Two Men’s Choruses Unite to Celebrate Harvey Milk

On the last weekend in March, Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus and Gateway Men’s Chorus of St. Louis will combine their voices to perform the Midwest premiere of the oratorio I Am Harvey Milk. Part choral performance and part theater, the piece celebrates Milk’s life, from his childhood to his public career in San Francisco to his assassination.

A preview concert was held in Columbia, Mo., on March 8, and an encore concert is scheduled for April 5 in St. Louis. San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director and conductor Tim Seelig, who conducted the June 2013 world premiere in San Francisco, will serve as guest conductor along with Dustin S. Cates, director of Choral Activities at Olathe East High School. The Kansas City concerts will be at 8 p.m. March 29 and 4 p.m. March 30 at the Folly Theater.

I Am Harvey Milk, with music and words by Andrew Lippa, was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, along with Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, Vancouver Men’s Chorus and Heartland Men’s Chorus.

The newly formed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was scheduled to rehearse on the evening of Nov. 27, 1978, the day that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Instead, members gathered on the steps of City Hall. There, during an impromptu vigil for the fallen leaders, the group’s blended voices were first heard in public.

For the Missouri performances, Tom Lancaster of Heartland Men’s Chorus will play the adult Harvey Milk. He said his appreciation of Milk’s work grew throughout the project:
I don’t have any personal memories of Harvey Milk. I was only 9 years old when he was assassinated. But I have vivid memories of Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children campaign, which fought so bitterly against the gay rights movement. I remember seeing her interviewed on television and seeing my parents nodding their heads in agreement with what she said. I learned later that Save Our Children helped introduce Proposition 6 in California, the proposed law that would make firing gay public school employees mandatory. The proposition failed, largely due to the work of Harvey Milk. It was his first major political victory.

I’ve learned a lot about Harvey while doing research — most striking was his connection to music. He loved opera from the time he was a child, and in the early 1970s he assisted the director of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway. I love that we’re telling his story in a medium that resonated with him.

I hope audiences respond to the piece the way I did when I first heard it. It’s so easy to become complacent — to become apathetic about the struggles we still face. Experiencing Harvey’s story told in this music sparked a fire in me — I wanted to get up and march in protest, I wanted to write my congressman, I wanted to make my voice heard as a member of the LGBT community. It helped me connect to a passion that had dulled over the years. I hope everyone who experiences the concert will react as passionately.

To learn more about the composition, go to I Am Harvey Milk
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Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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