My first question to Andrew Lippa was asked jokingly.
Andrew, do you have to schedule time to breathe?
He chuckled and responded. “I get it,” he said.
Of course he gets it. Mr. Lippa is a musical polymath — musician, musical director, arranger, composer, and conductor. He sings. He writes Broadway musicals (“The Addams Family” and “Big Fish,” among others). He’s been Kristen Chenoweth’s musical director. He’s written songs for the likes of Renee Fleming, Idina Menzel, and Vanessa Williams. And he writes classical pieces, such as “I Am Harvey Milk.”
It is the last piece that prompts our conversation. As part of the Princeton Festival, Mr. Lippa will conduct the Princeton Sympathy Orchestra on June 23 and 24 in a performance of his oratorio about the slain San Francisco Jewish and gay martyr.
And then, he says, he will nap.
Mr. Lippa, 58, was born in Leeds, England. His parents emigrated to the United States, via Canada, when he was an infant. They settled in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit.
In England, his parents belonged to an Orthodox shul, though they were not truly Orthodox themselves. “In the 1960s, there wasn’t much of a Conservative movement in England like the one that my parents ended up joining in the United States,” Mr. Lippa said.
Actually, it was Andrew who was responsible for his family finding a Jewish home at Congregation B’nai Moshe in Oak Park. A friend invited him to junior congregation there. “I was in the fourth grade and I said sure,” Mr. Lippa continued. “I used to go to shul every Shabbas, and I really liked it. I told my parents about it, and they started going and getting involved.
“My sister and I were very involved in BBYO. She was president of her chapter, and I was president of mine, and so we had a very active Jewish household.”
What was more career defining was his ability to perform. “I sang in school all the time,” he said. “I was the boy soloist at my synagogue, and the chazen and I used to go around and give concerts at shuls and places like the Workmen’s Circle.”
Mr. Lippa didn’t begin piano lessons until he was 14 years old — late for professional musicians — but he had an eerie ability to master techniques quickly.
The next element in this seemingly bashert life happened at the University of Michigan during a conversation with his classmate and lifelong friend Jeffrey Seller, who went on to win Tonys for producing “Rent” and “Hamilton,” among other often breakthrough productions.
“When I was a sophomore, he said to me, ‘You play the piano,’” Mr. Lippa recalled. “‘You like musicals. Why don’t you write a musical?’
“It was a complete non sequitur to me. It was like saying you’ve been to France. You like blue jeans. Why don’t you have a pizza? But obviously, when I ruminated it, I thought he might have something here. We wrote a 45-minute musical that we played for our teachers. Thank God for teachers because they told me they thought I was good. (I’d thought I was terrible.) And that’s when I found that this was the thing I wanted to keep doing.”
After graduation Mr. Lippa moved to New York, got a job as a teacher, and was accepted into the prestigious BMI Musical Theater Workshop. His profile and roles in the industry rose steadily, from actor to pianist to musical director to lay cantor.
What? Lay cantor?
That happened early in his career, when a musical he was touring in played in Vancouver over the High Holidays, Mr. Lippa said. He wanted to attend services, but the first shul he contacted — “the one that will not be named” — required an $800 payment. He tried Beth Tikvah Congregation next.
“The person who answered the phone, when she found out I was an actor, all she wanted to talk about is where I was from and who I knew,” he said. “When I asked her what it cost, she said, ‘Normally, we charge $500. But you’re an actor. So like, whatever. If you can pay something great. If not, I’ll leave a ticket for you at the door.’ That’s the kind of embracing place it is.”
The then rabbi’s wife, Joan Cohen, who ran the choir, must have been impressed with his davening, because she asked him to return the following year as chazen. To be the shul’s High Holiday cantor.
“I told her I don’t know,” Mr. Lippa said. “I can read the Hebrew, but I don’t know the melodies. She was like, ‘It’s pioneer Judaism in the west. No one will know.’
“It was a really formative experience, to be able to express my Jewish heritage, my Jewish background, my affinity for music, Jewish music, along with my sexuality.”
Mr. Lippa felt it important that there not be any surprises.
He told the rebbitzin: “I need to tell you and the rabbi that I am an out gay man. And I have a partner, and he might come with me. I’m not going to hide who I am from your congregation, so if it’s an issue for you in any way or you’re not on board that a gay man is leading services with the rabbi, then I don’t want to participate in that. But if it’s OK, that is a wonderful thing.
“And it turned out that Martin Cohen, who was the rabbi, was one of the leading advocates in the conservative movement for LGBTQ people.”
Mr. Lippa served as lay cantor for a decade — and received a commission thanks to it. The Jewish Federation of Vancouver asked him to write an anthem for the organization’s celebration of Israel’s 50th birthday.
“I Am Harvey Milk” also was the result of a commission, this one from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. It debuted on June 26, 2013, Mr. Lippa said — the day the Supreme Court overturned sections of the Defense of Marriage Act, and by extension, California’s Proposition 8, a similar anti-gay marriage act.
Two days later, the first gay couples were married by then California Secretary of State Kamala Harris, “with hundreds of members of the Gay Men’s Chorus behind them singing one of my songs,” Mr. Lippa said.
While Mr. Lippa writes in several genres, his music almost inevitably is Jewish in tone. “William Balcom, who won a Pulitzer for musical composition, was a long-time professor at Michigan, where I went to school. Bill was my earliest composition teacher. He said to me, ‘You have that thing that a lot of the great composers have, this well of Jewish music.’ And he didn’t know this word neshumah, but that’s just something that somehow informs and is lurking underneath whatever I write.
“How could it not?”
Jerry Zaks, the multiple-Tony-Award-winning director, who worked with Mr. Lippa on “The Addams Family,” is a fan. “He’s filled with talent and he’s a great collaborator,” Mr. Zaks said. “He’s smart, he listens, and he can rewrite. Working with him again can’t happen soon enough.”
While Mr. Lippa’s performance is the anchor of a week of Princeton Festival activities, there are other performances as well, including the Mazel Tov Cocktail Party, an evening of klezmer music, on June 21.
Marc Uys, the executive director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, said that the symphony, like many arts institutions, has suffered because of the pandemic. Subscriptions to the normal six-concert series declined from roughly 800 to 500. Two years ago, the orchestra merged with the Princeton Festival, and the series of activities — performances and group discussions — is part of a rebuilding effort.
Tickets for the June 23 and June 24 performances at Morven Museum and Grounds range from $42 to $125; children and teens, from 5 to 17, receive a 50% discount with an adult purchase. Go to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra webpage at princetonsymphony.org or call (609) 497-0020.
Tickets for the Mazel Tov Cocktail Party are $15 to $75; tickets for children and teens, from 5 to 17 years old are half price. Buy them at princetonsymphony.org/festival