A retired kosher butcher, his young lesbian writing teacher, his dead-but-feisty wife and assassinated politician Harvey Milk all in a musical together?
This odd combination makes up the main characters of the award-winning musical “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” with the book written by West Virginia University alumnus Jerry James.
The musical recently won five awards at the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival, the most of any festival production.
It ran during late July at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City.
The awards were presented as the New York Musical Theatre Festival celebrated the completion of its season.
In addition to James’ award for “Excellence in Writing – Book,” the musical also won the “Most Promising Musical Award” at the festival, as well as other awards.
Actors Jeff Keller and Leslie Kritzer both won “Outstanding Individual Performance” awards for portraying the lead characters of Harry and Barbara.
“My collaborators and I worked on this show for a number of years and we are proud of it,” James said. “But there is something about hearing your name called and suddenly having tangible evidence that someone else agrees with you and that you haven't been lying to yourself all this time.”
The musical is based on the short story “A Letter To Harvey Milk,” written in 2004 by Lesléa Newman.
Set in 1986, the story revolves around Harry Weinberg, a retired Jewish butcher who is tormented by his thoughts and memories of gay activist-politician Harvey Milk, whom he knew in San Francisco.
James has been employed in theater since 1965.
His plays, including “Virgins & Dynamos,” “¿Hasta Cuando?” “The Once and Future Web,” “Isadora: American Legend,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Rege & Marge,” and the musical “Pas de Trois,” have been produced in New York City, Toronto, Munich, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boca Raton, Washington and went on tour in Great Britain.
James is also a writer of short fiction, his stories having been awarded prizes in San Diego, Chicago and Ireland. His short story, “…She Wears Red Feathers,” won first prize in the Spring 2006 Coffee House Fiction contest.
He was production stage manager of the Off-Broadway phenomenon “Forbidden Broadway” for 10 years and dramaturg at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy for five.
James graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from WVU in 1968 and also holds degrees from Penn State. He is also a member of the Dramatists Guild and Actors’ Equity Association and is an alumnus of the Broadcast Music, Inc. Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival exists to ensure the future vitality of America’s greatest art form by serving as the preeminent launching pad for a stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse array of new musicals, and by providing an affordable way for artists to mount professional productions that reach their peers, industry leaders and musical theater audiences.
Now in its ninth year, the festival is the largest annual musical theater event in America.