The composer Ricky Ian Gordon enthusiastically describes "Only Heaven" (with libretto by the late poet Langston Hughes) as a "staged song cycle with an implied narrative. Yet, the story has an arc. The piece follows the characters' spiritual journey towards transcendence."
Heady stuff, indeed. Still, Gordon insists there is nothing inaccessible about his musical theatre piece, which bowed Jan. 11, Off-Broadway at the Connelly Theatre. In fact, what drew him—and the Encompass New Opera Theatre that is presenting the work—to the Langston Hughes poems was their emotional availability.
"They're not veiled or obtuse," he asserts. "They have an immediacy that I find theatrical, visceral, and raw. In addition, Hughes' writes almost like a lyricist. [Hughes actually was a Broadway lyricist— for Kurt Weill's "Street Scene" in 1947.] My challenge, which was almost no challenge, was to allow the poems to live inside of me, filtering them through my body until the music emerges.
"When you set a poem to music, you try to merge with the poet," Gordon continues. "The Dalai Lama says 'You contribute from your own tradition and celebrate difference.' I'm a white Jew from Long Island, setting poems written by a black man who lived in Harlem in the '20s and '30s. The piece is about several people who lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance."
The 44-year-old award-winning composer, who is talking with us on the phone, stresses, "We are reinvigorating and re-enlivening the poetry. At the same time, we've got to be aware of the piece textually and create enough variety. We have solos, duets, and quartets, and the music brings together rags, blues, and other sounds. We use five instruments: a piano, base, cello, viola, and reed-doubler."
Gordon's music is known for its complexity, intense energy, and eclectic style. And while he defines his aesthetic as "risky," he insists he does not see his work as marginal or inaccessible.
Gordon dubs himself as a "cross-over artist," and has, in fact, done it all, creating music for the recital hall, theatre, opera, dance, and film. His works are currently featured on Audra McDonald's recording "Way Back To Paradise" and Nonesuch plans a forthcoming all-Gordon song recording with McDonald and Dawn Upshaw, among other singing notables. He has also published three songbooks (via Williamson Music, the publishing company of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization).
His theatre piece, "Dream True"—a collaboration with writer-director Tina Landau—garnered a Richard Rodgers Production Award given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was produced for a limited run Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theatre in 1999. Among his other wins: the 1989 National Institute For Music Theater Award, the 1991 Stephen Sondheim Award, 1993 and 1994 Special Recognition Awards from the Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Music Theater Foundation, the 1999 Jonathan Larson Foundation Award. He has also earned multiple awards from ASCAP, Meet The Composer, The American Music Center, and the National Endowment For the Arts.
An Interior Tradition
Gordon boasts a curious background that one author, at least, viewed as representative of an era. Indeed, Gordon's entire family was the subject of social historian Donald Katz's 1992 book, "Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One of America's Postwar Middleclass Families: The Gordons."
Ricky's mom, Eve Saunders, was a Borscht Belt comic and singer; his father "was an electrician who loved ragtime." Ricky's three sisters are respectively, Susan Lydon, a feminist-activist who helped found the magazine Rolling Stone; Lorraine Heard, a homeopath, and former member of the now defunct "Gold Flower," a rock and roll band; and Sheila Wolfe, a painter.
"I grew up on vocal music—from Rorem to Schumann to Gershwin—and, of course, ragtime," Gordon recalls. "I started playing the piano when I was five years old, but I always thought of myself as a writer. I wrote lyrics and poetry. And for a long period, I wanted to be a film reviewer. I was obsessed with foreign films: Bergman, Truffaut, and Kurosawa.
"My notion of theatre," Gordon continues, "is musicalized foreign film that expresses a kind of interiority. Stephen Sondheim comes out of that [interior] tradition."
Gordon graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, having majored in music and acting. A move to New York followed where, by his own admission, "I spent the next 10 years floundering. I still live hand-to-mouth and don't have health insurance."
Despite Gordon's ongoing difficulties, he maintains that once he decided to fully commit himself to writing music, his circumstances changed virtually overnight. "In 1989 I met composer Adam Guettel. We became friends. Through him, I met Sheldon Harnick and Mary Rodgers [daughter of Richard Rodgers and grandmother of Adam Guettel]. When I played for them they were enthusiastic." Within short order, grants, awards, and commissions were forthcoming.
At the moment, however, his thoughts are focused on "Only Heaven" and his hope that audiences leave the theatre appreciating Langston Hughes' world, "finding it rich, rewarding, and worth tapping into. I would like them to be more compassionate. 'Only Heaven' is ultimately about compassion."