Andrew Lippa’s experiences run the gamut of roles within musical theater: the composer, lyricist, and performer has written songs and lyrics for original pieces and contributed to stage-adapted versions of cartoon strips, novels, films, and even an epic poem. Lippa came to Harvard on March 9 to hold a masterclass for Harvard undergraduate vocalists through the Office for the Arts. Afterward, he sat down with The Crimson to talk about his work in musical theater and his critically acclaimed oratorical, “I Am Harvey Milk.”
The Harvard Crimson: What was your experience teaching the masterclass?
Andrew Lippa: What I saw today was a group of students who clearly are passionate but not necessarily skilled in the way that I’ve seen…in programs where there is conservatory-like training. The opposite of that is the intelligence and the ferocity that they will tear into something…. They all responded and took big steps forward because there’s a deep intelligence. It was a curiously mixed experience.
THC: How do you approach adapting books and film for the stage?
AL: The prevailing thought about source material is that you find something that you fall in love with…and then you systematically have to murder this source material…because it proves to be shackling. Even if it’s a play—an animal of the stage—you’ll still find that structurally you have to get away from it…because of the ways musicals function.
THC: How did you start working on “I Am Harvey Milk”?
AL: In the fall of 2011, I got an email from San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus artistic director Tim Seelig, and he said they were commissioning 10 to 12 composers and asking them to write a 5-minute piece based on their perceptions of Harvey Milk…. And I said, “This is wonderful. Thanks for asking, but I don’t want to write a 5-minute piece. I want to write a 60-minute piece.” I was in my late 40s at that time, and I very much wanted to write about my gay experience…how [Milk] is a towering figure in the gay rights movement, and what my connection to our gay history is…. It’s been the single greatest creative experience of my career.
THC: What about the experience was memorable for you?
AL: I got the opportunity to write an epic work—epic in the sense that I’m doing it with 1,000 singers in Denver and a 100-piece orchestra in front of 5,000 people next year…. And I suddenly got to be the lead actor in a piece I wrote, which I always wanted to do…. And I got to do it in NYC at Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, with my best friend conducting—Joel Fram—and one of my other best friends singing the soprano role—Kristin Chenoweth.… We’re going to take it to London and Australia, but where I really want to take is places like India and China where…it’s much harder to be gay. I really want to see us take this piece to places where it might have a cultural effect.
THC: Did you anticipate the strong positive reception of “I Am Harvey Milk”?
AL: I came in thinking that I was doing a commission for seven choruses and that it would get done seven times…. But it turns out...that’s not the story. The story is that it’s going to be much bigger. That’s the thing about being a creative artist—you don’t know how people will respond. You just do the thing that moves you. I’m not doing it for a response. I’m doing it because it means something.
—Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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