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A Match Made in Heaven

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon talks about making beautiful music with the poetry of Langston Hughes. logo
Ricky Ian Gordon
Ricky Ian Gordon has been working in theater and opera for years, but it was the appearance of several of his songs on Audra McDonald's first solo album, Way Back to Paradise, that brought him to the attention of a wider audience. He has since come to be considered part of the new group of musical theatre composers who are much-loved and much-maligned, depending upon who you talk to. Those anxious to hear more of Gordon's work will be glad to know that Only Heaven, his musical tribute to the poetry of Langston Hughes, is now playing in New York.

Encompass New Opera Theatre, a company dedicated to presenting new work, first produced Only Heaven in 1995 and is launching its season with an expanded version of the piece. Encompass founder Nancy Rhodes, who is directing the show and has helped develop it over the years, says the collaboration first began when she was introduced to Gordon and he started to play some of his songs for her. "He played one of the songs and I just burst into tears," she relates. "He played another one and it was so haunting, then he played another and it was just so joyful. I said 'We ought to make a show out of this.'"

The show, which features 17 of Hughes' poems set to music, takes the audience on a journey from joy to heartbreak and back again. Just as previews for Only Heaven were beginning, Gordon spoke with TheaterMania about the genesis and development of the piece, and about what it's like to write for the theater these days.


THEATERMANIA: How long have you been working on Only Heaven?

RICKY IAN GORDON: I've been setting these poems to music since about 1990. The first thing I did was a cycle for Harolyn Blackwell called "Genius Child," which was on a CD she did called Strange Hurt. Then, after I wrote that cycle, I went to Philadelphia and Tina Landau and I wrote a new musical called States of Indepedence. When I came back to New York after that, I was kind of palette-clearing before my next project, and I started setting many more of these poems till I had about 30. Somewhere in that period, Nancy Rhodes and I met. We wanted to do something together, and we came up with the notion for a kind of staged song cycle about a journey, the trajectory being from innocence to experience. Or from a closedness to a kind of opening, to a compassion. In a way, it's like a journey towards transcendence.

TM: How do you think it's different from what you were doing with "Genius Child"?

GORDON: Well, "Genius Child" was definitely a cycle for one woman. And, eventually this just opened it up; it felt like it was for more than one person. The title Only Heaven came to me from one of the poems, "Luck," which is a really short poem that goes:

'Sometimes a crumb falls from the tables of joy
Sometimes a bone is flung
To some people love is given
To others
Only heaven.'

There was something about it; the whole piece just started falling together. At the time--that was 1995--we decided to do it with three singers, two women and one man. It was pretty successful for us.

TM: Where did you do it?

GORDON: At the Theatre Row Theatre--a little space, but it was nice. There was a front page review in USA Today that said it was the most distinctive music heard in New York all season, which was pretty good for me. So then what happened was, in the interim, I did a big benefit at St. Ann's in Brooklyn where I did a new version of Only Heaven. I started writing new material, and I expanded it. I wrote bigger songs, newer songs. And when I came back to Nancy, in a way, I had a new version of Only Heaven. For example, we needed a fourth singer this time, because I felt like we needed a young man--something more to kind of play off the notion of youth and age. I've been doing a recording of my songs on Nonesuch with Dawn Upshaw, Audra McDonald, and Adam Guettel, and we were recording some of the songs from the new version. So it all kind of made sense putting it together this time. It was like a new piece.

TM: Do you feel that this is a more definitive piece, or just a different one?

GORDON: Actually, I feel like it's more definitive. I even feel like it will probably continue to evolve because, for example, there are even more new songs. But, for the moment, I feel like this is a more representative Only Heaven than what we did in 1995.

TM: Will it have many of the songs from Audra McDonald's album?

GORDON: A lot of those are from Only Heaven. As a matter of fact, those songs have the new orchestrations; they're the new versions. Sherry Boone sings "Song for a Dark Girl" and "Daybreak," Keith Byron Kirk sings "Dream Variations."

TM: It's a great cast. Had you worked with them before?

GORDON: Sherry and Michael Lofton were in it originally. Keith and Monique McDonald are new, and they're wonderful. It's kind of fun having Only Heaven be in the world now, and then this new recording comes out in March and that's called Bright Eyed-Joy, after one of the songs that's in it. Then I do a concert at Lincoln Center on March 13 for the American Songbook series; Billy Porter's going to sing a couple of the songs there.

TM: What is it about Langston Hughes' poetry in particular that really gets to you?

GORDON: Its immediacy, its form. Just skeletally speaking, he writes in song forms, so it's relatively easy. Langston Hughes could not write a poem without writing a song. Kristin Chenoweth's new CD is coming out, and I wrote a big song for that where I actually use a third of a Langston Hughes poem, and then I continued the lyric myself--just because he goes in a direction with that poem that I didn't want to go for Kristin. It's the first time I felt I'd collaborated with Langston!

TM: So, you do your own lyric-writing as well?

GORDON: Yeah, I do a lot. On my new CD, there'll be a lot of my lyrics, and I have three published songbooks. One of them, which is called A Horse With Wings, has a lot of my own lyrics in it. We're actually going to do a lot of them at Lincoln Center, too.

TM: How do you approach setting a poem as compared to writing your own complete song?

GORDON: I'm drawn to a poem partially because I seek text that I can speak through. Whatever I'm going through in my own life usually has to do with whatever poetry I'm drawn to. What I do is I memorize the poem. I like to say I install it; I install it into me. Once it starts churning about in my body, it starts finding its music. Then the music kind of explodes out and it becomes like the coat, you know, the coverlet. It's a whole process where I turn to a poet to guide me and to help me out of something--or, sometimes, to help me into something. The music I write for it is my way of letting the poem speak. And then the singer is the next application.

TM: How does your director, Nancy Rhodes, fit into the process?

GORDON: Nancy gets a vision a lot of times for what the overall umbrella over the whole thing is, and then she allows the poem to stand on its feet and move around. She's both the director and the dramaturge.

TM: This is with Encompass Theatre. How long have they been around?

GORDON: They're about 25 years old, and I always knew about them because they've always been behind new and risky musical theater work. We've never had, in New York, an American Music Theatre Festival, or a Houston Grand Opera, constantly commissioning new works. It's much harder in New York. It's crazy! This is New York City, and it's the hardest place to get new work commissioned.

TM: I always hear the stories about the sort of 'starving artist' composers - you, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown - struggling to pay the rent.

GORDON: Yeah, of course. I don't have insurance. I have nothing. It's ridiculous. If anything, to be an artist and to do your work in New York, a lot of times, it just means you're a pariah. You're almost guaranteed hideous, horrible reviews. It's practically asking for a slinging of arrows, darts, bullets ... and no money.

TM: Do you think you guys will eventually have your time?

GORDON: I have to say this - I'm really grateful that, in terms of having our time, in some ways my time is now. Alright, it would be an incredible thing if there was some kind of financial remuneration for what I do, but for all intents and purposes, I'm a composer in the world and my work is heard and my name is out there, which is a huge, gigantic gift to be grateful for. I mean, it's not like there isn't a precedent for misunderstanding, for poverty. I know it's really hard to hear new music and know what it is and identify it on first or second hearing. Music has to find its way in the world. So I'm grateful that I have as much notoriety as I do, and that I'm able to do my work. And I have to say, if I didn't have faith all along that I was going to have my day, and that my work would be heard and that I will be okay, I couldn't still do it. But nothing stops me. So I guess I do have faith.

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