In the Off-Broadway musical “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” the slain San Francisco supervisor and community leader becomes not just a symbol of gay liberation, but of Jewish pride as well. At a time when the issue of gender politics is part of the American cultural conversation, the play — originally produced in 2012 — seems to have found its moment once again. (It runs through June 30 at Manhattan’s Acorn Theater.)
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, New York. Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972, a time when many gay and bisexual men were flocking there, and opened a camera store on Castro Street. After three unsuccessful political campaigns, in 1977 he was elected city supervisor, one of the first openly gay politicians to be elected in the country.
But after less than a year in office, Milk was shot dead, along with his ally, Mayor George Moscone, by Dan White, a former city supervisor. (White successfully put forth the now-famous “Twinkie” defense that he had consumed too much junk food before the slayings. Released from prison in 1984, he committed suicide in 1985.) The double murder and mild sentence for manslaughter sparked marches in San Francisco and other cities. Milk became widely viewed as a martyr for gay rights.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk,” based on a 1988 short story by Lesléa Newman, was written by Ellen Schwartz, with additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern and music composed by Laura Kramer. It 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,” with 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 his late wife (whose ghost is a regular presence throughout the play), but to Milk (Michael Bartoli), whose camera store he had patronized.
As Harry and Barbara strike up an unlikely friendship, he becomes uncomfortable with her 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 and open up.
Kramer, who wrote the music for the onstage five-member band, has been married to a woman for 36 years. She grew up listening to her rabbi preaching about Martin Luther King Jr.’s importance as a spokesperson for civil rights, she says, but LGBTQ people still faced prejudice throughout America at the time, and it was tempting to stay in the closet. “You came out to your family and waited for the other shoe to drop,” she said. “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 since the original 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 “Turning the Tables” has been cut, in order to give Barbara more lines about her assimilated Jewish upbringing in Connecticut, where being too open about her Jewishness was frowned upon.
The play’s director, Evan Pappas, hails from San Francisco, where his father was a friend of Moscone’s. While he knows the play’s setting well, he said that the story is actually less about Milk and more about Harry’s journey through his writing. “I told the actors that I want them to see themselves in these characters, warts and all,” he said.
Pappas, who appeared in the title role in Mark Harelik’s Off-Broadway play “The Immigrant” (about early 20th-century Jewish immigration to Texas), 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 recent student-organized gun-control rallies, which he compared to the student protests during the Vietnam War. “We can’t seem to get control of some of these things, but maybe they can.”