A Letter to Harvey Milk - The Musical is not about Harvey Milk, the courageous, gay civil rights leader and first openly gay elected official in California (San Francisco Board of Supervisors, 1977). It is about his loss and how that effected, Harry (Adam Heller) a retired kosher butcher who loved him as a son, and Barbara (Julia Knitel) a lesbian writing teacher at a Jewish senior center. Harry's wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern) is dead and to keep busy and find companionship Harry signs up for Barbara's writing course. One of Harry's assignments is to "write a letter to someone from your past, someone no longer with us.” Harry poignantly writes to Milk, and we learn that even through his confusion Harry is a loving and compassionate man, “All right, so you liked the boys....I never said you weren't welcome by me.” All Harry wanted was for Harvey to be safe, “You couldn’t keep still about the boys, you weren’t satisfied until the whole world knew?” Within Harry's heartfelt letter is a chant, a song:
THE NIGHT YOU DIED
SAN FRANCISCO CRIED
THIRTY THOUSAND PEOPLE
MARCHED AS ONE
Barbara was one of those marchers, and now with their shared respect and love for Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli), combined with their fellow Jewishness, a strong bond is formed between Harry and Barbara.
Barbara's family did not celebrate Jewish culture so Harry has the fun task of teaching Barbara Yiddish and introducing her to deli. Happily some of us have the fun task of learning new Yiddish words, and others of being reminded of the pithiness of this colorful language. Barbara (as Harvey Milk was) is out, and when one day she meets Harry wearing a t-shirt with a graphic large pink triangle smack dab in the middle of it, Harry reacts fearfully, wanting, as he was unable to do with Harvey, to protect Barbara from the cruelty of the world. Barbara is hurt by Harry suggesting she keep her homosexuality hidden, and they argue. It is what we learn after this argument that is the core of the play's message – how the effects of man's inhumanity to man are far reaching and the wounds long lasting. But there is hope. As the chorus sings, “If enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun.”
There are nods to Yiddish Theater throughout the production notably in the cadence of the dialogue and the comedic timing of several scenes. The play is at its best in its funny moments. Frannie, Harry's dead but omnipresent wife, provides much of the comedy with her incessant warning, chastising and loving.
The serious scenes are earnest but come off trite or corny. One exception to this is Harry's telling of a tender moment he experienced in a concentration camp. The telling is movingly re-enacted and shows us why Harry is so protective of Barbara and was so drawn to Harvey Milk. There is foreshadowing of this revelation smattered throughout the play but it is insufficient. The attempt does not lead to intelligent supposing but merely seems like a poor directorial or costuming choice.
There are 16 musical numbers in the play and they are the best element of A Letter To Harvey Milk - The Musical. When, as in several songs, the lyrics contain a wealth of Yiddish, the show is at its most entertaining. All of the actors have lovely Broadway voices and can sell a song.
(Photo by Russ Rowland)