The Broadway Blog’s West Coast correspondent Gabriella West catches the 35th Anniversary performance of The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, including the premiere of Andrew Lippa’s I Am Harvey Milk.
I thought I knew a lot about Harvey Milk before going to tonight’s event, but I didn’t know much about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, beyond having gone to a Christmas Eve show at the Castro once.
However, I came away from tonight’s beautiful performance aware that I’d been part of an important community event, and way more clued in about the SFGMC’s place in San Francisco history. What I didn’t know was that Harvey Milk and the Chorus were connected right from the beginning: according to the program, the SFGMC first performed on the City Hall steps before tens of thousands on the night of Milk’s tragic death in 1978. Then, despite the ravages of AIDS beginning in the early 80s, which took the life of founder Jon Sims, the SFGMC carried on, though with thinning ranks. (Two pages in the program are filled with the names of more than 300 members who died.)
The Nourse Theater, which recently reopened after years of being used as a storage facility, is part of the enormous San Francisco Unified School District building. (It’s now also the new home of City Arts and Lectures.) As we drove up Franklin Street, we saw a group of men walking down the street in black jackets and white shirts headed for one of the entrances. They looked a bit like waiters. Then I thought: It’s the Chorus!
This former high school auditorium turned out to be a gorgeous venue for the show. It has an art deco look reminiscent of the Castro Theater, but the chairs go right up to the stage and the audience feels less distanced. I loved the immediacy of it. As we all sat down, the room darkened, and the recorded voice of Harvey Milk was heard as his words appeared on the screen. This was taken from the tape he made shortly before his death, the “If I am assassinated…” tape. The combination of Harvey’s voice and the prophetic words was eerie—and then a slow candle-lit procession began as part of the Chorus entered down two aisles. Meanwhile, other Chorus members filled the stage.
As video images began to flash across the scene, photos of pride and equality, of gay activists from the present, going right up the Supreme Court victory on Wednesday, the singing began. The first piece was called “We Will Know.” I found the sound of the ensemble’s voices extremely soothing and I wondered if this “soothing” quality would carry throughout the evening. The first few numbers were definitely spiritual and reflective—although “I Met a Boy” (with its theme of meeting and settling down in the Castro in gay bliss) was campy and “Give ‘em Hope” roused the audience. The wonderful acoustics and the attentive, appreciative audience meant that time went really fast. I shouldn’t forget the dance performance piece (Chad Dawson and James Graham) and the piano solo by Julian Hornik. Part of the “I Am the Legacy” portion of the evening, it was so well integrated with the chorus’s numbers that it was hard to differentiate who was doing what and it reminded me of the Yeats line, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” The mood was embracing, hopeful. It was the strongest part of the evening for me.
Take the jump for Act II and a behind-the-scenes peek with Andrew Lippa.
After the intermission, Harvey’s friend Cleve Jones spoke briefly—a highlight for me, as I find him a fascinating character. He said that when he viewed Harvey’s body that night, all he could think was, “It’s over.” Act 2 was the world premiere of Andrew Lippa’s commissioned “I Am Harvey Milk,” described as “a new choral work.” It had an operatic feel. The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony accompanied the piece. Andrew Lippa played Harvey himself, Noah Marlowe was young Harvey, and Laura Benanti was the Soprano soloist. (Her voice was admittedly amazing.) The Chorus took part as well, most notably in a powerful piece called “I Am the Bullet,” where the “soothing” quality of the early pieces was replaced by a frightening, almost militaristic intensity. I would say that Act 2 was intense, but for me it didn’t have the thematic clarity of Act 1. But the audience seemed to love it. And the idea that these very deeply San Francisco pieces will go on now to be played in choruses all over the country is oddly satisfying.
After the show, it seemed appropriate to walk past City Hall in its haze of rainbow colors celebrating Gay Pride month, shining in the dark. But I could not forget that City Hall was the place where Harvey and Mayor Moscone were murdered, too. Sometimes San Francisco seems like a ghost town now: a spiritually deadened place. This fantastic concert brought back to me a little of the sweetness and strength of community spirit that I know was there in the ’70s, that I experienced a little bit of in the ’80s and ’90s, and can sometimes feel so lost today.
Gabriella West is the author of two novels. She earned an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 1995.