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Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus to premier musical about life of Harvey Milk

Stage show also to feature guest soloists and members of Philharmonic

The chance to commission an original work from one of America’s most popular Broadway composers doesn’t come along every day.

But the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus has been given that rare opportunity and the results will be unveiled at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at the Victoria Theatre when “I Am Harvey Milk” stages its regional premiere.

Featuring 40 voices, professional guest soloists and members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, the grand production relates the story of the first openly gay man to hold public office in California. Part theater and part choral work, the oratorio traces Milk’s life from his boyhood and his history-making career on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to his assassination in 1978 by fellow supervisor Dan White.

The Dayton chorus — along with other members of the national Gay and Lesbian Organization of Choruses in cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta — co-commissioned Tony and Grammy award nominee Andrew Lippa to turn the true story into a musical that is being introduced in each of the commissioning cities. Lippa has been responsible for music and lyrics for Broadway shows including “Big Fish” and “The Addams Family.”

“The show is not just about Harvey Milk, yet it weaves the story of a young boy growing up in a hate-filled world, but finding support in loved ones, branching out, running for public office, and doing something that he knows was right, even if it meant his death,” said David Moyer, president of the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus. “Harvey is actually recorded as predicting his own death by assassination.”

Moyer says the original idea for “I Am Harvey Milk” came from Dr. Tim Selig of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, who originally wanted various composers from across the nation to write single pieces about San Francisco or equality and a few to write songs about Harvey Milk.

“When composer Andrew Lippa was approached, he insisted on writing the entire oratorio,” Moyer said. “He felt a very personal connection with the story of Harvey Milk — being of similar age to Harvey when he was assassinated, and being an out gay man himself.”

Moyer says the oratorio is an emotional journey.

“Even today as I sing along with the original cast recording in my car, I still tear up and find myself easily overcome with emotion,” he said. “That’s the beauty of what Andrew Lippa has done with the music. Not only are the words insightful and powerful, but the music and orchestral arrangement can move you on its own.”

Moyer believes too few people know about Milk and how his actions still impact and influence society today.

“We want people to know Harvey, and not just as the ‘guy that movie was about with Sean Penn,” Moyer said in reference to the Oscar-winning film, “Milk” which came out in 2008. A Harvey Milk commemorative stamp was just introduced by the United States Postal Service on his birthday, May 22.

A message from Andrew Lippa

The original plan called for the composer to come to Dayton in May, but he ended up in London where he is starring in a new show. Lippa did send a personal video to the Dayton chorus apologizing for not coming in person and wishing everyone well.

“I really wish I would be there because I want to share my thoughts about ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ with you and hear yours and hear how you are working on the piece,” he said.

In the video, Lippa said there is likely to be someone in the Dayton audience who will be moved by the show. He cited an example of a 20-year-old woman who saw it in San Francisco and immediately went outside after the performance and called her parents to tell them she was gay.

“I burst into tears because I thought, ‘well, we did it!’, we reached one person,” Lippa said. “What we’re talking about is only what’s right and what’s fair and what we all deserve.”

Dayton before NYC

It’s not often that a show premieres in Dayton before it hits New York, but that’s the case this time around: “I Am Harvey Milk” will have a one-night New York premiere Oct. 6 at Lincoln Center where it will feature Lippa as Harvey Milk and singer Kristin Chenoweth representing all of the women who were important to Milk. In New York, premium seats will start at $500. In Dayton even the best seats in the house will sell for $20 in advance, $25 at the door.

Guest soloists who will help tell the inspiring story locally are Charlie Clark, who will portray Harvey, Mary Southworth in the soprano role of all of the important women in Milk’s life, and Derrin McCormick as Young Harvey.

Clark, who lives in Indianapolis, is a graduate of Wright State University’s Musical Theatre program and has appeared in numerous shows in the Chicago and Dayton/Cincinnati areas.

Southworth, who lives in Cincinnati and is a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, has performed in numerous operas and original pieces. She also taught voice at Wright State University’s theater department

Derrin McCormick is a freshman at Troy High School and is active in the school’s music program.

“We are so excited to perform this one of a kind oratorio, with music that is exhilarating, sad, fun and poignant,” artistic director Kathy Clark said. “Since Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician, this musical depiction, describing elements of Harvey’s life, is the perfect piece of music to further the Dayton Gay Mens Chorus’ mission for equality.”

The 12-movement work isn’t chronological but features a song for each month of Milk’s tenure on the board of supervisors. The piece opens with a famous aria from an opera he loved.

Clark, a retired Centerville High School choral/vocal music director, directed the high school’s musical for 26 years and has performed throughout the Miami Valleyl. She’s currently a soloist and choir member with Westminster Presbyterian Church and since retirement has been composing and arranging music. She’s part of an integrative arts team called Music To Your Years and a published children’s song composer.

“I love these guys in the chorus, and they are able to make extraordinary music in a short time of allotted rehearsal,” Clark said. “It is a complete joy to work with them.”

Clark says this work is challenging because of Lippa’s use of different meter.

In a movement titled “Sticks and Stones” Clark said Lippa “is trying to make the audience realize that the inappropriate slurs society sometimes uses are hurtful and degrading.”

She says there are lighter movements as well, such as “Night At The Castro” with its disco feel.

“The chorus will be doing some dance moves reminiscent of the clubs back then, ” Clark said. “All the movements are dramatic in some fashion.”

Chorus shifts programming

Allen Kimbrough, a past president of the DGMC, says while his organization is not political, it made an intentional shift in the program planning for 2014, which led to the “I Am Harvey Milk “project. Kimbrough was the grant writer for an Ohio Arts Council grant that helped fund the project.

“We are passionate about the idea that our chorus voices can be used to help identify, illuminate and perhaps even resolve some of the individual and collective civil rights issues of our time — most notably the same-sex marriage debate, currently being played out through our court system,” he said. “Presenting ‘I am Harvey Milk’ to the Dayton Region could potentially produce significant social and cultural impact to foster real, positive and life-altering change in our community.”

As social change agents, Kimbrough said, members believe they have the opportunity to contribute to the cultural health, growth and vitality of the community — not only the LGBT community — but for the larger context of the people and community it serves and the community at large.

“This show is potentially life-altering because of the subject matter — both for the singers and the audience,” he said.

About the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus

The Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus traces its roots to founder Fred Poland who dreamed of forming a local organization that would achieve a gay-affirming presence in the Greater Miami Valley through the choral arts.

“We started that first night in the Fall of 2003 with 15 members,” recalls Kimbrough. “Now at some performances we have more than 40 singing members and audiences of 700 to 800.”

He says there’s a great sense of accomplishment in seeing the chorus grow both organizationally and artistically. The group stages two main concerts a year — an annual summer concert and an annual holiday concert that features a mix of traditional and contemporary music from a variety of spiritual, religious and ethnic traditions.

This isn’t the first time the chorus has co-commissioned a work. In 2011, along with six other men’s choruses, it commissioned a concert titled “Let’s Hear it For the Boys.”

The organization also is responsible for strengthening bonds of friendship among its members, Kimbrough said.

“You could ask any chorus member and the hallmark of what they would tell you is that they feel part of the community — both within the LGBT community and community-at-large.”

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