Just as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. almost exactly 50 years ago changed the national discourse in the area of civil rights, the killing of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected politicians in the country, catalyzed greater tolerance for LGBT Americans. In the recently opened Off-Broadway play with music, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” the slain community leader becomes not just a symbol of gay liberation, but of Jewish pride as well. When an earlier version of the show ran in 2012 at the New York Musical Theater Festival, Rachel Saltz of The New York Times wrote that it “mixes the bitter with the sweet, the comic with the serious, serving them up with a big helping of schmaltz.”
At a time when American culture is obsessed with issues of gender politics, the play seems to have found its moment once again. “A Letter to Harvey Milk” was written by Ellen M. Schwartz, with additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern; Laura I. Kramer composed the music, and the book was written by Jerry James, Schwartz, Stern and Kramer.
Milk’s Lithuanian-Jewish grandfather, Morris Milk, was the owner of a department store and co-founder of an Orthodox synagogue, Sons of Israel, in Woodmere, L.I. Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972, a time when many gay and bisexual men were flocking there; he opened a camera store on Castro Street. After three unsuccessful political campaigns, he was elected in 1977 as a city supervisor, and soon shepherded an anti-discrimination bill through the municipal government.
But after less than a year in office, Milk was shot dead, along with his ally, Mayor George Moscone, by a former city supervisor named Dan White. (White successfully put forth the now-famous “Twinkie” defense that he had consumed too much junk food before the slayings.) The double murder sparked spontaneous marches and demonstrations throughout the streets of San Francisco and other cities. Milk became widely viewed as a martyr for gay rights.
Directed by Evan Pappas, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” based on a 1988 short story of the same title by Lesléa Newman, is the latest of a number of artistic works about the iconic figure. These include Randy Shilts’ 1982 book, “The Mayor of Castro Street”; the 1984 film documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” narrated by Harvey Fierstein; and Gus van Sant’s 2008 biopic, “Milk,” starring Sean Penn in an Academy Award-winning performance as the title character.
In “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” which is set in 1986, Harry (Adam Heller) is mourning the loss of his wife Franny (Cheryl Stern), when he meets Barbara (Julia Knitel), a young, lesbian writing teacher at his local senior center. She convinces him to take her class, despite his protestations that he knows nothing about writing. When she assigns him to write a letter to someone who is no longer living, he surprises even himself by writing not to Franny (whose ghost is a regular presence throughout the play), but to Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli), whose camera store he had patronized. As she and Barbara strike up an unlikely friendship, Harvey becomes uncomfortable with Barbara’s openness about her homosexuality, which he views as dangerous. Only when Harry finds his voice in his writing and comes to terms with aspects of his own past is he able to move beyond his grief.
Laura Kramer, who wrote the music for the on-stage five-member band, has been working on the show since 1995. In an interview, Kramer, who has been married to another woman for 36 years, grew up listening to her rabbi preaching about King’s importance as a spokesperson for civil rights. But LGBT people still faced prejudice throughout America. It was tempting to stay in the closet. “You came out to your family and waited for the other shoe to drop. People were torn about it, even though, as I told my parents, I was the same person before and after I came out. And not just did we as queers, gays and lesbians come out to our parents, but our parents had to come out about us as well.”
For the characters in the play, being Jewish is also not always easy. One significant change in the show since the 2012 production is a scene set in a Jewish deli, where Barbara upsets Harry when she tells the waiters that she is gay. Much of the song that they sing, “Turning the Tables,” has been cut, in order for Barbara to have more lines about her assimilated Jewish upbringing in Connecticut, where being too open about her Jewishness was frowned upon. “She’s learning the Jewish humor that she was denied,” Kramer explained. “And Harry is actively teaching her to be funny, in much the same way as he had given paternal advice to Harvey Milk.”
Evan Pappas, who appeared in the title role in Mark Harelik’s Off-Broadway play “The Immigrant” (about early 20th-century Jewish immigration to Texas), hails from San Francisco; his father was a friend of Mayor Moscone’s. But while he knows the play’s setting well, the director noted that the play is actually less about Harvey Milk per se than about Harry’s journey through his writing. “I told the actors that I want them to see themselves in these characters, warts and all.”
Pappas reflected that many older Americans, in particular, still often carry negative attitudes toward gay people. “They feel as if they shouldn’t have to deal with it,” he said. “The main character in the play is himself somewhat like that.” Younger Americans, he pointed out, seem more able to cause shifts in societal attitudes by demanding that their ideals be taken seriously. He pointed to the gun control rallies that students are organizing these days, which he compared to the student protests to the Vietnam War. “We can’t seem to get control of some of these things,” he said, “but maybe they can.”
Heller, who plays Harry, is a veteran of Jewish roles; he won an award for his performance as Tevye in a 2014 staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Goodspeed Opera House, where the stage was so small that much needed to be left to the imagination of the audience. Like that show, he said, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” which he called “beautiful and intimate,” is about “people trying to reach each other” — something that can get lost in big productions. The elderly man is “reluctant to accept Barbara’s outspokenness,” having seen what happened to Harvey Milk.
For Julia Knitel, who plays Barbara, her character is “yearning to connect with her past.” The actress, who grew up in a Catholic family in northern New Jersey, had a gay male couple as her godfathers. “It never dawned on me that gay people couldn’t be together.” She takes pride that she and her fellow actors can “tell this story and continue to liberate, no matter whom people choose to love.”
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” runs through Sunday, May 13 at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $79, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.