Aspiring teen musician inspired by Harvey Milk

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 25, 2013
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Seated behind a piano on the stage of the Castro Theatre in mid-May, Julian Hornik rehearsed his song "Altoona, Pennsylvania" with the 300 members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus gathered around him.

In the audience several photographers' cameras flashed as they captured the moment; their lenses focused on the gay Palo Alto resident who is headed to New Haven, Connecticut this fall where he will be a freshman at Yale University.

"Do we have enough photos of Julian yet?" asked Timothy Seelig, the chorus' artistic director and conductor, sounding a bit perturbed about the paparazzi-like atmosphere during the chorus' sound check.

"Well, he's a star," responded one of the photographers.

Hornik first made an impression in the Bay Area theater scene in 2008, winning plaudits for his role in Caroline, or Change . Bay Area Reporter theater critic Richard Dobbs wrote that the then-12-year-old Hornik had given a "professionally polished turn as Noah" in the production mounted by TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

Since last year Hornik, who just turned 18, has been impressing audiences with his song inspired by a famous speech given by Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco supervisor assassinated in 1978. The gay chorale group's annual Pride concert this year is dedicated to Milk, and the first act features eight works submitted by artists from across the globe.

Hornik's entry in the music category won a $1,000 cash prize. He first performed it last June during a chorus concert as a preview of this year's show.

It gives voice to the gay youth from a small town in the Keystone State that Milk said called to thank him after hearing about his election in 1977. The song's chorus alludes to closet doors opening:

Cause I can hear the sound of opening doors

Falling off their hinges and come crashing to the floors

and I can see my chances in yours

I can see my chances in yours

Hornik himself never had a "big coming out moment," he said. "I was lucky to live in a very accepting home, with very liberal parents and very liberal grandparents."

He was born on Long Island in New York, and the family moved to the South Bay when he was a toddler. The oldest of four siblings �" three boys and a girl �" Hornik has always loved music and the performing arts.

At 5 years old he had a non-talking role in a Madame Butterfly production at Festival Opera in Walnut Creek.

"I was a prop," joked Hornik, adding that the role "awakened something in me. I haven't stopped performing since."

His father, David Hornik, a venture capitalist, would drive Julian to the dress rehearsals.

"As we sat there and listened to the opera, he was conducting," recalled David Hornik, whose grandmother Rhea Hornik was a professional opera singer in the Philadelphia area.

It was his father who heard about the chorale group's song contest and suggested Hornik enter. He found inspiration in Milk's Altoona anecdote, as it tied into the work he and his brother, Noah, had done to raise money for the It Gets Better Project aimed at youth struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In early 2011 Hornik wrote a song for the project and posted a video of himself performing it to YouTube. He considers his song about Milk to be "an It Gets Better song in disguise."

Julian Hornik looks at artifacts from Harvey Milk in a display at the LGBT History Museum.

(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

As he researched Milk online to find material for his contest submission, Hornik kept coming across references to the anonymous kid from Altoona.

"The whole point is to give kids in the middle of nowhere feeling hopelessness hope. That is what Milk was doing and he knew what he was doing," said Hornik.

The song was the first one he had written in a year that he felt good about, recalled Hornik.

"Besides that, I wasn't totally confident of anything," he said, in terms of having it be selected.

Hornik also penned a winning entry in the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus It Gets Better Project song contest. The chorale group flew him to Los Angeles to star in the music video for the song, "The Solution. "

Hornik isn't a household name, yet, but that may be only a matter of time.

"He is going to be a major player in the Broadway community. Millions of people are going to see what this kid writes," predicted Jeff Marx, who with Robert Lopez co-wrote the songs for the 2004 musical Avenue Q, which won them the Tony for best score.

Marx met Hornik's dad at a TED conference, who mentioned his son was interested in writing musicals. He offered to provide some feedback if Hornik sent him some samples of his music.

"I hear a lot of young, new writers. I usually have nothing to say but, 'Cool. Keep going.' With Julian it was just clear he had a real ear for harmony, melody, just the feel of how to write songs," said Marx. "He just had the gift. It is rare."

Ever since Marx has served as a mentor to Hornik. The two collaborated on a jingle for the Fresh and Easy grocery chain, and Hornik, who wrote and sings the song "F&easy," appeared in the subsequent commercial that aired this spring. (It can be seen on YouTube here:

"He is a young Steven Sondheim. He is fantastic," said Marx.

His mother, Pamela Hornik, recalled Julian putting on shows for the family at a young age.

"He was always a little star," she said.

She said her son mapped out his college choices based on the campuses' proximity to Broadway.

"He really does live for theater," she said.

His parents have welcomed seeing him focus more on writing and composing than on acting, though Pamela Hornik joked she frets about how she may be portrayed by Julian some day.

"Julian will remind me I was the worst stage mother ever because we never got an agent or went to Broadway. I am waiting for when he writes a play to see how I am portrayed. It scares me a little bit," she said.

While Hornik is unsure of what he will major in at Yale, he does foresee moving to a studio apartment in Brooklyn once he graduates and struggling to make it as a songwriter.

"Theater, basically, is my whole life," said Hornik, whose idols include gay playwrights Sondheim and Tony Kushner.

Asked why, Hornik joked, "Maybe it is a mental illness," then added, "Once on stage I was hooked. There is nothing I like better than great theater. I don't know why, I was just born that way."