In November 1978, an ex-policeman took up his gun and shot the mayor and a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. Nothing too exciting you may think. Such things happen all the time. Maybe so, but the reason we remember these murders is that Supervisor Milk, was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. His death had a profound effect on many LGBT+ people around the world and is at the centre of the award-winning A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical which is having its European premiere at the Waterloo East Theatre.
Harry (Barry James) is a retired kosher butcher living in San Francisco. His life has been lonely since the death of his wife Frannie (Carol Ball) with whom he still talks all the time. To pass the days, Harry often drops into the local Jewish Seniors Centre and one fine day he pops his head into a creative writing class being taught by Barbara (Josselyn Ryder). Despite the difference in age, Harry and Barbara seem to hit it off and Harry joins the class. Barbara wants Harry to write about himself and his life, but he is reluctant thinking his story is nothing special. Then one day, his assignment is to compose a letter to someone from his past who’s dead. Rather than writing to Frannie, Harry decides to write to his old friend, and assassinated elected official, Harvey Milk. A decision which, along with a visit to a Jewish deli with its cheerful staff (Christopher Dodd, Harry Winchester, and Joshua Anthony-Jones) sets off a series of events that changes the lives of Harry and Barbara (not to mention Frannie).
Composed by Laura l. Kramer, with lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz and a book by Jerry James; A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical is based on Lesléa Newman’s short story of the same name and is quite a deceptive piece of work. In fact, there is an awful lot going on in this show. There are, in many respects, multiple stories of love, friendship, and grief along with dealing with the past and the present and who we are. The writing is surprisingly funny at times and, particularly in the second act, really emotional as more of Harry’s story comes out. The story itself flows well and I loved the interaction between Harry and his dead wife. Frannie really knows how to nag from beyond the grave and does it beautifully. For me, I would have liked the show to have been played out as one act. The break felt unnecessary and broke the mood a bit. I also have to admit that some of the Yiddish words and phrases used rather passed me by. On the whole, they would be explained as part of the script – Barbara doesn’t really speak Yiddish thanks to her parents – but there were times when I wasn’t sure if what was being said was a good thing or a bad thing. I really am a total goy I’m afraid.
The relationship between Harry and Barbara is really important to the story and Barry James and Josselyn Ryder are excellent in the roles. There is a lovely father/daughter chemistry between them that works, even when, as the teacher, Barbara is nominally in charge. Barry James in particular shines as Harry. James graduated from acting school in 1966 so is not in the first flush of youth shall we say, but has not only a wonderful stage presence, but also a superb singing voice that really brings out Harry’s personality, and his beautiful duet with Frannie – ‘Weren’t We?’ – really expresses the love of these two people who have shared so much over their long lives, but still have their own secrets. Josselyn Ryder and Carol Ball both have wonderful voices and really deliver their character to the audience. Not forgetting Christopher Dodd, Harry Winchester, and Joshua Anthony-Jones who are not only the waiters in the deli but also each play a second very different role – no spoilers so I won’t say who – and add so much to the emotional moments of the story. Having a small musical accompaniment – Olivia Zacharia (MD/keyboard) and Rebecca Levy (flute) worked well and provided a nice off-Broadway type of atmosphere to the show.
Gerald Armin’s direction, along with Jonathan Simpson’s lighting made good use of the stage area and I particularly liked the use of the translucent screens to semi-hide characters, which worked really well in the flashback scenes near the end.
Leaving the theatre, I realised that A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical had given me a lot to think about. Harry was, in many respects, an ordinary man who had lived through extraordinary times. He had gone through things we can only imagine and – despite his own fears – befriended one of the most influential LGBT+ figures of the century but, somehow, he never stopped being the friendly kosher butcher who was always available for a chat and always kept a jar of jellybeans on the counter, just in case. At one point Harry tells Barbara that if she were his “Tochter”, he’d be proud of her. I have to say if Harry were my “Fater”, I would be so proud of him.
Review by Terry Eastham
San Francisco. 1986.
When Harry, an amiable but lonely retired kosher butcher fulfils a writing assignment to compose a letter to someone from his past who’s dead, he writes not to his late wife Frannie but to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political leader in California.
Barbara, his young lesbian writing teacher at the senior centre is stunned. Harry’s letter sets off a series of life-changing events that neither could have foreseen.
With its soaring score and deeply-felt, surprisingly funny lyrics, this musical deals with issues of friendship and loss, the grip of the past, and the hard-won acceptance set in motion by the most unexpected people.
West End stars Barry James (Les Miserables, Phantom of The Opera, Cabaret, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) and Carol Ball (Adams Family, Flashdance, Follies, 42nd Street) lead the cast that also includes Rebecca Levy (Mama Mia) Joshua Anthony-Jones (Elegies) Harry Winchester (Three Little Pigs) and recent graduates Josselyn Ryder and Christopher Dodd.
Director: Gerald Armin.
Musical Director: Olivia Zacharia.
Lighting Design: Jonathan Simpson.
Design: Emily Barker.
Company Stage Manager: Gareth McLeod.
Casting: Andrew Lynford CSA.
Waterloo East Theatre presents
A Letter to Harvey Milk – The Musical
Lyrics: Laura I. Kramer. Additional Lyrics: Cheryl Stern. Music by Ellen M. Schwartz
Book by Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer and Jerry James
Based on the short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman
June 9 to July 3 2022