Lesbian takes center stage in “Letter to Harvey Milk”

Letter to Harvey Milk

Leslie Kritzer in “Letter to Harvey Milk”


You may assume that with a title like “Letter to Harvey Milk,” the main arc of this play would center around a gay male character, most obviously Harvey Milk, but this musical thwarts convention and presents us with a story about an intergenerational friendship between a butcher and a teacher. That one of the characters in that equation is an out lesbian writing teacher named Barbara Katsef (played by Leslie Kritzer) is beside the point; there is more to this dame than her pink-triangle shirt. Barbara is a refreshingly fully-formed character who happens to be gay. Not surprisingly, with earnest, genuine characters, “Letter to Harvey Milk,” directed by David Schechter, has universal appeal. In fact, it came away from this year’s New York Musical Theater Festival with five honors, one being the Most Promising Musical award.

Laura I. Kramer, composer; Ellen M. Schwartz, lyricist; and Jerry James, book writer, demonstrated a formula for how get a lesbian character into a mainstream production: make the character choice an organic one (no pun intended). The musical began its journey at the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, a program for new musicals from which has sprung many of the great Broadway smash hits, including “Ragtime,” “Avenue Q,” and “A Chorus Line.” During the second year of BMI Kramer picked up the lesbian-themed short story collection “Letter to Harvey Milk” by Leslea Newman and started writing songs based on a story idea inspired by the book. Schwartz was interested in collaborating from this early point.

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