Passionate. That’s the word that comes to mind listening to Andrew Lippa discussing I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk. There’s a breathless intensity to everything he says. It all matters.
We begin by talking about religion. Born and raised Jewish and with that as a fundamental part of his identity – even being active as a lay cantor for many years – Lippa found that Judaism alone didn’t fulfill his need to get “closer to God and closer to himself.” He then discovered One Spirit Learning Alliance in New York – an interfaith school/seminary/community – it spoke loudly to him and he became an active member.
That experience seems also to have changed his work: “For me, my relationship to that which is beyond me has changed – and that includes music, theater, and love.” He doesn’t label “that which is beyond,” but seems comfortable with individual choices, such as “the unexplained, the force, whatever speaks to you.”
This reminds him of a conversation he had with the songwriter Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked, etc.) – “my friend and mentor for twenty-two years.” Schwartz said: “At some point you’ll find you’re writing the same thing over and over, however different the stories are.” Thinking about that, Lippa asked himself, “What am I led to?” At first he thought it was “otherness” – being “Jewish, left-handed, gay…” and myriad other things. “But No, I’m writing about religion. Religion from the point of view of people believing in something bigger than yourself. Milk was fulfilling the Hillellian command: ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But when I am for myself, then what am “I”? And if not now, when?’”
Lippa raises the issue of the dichotomy between what separates us and what binds us — does being part of one group separate us from the others? Lippa lists “binding forces” that he could be put in: “Judaism, sexuality, Caucasian, male, University of Michigan alumni…” But as much as he chooses not to label himself, we do detour back to the influence his Jewishness had on him: “Of course I see the world as a Jew.” While I wasn’t surprised that that might be reflected in his music for Harvey Milk, I am surprised when Lippa gives another example, Gomez’s song to Wednesday, “Happy-Sad,” in his musical The Addams Family. That reminds him of seeing Fiddler on the Roof…in Israel…in Hebrew…when he was 46. To his surprise, it was the song “To Life” that “brought [him] to his knees crying – how community created meaningful moments.”
I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON/I AM HARVEY MILK
April 23 – 24, 2016
Strathmore Music Center
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, MD 20852
Tickets: $39 – $149
Details and Tickets
I learn from Lippa that there’s a quote on the cover of everybody’s scripts for Hutchinson/Milk. It’s by Cory Booker, the U.S. Senator from New Jersey: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.”
Lippa seems as excited by quotes of others as he is about his own works – sharing them, thinking about them, crediting them. It’s as though they are manifestations of his feelings about interconnectedness. After the Booker quote he leaps almost immediately to this from Ernest Kurtz, the author of The Spirituality of Imperfection: “When we accept ourselves in all our weaknesses, flaws, failings we can begin to fulfill a more challenging responsibility: accepting the weakness and limitations of those we love……Then we can be able to accept the defects and massive shortcomings of those we find difficult to love.”
This brings us to what’s happening around us today, politically and socially. It is, Lippa says, “What North Carolina can’t understand. Bigots can’t acknowledge shared weaknesses: ‘We must separate you.’ It’s the equivalent of putting people in a moral prison.” Lippa is aware of how prescient and pertinent Hutchinson/Milk may seem, but claims no credit. “It’s a lucky thing. Art is about timing as much as anything.
It looks like we have our finger on the pulse of the moment [in Anne Hutchinson] – a woman thwarted by a right wing guy who’s revered.” The show’s director, Noah Himmelstein, has described Anne Hutchinson as a colonial-era Malala Yousafzai. Lippa notes that Hutchinson insisted, speaking of controversial religious ideas: everyone has a right to know this. A belief that in many places “women are still punished for today.”
Lippa thinks of both Milk and Hutchinson as immigrants. While her journey from England to New England was a greater distance, his from New York to San Francisco was both a change of state and a state of mind. At a deep level he sees them as interconnected – sharing a “lineage and provenance of civil libertarianism.”
Andrew Lippa rehearsing I Am Harvey Milk with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, June, 2013
At the end we turn to more earthly aspects of these paired oratorios. The most surprising thing is that although the two parts are aligned emotionally, in their technical creation they are in many ways opposites. When Lippa first wrote I Am Harvey Milk, it was a commission and he had no notion that it would be paired with anything. He did not write it with the idea that he would ever end-up playing Milk himself – nothing was tailored to his voice. And the piece itself is non-chronological. It was only as the piece was being developed that others convinced him that he would be the ideal person to portray Milk. What finally convinced him was the sense that their similarities made it seem fated – not only were they both born Jewish and gay men, but Milk was 48 when the show takes place and Lippa was 48 as he was writing it.
Although he’s done some choral writing in the past, nothing has been as extensive and ambitious as Hutchinson/Milk. One of the benefits about making the piece an opera as opposed to a musical is that it helps the focus stay on the music. As Lippa puts it, in musicals the focus sometimes shifts away from the music and they become, what he calls “directorials or sets-icals.” Lippa also found that because of all the musical ideas going on he ended-up using sparer language in the choral writing – “less words.” He also describes the chorus in Milk as an active voice, like a character. At one point he even has them sing from the point of view of the bullet as it approaches and eventually kills Milk. As he tells me this I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Lippa has made a career of challenging himself, surprising himself, and doing the same for his audiences. It’s hard to imagine anything he will write that would be more ambitious than I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk. But I’m sure that he will.
I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk will be performed at Strathmore Music Center April 23 – 24, 2016, starring Kristin Chenoweth and Andrew Lippa. This will be the world premiere of I Am Anne Hutchinson and the area premiere of I Am Harvey Milk. Proceeds will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the National Women’s History Museum. Details and tickets.