‘I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk’
Saturday, April 23 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, April 24 at 4 p.m.
Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md.
Andrew Lippa feels like the luckiest man in the world.
It’s all Lippa all the time this weekend at the Strathmore as the world premiere of his “concept” opera “I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk” is held. He wrote the music and book and will star in the piece alongside Kristin Chenoweth.
It’s a lavish production. Noah Himmelstein will direct more than 200 performers including Colin Wheeler, the National Philharmonic and the Alexandria Harmonizers to dramatize the lives of “two reluctant prophets who stood up for equality and changed the world.”
“It’s not enough to write all the words and all the music, I also have to play the leading role,” he says. “The delight I have that I get to play in the sandbox in this way, to be in it and of it, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
The genesis of the play — at least half of it — dates back to 2011 when Lippa was asked by the music director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (Tim Seelig) to write a five-minute piece about his thoughts and observations about Harvey Milk.
“There was a co-commission with six other choruses and they were planning on doing a whole concert in 2013,” Lippa says. “I told them I wanted to write a 60-minute piece, not just five minutes, and after much discussion, they came back and asked me to write the whole thing.”
Of course, the noted librettist had quite the resume at the time. He wrote the Tony-nominated music and lyrics for the Broadway musical “The Addams Family,” wrote the music and lyrics for the acclaimed “Big Fish,” and won the 2000 Drama Desk Award for best music for “The Wild Party.”
He also wrote original music for the 1999 revival of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” (including “My New Philosophy” for Tony Award-winner Chenoweth), which led to friendship.
Part choral work, part theater piece, “I Am Harvey Milk” weaves the story of Harvey Milk’s life, from boyhood to his rise as the first openly gay man to hold public office in California to his assassination.
“I fashioned the whole thing and we performed it for three concerts in June of 2013,” Lippa says. “What was remarkable about the timing is that June 26 was our first performance and it was the day that the Supreme Court struck down Proposition 8 and that night we premiered Harvey Milk two blocks away from where Harvey and (San Francisco Mayor) George Moscone had been gunned down.”
Although he can’t pinpoint the exact time he learned about Milk, Lippa guesses he was in college. He says it’s important that others discover his story.
“One of the things I feel as a middle-aged gay man, as opposed to being a young gay man, is that at 51, it’s my responsibility to further the story of one our gay heroes,” he says. “As I got older, I had a very strong awareness of Harvey Milk and his story was very important to me.”
Lippa played Harvey Milk in that production, which included 300 singers, three principals and a 27-piece orchestra in front of 1,600 screaming San Franciscans for three nights in a row.
“I thought once it was done, that would be it, but it didn’t go that way,” he says. “I kept getting requests to do it, and producers in New York called, and we did it at Lincoln Center in 2014 with me and Kristin and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.”
The one request Lippa constantly faced was from people asking if there was a way to make the one-hour piece a full-length production, a notion he wrestled with.
“I constructed it in such a way that it was the right length and right pieces and it just didn’t want to get any longer. To me, this was just an hour-long work,” he says.
But then, Lippa came across the story of 17th-century Puritan activist Anne Hutchinson and inspiration hit.
“I realized that here was this other person in American history who I could connect to Harvey Milk in a very unexpected way,” he says. “She wasn’t talking about gay rights or any rights frankly. She just wanted the right to peacefully assemble in her home and teach other women stories from the Bible.”
Hutchinson was accused of heresy and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Lippa saw the obvious link with Milk.
“I can’t happen without my parents, my gay life can’t happen without my gay heroes, my music can’t happen without Stephen Sondheim and Gershwin and Beethoven and Bach, and Harvey Milk wasn’t possible without Anne Hutchinson,” Lippa says. “Even though 350 years divide them, she was the first woman to stand up in 1637 and say, ‘No, it has to be different.’ She was punished for it terribly, as was Harvey Milk. There’s the link.”
Lippa went about writing her story and thus “I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk” — which is one production, not two separate entities — was born.
He had Chenoweth in mind as he wrote.
“As soon as I discovered Anne’s story, I called her and told her about it and she said (in his best Chenoweth impression), ‘I’d do anything you write for me,’” Lippa says. “We have had a great creative back and forth going on 20 years now and she’s not only performing it, but I actually wrote it for her to do.”
Chenoweth told the Blade in a January interview she connects with Hutchinson whom she was “basically persecuted for being a thinking Christian woman.”
“In some ways, I can relate,” Chenoweth said. “Andrew has been a huge part of my history and I’ve been somewhat of a muse for him. What can I say? I fall in love with his music every time he plays, so I’m honored he’s written yet another thing for me.”
The show will be fully staged, with costumes, projections and plenty of actors and dancers, but because it’s in the music hall, there are no sets.
“It’s epic storytelling but not a concert version. It’s the first time we have ever done it, and Strathmore has been incredible working with us letting us do what we want to do,” Lippa says. “We will have 200 people on stage and we will find out if that is the size it should be. We may take it to opera houses or if not, scale it down and go to theaters. This piece will tell us what it is.”
The performances will benefit both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the National Women’s History Museum.