorial seat; and the exhilarating finale “Tired of the Silence,” which uses an actual speech of Milk’s in which he announced that the best road to freedom was to come out of the closet.

Laura Benanti (Tony-winner for Gypsy with Patti Lupone) plays the “soprano,” and her silvery voice is rich with drama when she offers a Sondheim-esque psychological exploration of a mother who initially rejected her child’s difference in “Was I Wrong?”

The-San-Francisco-Gay-Men’s-Chorus-in-the-world-premiere-of-I-AM-HARVEY-MILK.Under the direction of Dr. Timothy Seelig, the 300+ chorus members create a magnificently rich sound and the oratorio is backed by the 30-member Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, which articulates August Erksmoen’s inventive orchestrations without bringing attention to itself. It’s extraordinary that the mixing by Leslie Ann Jones at Skywalker Sound is so effective given both the huge amount of artists involved and that the recording took place in a new venue. There are, however, a few sound issues: both Benanti and Marlowe can be overmiked and shrill on their top notes; a soft humming can be occasionally heard; and some of the instruments can be drowned out.

None of this will affect your experience of this beautiful and moving work which will be appealing to lovers of both classical and Broadway music. SFGMC delivers the premiere with all the professionalism and love anyone could wish for. I Am Harvey Milk is a work which deserves to be heard time and again. And try to see it live if you can: The work was co-commissioned by other choruses and will be seen at concerts around the country in the next year.

photos by Glenn Steiner Photography

I Am Harvey Milk
San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus
Golden Gate Performing Arts, Inc., 2013
12 tracks / 57 minutes
for purchase, visit SFGMC or iTunes

future performances of I Am Harvey Milk:
Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus* – March 28 & 29, 2014
Heartland Men’s Chorus* & Gateway Men’s Chorus – March 29 & 30, 2014
Gateway Men’s Chorus & Heartland Men’s Chorus (in St Louis) – April 5, 2014
Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus* – June 7, 2014
Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles* – July 19 & 20, 2014
Vancouver Men’s Chorus* – TBD
*co-commissioning Chorus
for more info, visit www.IAmHarveyMilk.com

{ 1 comment }

Will MacAdam January 1, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Lovely and accurate review, almost as stirring as the piece itself. Kudos!

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