The life of Harvey Milk -- the San Francisco politician and activist who was gunned down in 1978 -- has inspired biographies, documentaries, a play, an opera and the 2008 Oscar-winning biopic starring Sean Penn.
Taking its place in the long line of artistic tributes, “I Am Harvey Milk” attempts to evoke Milk’s life and legacy in the form of an oratorio, with the help of a large chorus. Broadway composer Andrew Lippa debuted the hour-long vocal piece last year in San Francisco and will present it this weekend with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The performances, on Saturday and Sunday, will feature Lippa playing the role of Milk alongside vocal soloists Alexandra Silber and Quinn Morrissey. The GMCLA, celebrating its 35th anniversary, will provide a chorus of more than 200 singers.
The L.A. performances are being produced by Bruce Cohen, a producer of the movie “Milk.” In October, the oratorio will be performed at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, with Lippa and Kristin Chenoweth.
Lippa spoke about “I Am Harvey Milk” in a recent phone interview while driving to the airport in St. Louis, where he had attended a production of his musical “The Addams Family” at the Muny. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
Why did you choose an oratorio format to tell Milk’s story?
Originally, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus asked me to write a five-minute piece. It was their idea to do something about Harvey Milk. When I read the email, I realized instantly that I didn’t want to write a five-minute piece -- I wanted to make a bigger statement as an artist. I’m gay and Jewish and I’ve never written a major piece about either of those things ... so something clicked and made me realize I wanted to write about one of our heroes and someone I had something in common with.
Can you describe the structure of the piece?
I didn’t want to write a biography or a traditional narrative -- that had been done already and done well. What I wanted to do was to capture feelings and moments in the life of Harvey Milk -- the 11 months he was in office. Each month is represented by a movement. There’s a prelude when Milk was young and that gave real shape to the piece, when he speaks to himself as a child. On a purely musical level, I wanted a female voice -- a woman who represents motherhood, sisterhood, Anita Bryant -- I never mention females by name. She is every woman to Milk and a mother to all of us.
Why are you playing Milk?
Initially, I didn’t want to perform it myself. I didn’t want to turn it into a diva-maniacal thing. I didn’t want to get in the way of the piece. I put together a small presentation in New York, a private thing. I did it there to see what the response there would be. It worked out ... so GMCLA asked me to do it and I said, yes, I would.
Will the L.A. staging differ from the one seen in San Francisco?
We are not doing video that was seen in San Francisco. In New York, there will be a big video -- for example, at a crucial point, all of the men open their tuxedo jackets, and on their white shirts, we project a moving image of Milk and it’s really quite fantastic. It’s a challenge and a challenge financially. Noah [Himmelstein, the director] has come up with equally interesting ideas [for L.A.] that don’t involve video.