Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer-lyricist who collaborated with Tina Landau on Dream True and is working with Richard Nelson on the Proust-inspired musical, My Life With Albertine for early 2003, is turning toward the mirror for another new musical he's developing.
The Family Project, or An Oratorio of Portraits is the story of Gordon's middle-class family, presented in pieces by a young artist character modeled on Gordon himself. Gordon told Playbill On-Line a reading of the show is being put together for the fall through Musical Theatre Works (MTW), the company devoted to new musicals.
"In the '80s, in the early '80s especially, I began writing a piece about my family," Gordon said, adding that the events in his family's life happened to dovetail with a lot of historical events since World War II. "We were present at a lot of seminal events."
Gordon would tell his friends about his family, and the stories caught the imagination of an writer pal, Donald Katz, who later got permission to write a non-fiction book about the Gordons, "Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America."
The 1992 HarperCollins title was well-reviewed, widely read and the Gordons appeared on "The Charlie Rose Show" and "Good Morning, America." What's good enough for the publishing world is good enough for the stage. Gordon said his collection of songs is based on his life and does not follow the shape and style of Katz's book (and, indeed, a clutch of the songs were penned before the book hit shelves). Some of the tunes have been heard over the years in concert, and a workshop of The Family Project took place at Bennington College, where Gordon teaches.
"At a certain point I had to put down my family piece," Gordon admitted. "Some self-destructive behavior regarding drugs and alcohol accelerated and I could not handle anymore, emotionally, the content of this piece. I have been sober for 13 years and at a certain point last year, at the first meeting of forming a collective with MTW, a big part of me was thinking privately, this would be the perfect context for finishing my family piece. I asked Tina Landau if she would direct it for me, and she said yes. We're supposed to do a reading at the end of October, the beginning of November."
Gordon — a passionate poetry reader known for his art songs, settings of poetry, and vocal pieces for a range of artists, from opera divas to musical theatre singers — said The Family Project is not a "linear musical."
"It's a landscape on which a family is seen, and each one of them is kind of 'haloed,' hallowed and seen at a particular moment in their life, but the overall idea is that a young man — i.e., me — is writing about his family and is writing about writing about his family," he explained. "At the end, he has a monologue where he talks about the last night of his lover's life. Then, there's a song called 'Maybe a Work of Art,' where he sings, "I want to turn it all into art/Maybe an ending/Maybe a start/Made from the noise humming deep in my heart/Into a work of art.' It's about the act of creation and the hot coal inside of you that makes you want to create in the first place."
The piece is conceived by Gordon — text, music and lyrics.
Gordon's Only Heaven, a concept concert of his settings of poems by Langston Hughes, got a CD release Oct. 1 on the PS Classics label. My Life With Albertine, taken from the second book of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," gets its world premiere in early 2003 at Playwrights Horizons. Richard Nelson (James Joyce's The Dead, Franny's Way) directs and pens the book and co-writes the lyrics with composer Gordon.
— By Kenneth Jones