Martin Luther King Jr. once said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," as he paraphrased the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore
Parker. It's optimistic, if challenged by countless acts of evil throughout our nation's history—even in the wake of
sudden tragedies, such as King's assassination in 1968, there is often an echo of justice that can hopefully sound louder than its violent catalysts. Another civil rights hero taken from us too soon was San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who is memorialized and celebrated in Broadway songwriter Andrew Lippa's oratorio I Am Harvey Milk, scheduled to be performed by the New Mexico Gay Men's Chorus this week.
Lippa's commemoration of Milk's life and death is not focused on tragedy, though that is a part of the story. Rather, he presents an abstracted expression of Milk's spirit, taking the audience through imagined scenarios such as Milk's childhood and first workday after taking office as the United States' first openly gay
The oratorio format presents the material as halfway between choral
performance and traditional theater. There are no sets, and the chorus stands behind the vocal leads as they perform contextual narrative pieces.
Bill Brooks plays Milk, with opera vet Ingela Onstad playing a motherly guiding muse alongside him. Twelve-year-old Allen Dominguez sings the pieces that imagine Milk's childhood. The music clearly comes from Lippa's experience as a Broadway songwriter, emphasizing genre and tone variety but delivered with theatrical gravitas. Perhaps the showstopper, "Tired of the Silence," uses recorded snippets of Milk's public speeches in a song that calls for members of the LGBTQ+ community not to live in secrecy, but to live out and proud.
NMGMC Artistic Director Aaron Howe says the message of I Am Harvey Milk is celebratory, describing Milk almost like a showman of his time.
"[Milk] finally found his calling when he started doing politics," Howe tells SFR. "It was almost, for him, like putting on a show. He really was a galvanizing force to bring the LGBT people out of the shadows."
While the tragedy of Milk's assassination is unavoidable, Howe says the show conveys an overall positive experience, citing Milk's activism as being focused not just on LGBTQ+ rights, but on human rights.
"Harvey Milk really was for everybody," says Howe. "For him, it was very important that he lift all people up."
Other pieces in the show do touch on the ugly truths of the country's attitude toward queer folks, and also people of color, such as "Sticks and Stones." Another piece, "I Am the Bullet," frankly addresses how Milk was killed for who he was. While it's important not to erase these pieces of history, it is refreshing for a show about such an historic icon not to simply portray him as a martyr, but a complete human being, flaws and all.
According to Howe, the song that perhaps best captures Milk's spirit is titled "Leap." Originally written by Lippa for the Broadway adaptation of the Tim Burton film Big Fish, the song was cut from that production. Here, it fits with the other songs in I Am Harvey Milk with a message to leap before you look.
"Instead of being careful about it, just jump in and do it," Howe concludes. "That really captures the spirit of Harvey Milk. It is overall a celebration and an admonition to not be afraid of who you are—we're here, and we have an important thing to say to society; we're an important part of society."