A Letter To Harvey Milk proves a disjointed musical at the Waterloo East Theatre
“Stories tell us where we come from”
It’s a job and a half to ensure that musical A Letter To Harvey Milk is correctly credited. Based on the short story A Letter to Harvey Milk by Lesléa Newman, the show features music by Ellen M Schwartz, lyrics by Laura I Kramer, additional lyrics by Cheryl Stern and a book by Schwartz, Stern, Kramer and Jerry James. But though many hands are involved, something quietly affecting emerges.
Contrary to what you might expect, A Letter To Harvey Milk tells us the story of Harry, a retired Kosher butcher and recent widower living in San Francisco. Having opted to take a writing class led by young Jewish woman Barbara, the exercises they do start to unlock a world of repressed feelings and memories for Harry, including his friendship with the titular LGBT+ civil rights icon.
And again perhaps counter to expectation, the narrative is as much an exploration of Jewishness as it is of LGBT+ identities. Barbara is open about her own sexuality but finds the homophobia of her family reflected in Harry’s reaction – generational issues clearly at play – and Josselyn Ryder excels in this debut role, her stunning voice deserving better songs to be honest.
For the score never really cuts through. Harry is usually accompanied by the spirit of his late wife and though Barry James and Carol Ball essay a highly convincing bickering ease, their songs all bleed into one another. And the way the story ultimately unfolds in past and present has the unfortunate effect of sidelining Joshua Anthony-Jones’ work as Milk himself. Which wouldn’t be quite so bad if the show had a different title and wasn’t playing in Pride month.