In 1995, composer and book writer Laura Kramer was looking for a story by a lesbian author to adapt into a musical. When she discovered Lesléa Newman’s short story "A Letter to Harvey Milk," she knew she had discovered the source material for her next project—she just didn't know it would be 23 years before that project received an Off-Broadway premiere.
Set in 1986, the story follows Harry, a retired kosher butcher and widower, struggling to reconcile his feelings of loss, loneliness, and regret. Searching for solace in a writing course taught by a young lesbian at the local senior center, Harry finds revelations in the assignment to write a “thank-you letter” to someone from his past who is dead. Rather than writing to his late wife, he chooses his former customer: gay political leader Harvey Milk. As Harry explores his work with his teacher, their friendship sets him on the long-overdue path to self-acceptance.
Inspired by the story, Kramer wrote some music and played it for her friend, lyricist Ellen Schwartz, who encouraged Kramer to continue composing. But a decade would pass before Kramer acquired the rights and the two women began collaborating in earnest, along with book writer Jerry James. In 2010, A Letter to Harvey Milk presented its first reading, followed in 2012 with a slot in the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s Next Link program where it won five awards, including Most Promising Musical. The future looked bright; meanwhile, Kramer and Schwartz grew closer as collaborators and as friends. “I would be on the phone with her for hours,” says Kramer. “Not just talking about the show, but laughing. Her sense of humor was so over the top, so wickedly funny.”
Shortly after winning, Schwartz was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within a year. “After the loss of Ellen, I didn’t know what to do,” Karmer says. “It was Ellen’s husband, Michael Schwartz, who said to me, ‘We’ve got to keep this going. This show is too important, not just to Ellen but because of what it says.’” His words encouraged her to reach out to actor and lyricist Cheryl Stern, who had starred in the NYMF staging, about finishing the musical together.
Initially concerned about joining the creative team so late in the process and the pressure of continuing Schwartz’s legacy, Stern eventually said yes.
“[In the end] we just decided to dive in,” she says. “We gave ourselves an opportunity to do revisions that were leaning towards a [new] reading—and then we’d see how it all went, working together. That made it safe.”
In the years since Schwartz’s death, the new writers labored to preserve the essence of the production no matter how manage changes they made. “There are new verses and we’ve made a lot of edits, but the story [is the same],” says Stern. “We’ve just focused in on the story,” agrees Kramer.
For both Kramer and Stern, it’s been a dream collaboration, and often, they feel as if Schwartz is still right there in the room with them. “There’s been a lot of respect for her, and wanting to bring her work to light,” says Stern. “We wanted to hone the story, but always stay true to what she’d already created. It’s been very joyous in that regard. We always feel like she’s channeling the work.”
After more than 20 years in the making, A Letter to Harvey Milk ends up being itself a love letter to another person now deceased but still important to the writer: Ellen Schwartz.
A Letter to Harvey Milk bows at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre, where it is currently in previews. Directed by Evan Pappas with music direction by Jeffrey Lodin, the world-premiere production officially opens March 6.