Q&A: Composer Steve Milloy on Harmony Chorale’s ‘Bayard Rustin’


Composer Steve Milloy conducts Harmony choir members during a rehearsal for “Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.”
Photo by Carol Coffey

Bayard Rustin was ahead of his time. The openly gay, Quaker civil rights activist organized Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, and Harmony: a Colorado chorale, will soon be the second choir in America to perform “Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.”

Harmony, a local all-inclusive LGBTQSA chorus, by Denver R&B artist Hazel Miller and her band, along with the Arvada High School Chorale, will perform the work that combines traditional black spirituals with contemporary music at Denver’s Central Presbyterian Church on Feb. 3 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and at Montfort Concert Hall in Greeley on Feb. 11 at 3 p.m.

We recently spoke with Steve Milloy, Cincinnati’s Men’s Chorus artistic director, who composed and arranged “Bayard Rustin.”

“If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King,” Milloy says. “There wouldn’t be civil disobedience. There wouldn’t be the March on Washington. It’s because of this particular man that all of that happened.”

How did you get involved with this piece? 
I have been singing in and writing for gay male choruses for the past 30 years. I noticed in my time of being in choruses as a singer that we’ve sung about people like Harvey Milk, Tyler Clementi and Matthew Shepard, all stories that needed to be told. At the same time, I felt as a man of color we were not singing about other people of color or minorities who have made history in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. I wanted to address that by writing this piece.

Also, seeing PBS’s documentary, “Brother Outsider,” about Bayard Rustin’s life was another starting point—him being a black man who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement but yet treated as an outsider because he was openly gay. In fact, he was shunned by the movement at one time. I thought this would be a wonderful mentor or person in history that we could learn something from.

What research did you do in working on the piece?
Basically my librettist, the person who wrote the script and a couple of the songs in the play, Vanessa L. German, did a lot of that work. Between her, Jane Ramseyer Miller, the director of the One Voice Mixed Chorus choir who originally commissioned the project in Minneapolis, myself and three lyrics writers, Norman Welch, my husband David Major and Bruce Preston, we put it together. There was a lot of back-and-forth of what should be included, what shouldn’t be included, what order it’s going to go in, how we are going to end it, and how are we going to begin in it.

How does the music reflect its historical accuracy and how and why did you choose the songs that you chose?
The songs are a mix of original songs, songs from the civil rights movement and songs from his life. We wanted to make it so that the audience felt like they had seen something truly remarkable—that they’ve learned from and that they will take with them in their daily lives. We’re addressing this man who has been shunned by our history books, but who needs to be put in. There are so many unsung heroes in the United States of America that this needs to be done for. I’m hoping that others will take up that gauntlet and do it.

What do you think makes this play so important in 2018? Which values do you think need to be recognized? 
Bayard Rustin used to think of himself as an angelic troublemaker. He only did what he did when he felt it necessary. One of his sayings was, ‘You need to go get in the middle of those wheels so those wheels don’t turn. Be a stick in the wheel.’ We can learn a lot from that with these different movements that are happening now with #MeToo and #Time’sUp. To say, ‘Hey, we are here. You can’t shut us out. You can’t wish us away. We are here just like you. And we deserve to be treated equally.’ That’s what I hope will happen with this piece.

What is you favorite part of this performance?
There are so many! I love the piece as a whole; there is not a bad piece in the bunch. One of the pieces that I love to conduct is, ‘Stick in the Wheel’ about getting into those places so that the wheels don’t turn. But at the same time, I love ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’ When the choir and the audience sing that song, my heart swells and it makes me so happy. I really hope the audiences in Denver will enjoy that as well.”

, , , ,