EXCLUSIVE: ANDREW LIPPA Talks About New Project "Unbreakable" and Never Forgetting The One
Andrew Lippa has once again come up with another piece of art, but this time it's a choral piece rather then a staged Broadway musical. Unbreakable is a new piece sung and performed by The San Francisco Gay Men's Choir, Andrew Lippa, and many other artists. It is a celebration of LGBT history and weaves through historic events and people through history including Jane Adams, the Purple Menace, The Aids Crisis, and Harvard's Secret Court, just to name a few. The CD which was released today is available through Ghostlight Records. You can download/stream the album as well by Clicking Here .
Spanning 120 years of unsung history, Unbreakable is an epic choral work exploring the gay experience in America through the words and music of Andrew Lippa.
Focusing on a curated selection of stories throughout American LGBTQ history from 1900 through the present day – inspired by the African American playwright August Wilson, who wrote a collection of 10 plays chronicling the black experience in the 20th century – Unbreakable is a heartrending and ultimately triumphant look at where we’ve been, what we’ve come through, and who we are today. Most of all, Unbreakable is a tribute to the perseverance and power of a people who would not be defeated and could not be broken.
Andrew chatted with RyeTheNewsGuy.com about the concept and creation of the piece, where he got the inspiration, and what made him want to write a piece that was not a Broadway musical.
Andrew Lippa (Matthew Murphy)
Where did the inspiration come from to write Unbreakable? Well, it's connected to my ongoing and now fairly long term relationship with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. At the end of 2011 I got an email from the then relatively new music director of the San Francisco gay men's chorus, Dr Timothy Seelig. Tim emailed me and asked me if I would contribute a five minute piece to a project they were planning on doing a year and a half later celebrating and commemorating Harvey Milk at the anniversary of Harvey Milk's assassination. it was coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the chorus and the 35th anniversary of Harvey Milk and George Moscone assassination. And so I was so excited by that request, and I said " I don't want to write a five minute piece I want to write a full length piece, can I write the whole thing?" And we had a long chat about that and he said that it was a co- commission with quite a few other choruses around the country and that they all had to agree to it and he'd get back to me. About a week later he got back to me and he said, "everybody's on board, let's do it." And the resulting work was a piece called I am Harvey Milk, which we premiered in San Francisco in 2013, but it was recorded and has subsequently been produced about 30 or 35 times around the world. So at some point in 2017 or 2016 Tim got back in touch with me and said, hey, we're celebrating our 40th anniversary in June of 2018 and what do you want to write for us? And I said, "I don't know, let me think about it." And I thought about what could I do that wasn't the same thing as (I am) Harvey Milk, and still based on and had the necessary requirements of a men's chorus. And it's more a concept than it is a piece of theater. But at the same time I wanted to write something that had stories. I started to ask myself who stories did I want to tell and how did I want to tell them? And so Unbreakable was born that way!
Andrew Lippa at the piano. (AndrewLippa.com)
Talking about the subject of storylines, where did the idea come from to focus on some of the most historic LGBT people and events throughout the 20th & 21st centuries? I started doing research looking at decades and was there a primary story that came out of that decade that had something to do with the LGBTQ community and if so, was it the story that's already been sung about, or something that we already know as opposed to something that the audience might not know. And so things like the AIDS epidemic, I thought, well, I could certainly write about the notion of the AIDS epidemic and how it affects families or how it affected the community at large. But I decided to focus on the one thing that very few people did focus on, which was that little article in the New York Times in July of 1981 that talks about 41 gay man and I thought it would, with the benefit and the blessing of hindsight, we can look back at that article and go "Oh, I remember where I was." The song starts out A capella with the quote from the [New York] Times and then it transitions, the time signature changes key and it becomes a Lullaby. And I thought what would someone do who was suffering from Aids, what kind of prayer would they offer, what would they be asking for? And that's when I wrote the help me, someone help me, section, for the chorus section thing mostly in unison. And then I realized, oh, well what I really want to do is count up to 41 and give the climax of the piece. They had done this wonderful choreography actually in San Francisco where bit by bit They turned around and they had many men turned facing upstage and only a few remaining. And it represented the over 250 men who had been members who had died from AIDS in the 1980s. We reenacted that photo during the counting section of 41. And that's what we're trying to do here with this piece as well.
What was your favorite song to write in Unbreakable It's tough because they're all your babies. I would say the one that speaks the most deepest to me is the fourth one on the track called "Already Dead." And it's sung by a young man who is a student at Harvard. It's based on a true story about what was called the Secret Court of 1920 at Harvard. And, it really strikes me as something I would answer this question with because musically it's four chords over six minutes.
There's a real one act play quality to that whole piece. And he asks the question at the very beginning of "why does it feel like I'm already dead?" And so I think the listener asks themselves when they hear a character aspect question, is he dead? So is he alive now or is this a fantasy? And he says, why does it feel like I'll never get out of this place? And what place is he referring to? Is you referring to hell or is he referring to Harvard? I look at Unbreakable as one big statement, and it happens in an order that it should not happen in a different order then its written. So I'm very partial to already dead it to me, speaks to my dark, sad side. And and I'm very moved by it and very proud of it. How can we as humans be unbreakable? I think it's said in many different ways by many different people at many different times in many different circumstances, but it's always the same, which is that together we are better, we are stronger than we are alone. That when we stand together, we hold hands. There's nothing to me, I can't think in a performance setting where more of visually evident of that idea advancing 300 people in front of you all singing together. That's why choirs persisted to this day is that there is an undeniable power in seeing people work together in that kind of setting, that kind of teamwork and it's not only teamwork is what they have to say and it's that notion that you cannot do that alone. Theres an adage I liked very much that that goes "you alone must do it, but you musn't do it alone."It speaks to the notion of personal responsibility and a responsibility to community and that's why I get so much joy out of making these pieces that I've made for the San Francisco gay men's chorus and the now there are 10 more choruses going to present this work in the next year. And I'm very moved by that notion of community and about the thousands and thousands of people who will experience this live and the thousands more who will experience it because we were fortunate enough to make the record. And that's so exciting.
What is next for you? Will you be coming back to Broadway anytime soon, do you have another album in the works, another piece, anything you can sort of let us in on? I am working on several pieces, but all of which, I tend to be rather quiet about it. But my musical The Man in the Ceiling that we developed at Bay Theater and that side that I wrote with Jules Feiffer based on his book, we're going to be recording that and releasing that, for stock master licensing. So that's going to happen in 2019 and so I'm very excited about that!
Editors Note: Some of this conversation has been edited to fit this piece.