Harvey Milk, the Musical

Posted on March 01, 2018

Harvey Milk, the Musical

An All-Singing, All-Dancing Version of the Late Politician’s Life Hits the Boards in Atlanta

Image by David Zeiger

“I want it real Diana Ross,” rasps director-choreographer Stephen Petty as he demonstrates strutting across the stage, hips grinding, arms waiving. Spinning on his heel and eyeballing a nervous young actor, Petty barks, “Todd jump up on the bench like you’re excited. This is a campaign rally!” Part cheerleader and part commandant, Petty flails his cast towards re-creating the pizzazz that was San Francisco and Harvey Milk in the late ‘70s. Atlanta’s small but adventurous Actor’s Express is staging The Harvey Milk Show, an original musical, through Oct. 27. Collaborators Dan Pruitt and Patrick Hutchinson have composed 20 songs for two acts, charting the ascension, election, and assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. The show also covers the trial of Milk’s murderer, fellow supervisor Dan White, and concludes with a torch song extolling Milk’s activist legacy. Drawn by enthusiastic advance word about The Harvey Milk Show, major theatres such as Los Angeles’s Theatre Center and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage are sending representatives to Atlanta to preview the show. An original cast recording has been produced, and San Francisco’s KQED-TV is negotiating to videotape the musical for possible broadcast.

Despite Milk’s legendary stature, the musical is not intended to sentimentalize the combative activist's life, say its creators. “Harvey Milk’s memorial marker in San Francisco says, ‘I am all of us,’” says Petty, “and, that’s the singular image of this production.” Petty has stocked his cast with an array of body types, racial heritages, and sexual orientations, performers whose presence symbolizes Milk’s embrace of a rainbow coalition.

“The idea of doing a musical about Milk was frightening in the beginning,” admits Pruitt. “But he basically had a theatrical background, being one of the producers of Hair in New York. And his theatricality throughout his campaign seemed like a natural subject.”

Inspired by the Oscar-winning film The Times of Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts’s book The Mayor of Castro Street, the musical “isn’t based upon any one particular source,” says Pruitt. “If you’re old enough, there’s a certain amount of common knowledge.”

“Yet people who are 23 don’t know who Milk was at all,” says Petty. “That’s a serious violation in cultural education if you’re gay.” Younger gays should be able to relate to The Harvey Milk Show’s fictional protagonist, Jamey, a Texas-born alcoholic hustler who is a composite of four of Milk’s lovers. Explains Pruitt: “Jamey is metaphorical of the gay community at the time, needing someone like Harvey to show us the way and say, ‘Yes, you can do it. Yes, we can do it.’”

Actor’s Express artistic director Chris Coleman plays Milk. At 30, Coleman admits he’s “20 years too young” for the role but compensates by conveying “the weight and exhaustion” of Milk’s nonstop politicking.

Don Smith, who portrays Milk’s nemesis, White, explains, “It’s easy to make a caricature of evil and play a bad guy. But that’s what’s been done to gay men, and if we do that, then we somehow or other have failed. I think it’s important to figure out what part of me understands Dan White. We all carry around our own homophobia.”

In the show, White becomes a pawn of all-purpose homophobia. Mr. Smith, who incarnates as a bigoted landlord, a back-room politician, and Anita Bryant. “We’ve got this utterly ridiculous Carmen Miranda number where Bryant shows up in a mariachi cruise-ship lounge act with her backup band, Los Faggotos,” says Pruitt. After an off-key number (“To look at me you never would guess I’m invincible/The media and me seem to be in cahoots/It seems I have the knack of covering my lack of principles/And we don’t want our children taught by no fruits”), Bryant’s conga line snakes through the country, repealing gay rights ordinances in every region.

The Show’s creators hope that it can provide a bridge between gay and nongay theatergoers and serve as a rallying point for the gay community. Pruitt says the experience has already been rewarding. “Anyone with Harvey Milk’s passion and belief who also has the humanity to have a goddamned good sense of humor about it all engages my heart,” he says. “There are a lot of passionate believers out there, but so often the perspective gets lost along the way. We’ve had enough dry fucks in the ‘80s. Now it’s time for some mind with some heart.”