He was a martyr to the cause of gay rights. When Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay public official, was gunned down by a fellow city supervisor in 1978, the nation was forced to confront its own discrimination against homosexuals. Now comes a new musical, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” based on Lesléa Newman’s 1988 short story of the same name, about the friendship between a Holocaust survivor and his young lesbian writing teacher.
The musical is playing through this weekend at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) with a star-studded cast of Broadway veterans, including Leslie Kritzer (“Sondheim on Sondheim”), Jeff Keller (“Phantom of the Opera” and “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Cheryl Stern (“La Cage aux Folles”). A finalist this year for the Richard Rodgers Award, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” has a book by Jerry James, music by Laura I. Kramer and lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz.
Helmed by David Schechter, who wrote and directed the 1986 Off-Broadway play, “Hannah Senesh,” the musical centers on the elderly Harry (Keller), a retired kosher butcher who remembers Harvey Milk as one of his customers. When Harry takes a writing class, his teacher, Barbara (Kritzer), is stunned by the fictional “letter” that he writes as his first literary exercise, in which he mourns for Milk. As the two become friends, she learns about his beloved wife, Frannie (Stern), who has died, and Harry encounters Barbara’s pain from being cut off by her parents, to whom she came out as gay.
Milk, who grew up in a Jewish family in Woodmere on Long Island, has been the subject of many works, from Randy Shilts’ biography, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” to the 2008 feature film, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn played the title role. Newman’s story, which has been read on National Public Radio by Carl Reiner, has even inspired a previous stage adaptation, by Ruth Carter, that ran in Chicago in 1994. But the new version is the first time that the story has been given a musical treatment.
In an interview, Kramer told The Jewish Week, that her musical is about “an intergenerational story that shows the need for people to have compassion and empathy for each other.” The show’s title song, sung with great passion by Kritzer, is what Kramer called a mix of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. For Harry’s songs, Kramer was inspired by klezmer, Kurt Weill and big band.
Kramer’s collaborator, Schwartz, is best known for “Miami Beach Monsters,” a musical about six movie creatures who try to make a comeback after retiring to Florida. By contrast, Schwartz said, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” is about two main characters brought together “both by their suffering and by their sense of humor,” and her challenge was to write lyrics that reflected these contrasting moods. So, for example, “Love is a Woman” expresses the writing teacher’s loneliness, while “Turning the Tables” is a lighthearted song set in a Jewish deli, complete with wisecracking waiters.
Harry, she said, “uses writing as psychotherapy; it helps him to uncover the source of his anxiety. He starts as a tortured old man and ends up as a real player in the movement for gay rights.”
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” runs at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Performances are Wednesday, July 25 at 9 p.m., Thursday, July 26 at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Saturday, July 28 at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. For tickets, $25, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.nymf.org.