Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of Off-Broadway's Dream True and the upcoming Playwrights Horizons musical, My Life With Albertine, has given wing to the poetry of Langston Hughes over the years, and the results are heard on a concert cast album of Only Heaven, getting an Oct. 1 release on the PS Classics label.
Gordon's Only Heaven is the setting of 30 poems by the late Harlem Renaissance master known for plays, poetry, lyrics and stories. The musicalized poems have been performed at Saint Ann's Church in Brooklyn and at the Connelly Theatre on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its most recent production, revised since New York, was presented by Muse Machine in Dayton, OH.
The composer was so pleased with the Muse Machine presentation that the performances were recorded live in late February 2002. The disc (in stores Oct. 1, but web released on the PS Classics website two weeks earlier) is the first live recording offered by the independent label devoted to theatre music, singers, musicals and American songwriters. Gordon joins the label's roster of artists that includes Jessica Molaskey, Darius De Haas, Philip Chaffin and others, as well as discs focusing on composers Vincent Youmans (the recording debut of the musical, Through the Years) and Jerome Moross (the revue, Windflowers, drawing on songs from Golden Apple and other shows).
Ricky Ian Gordon first began setting Hughes poems in the 1980s as a collection of pieces for the soprano Harolyn Blackwell heard as Genius Child at Carnegie Recital Hall, and the collection grew over the years, leading to an expanded Hughes-Gordon work, Only Heaven, a theatrical concert set in a sort of limbo, an "in-between," he told Playbill On-Line. "It's about these people who are kind of reviewing their life experience and then coming to the same place — in a way a kind of veiled Tibetan Book of the Dead," Gordon said.
He admitted that the Langston Hughes pieces (some of which were heard on Gordon's CD, "Bright Eyed Joy") were written as sketchbook pieces between larger compositions. "I've set a lot of poems to music," Gordon told Playbill On Line. "There's a spiritual precept that if you go to a book and open it with your left hand, which is the intuitive hand, you'll find what you need. I often go to a bookshelf that's almost all poetry books, and I usually open a book with my left hand and that's pretty often the poem I end up setting for that day. I went to my Langston Hughes and I opened it up to a poem called 'Kid in the Park,' and I set it in about an hour. I suddenly realized, at that moment in my life what I needed was a project where I could make quick, fast brush strokes and re-engage myself with instinct alone. I started setting these poems, and because they were often short, they were undeniably emotional, intellectual, political, but the statements they made were bold and quick. They were in no way opaque."
Among the Hughes poems Gordon set are "Heaven," "My People," "I Dream a World," "Daybreak in Alabama," "Litany," "Song for a Dark Girl," "Drum," "New Moon," "Luck," "Stars," "Kid in the Park," "Poor Girl's Ruination" and more.
"I've actually recorded several of Ricky's Only Heaven compositions, for Audra McDonald's first CD and then for Ricky's own album, 'Bright-Eyed Joy,'" PS Classics producer and founder Krasker said. "I'd also seen both earlier incarnations of the piece, and always felt that Ricky's Langston Hughes settings were among his finest work. Ricky had told me how pleased he was with the revisions and rethinking he, director Joe Deer and the music director Joey Bates had done for Dayton. And I knew by speaking with Ricky during rehearsals how overwhelmed he was with the four singers: Darius de Haas, whom I had just recorded for PS Classics, Jonita Lattimore (from Chicago Lyric Opera), Adrienne Danrich and Jay Pierce. But even given the advance hype, I wasn't prepared for how strong and how beautifully sung the production was."
Joseph Bates and Krasker co-produced the disc.
Krasker said in its earlier incarnations he thought of Only Heaven as a song-cycle, "something more musically involving than dramatically cohesive."
"But," the producer explained, "by some particular alchemy of author and cast and directors, the Dayton production transformed the piece into a genuine theatrical work that made Ricky's music all the more exciting, and Hughes' poetry even more compelling. Hughes' big themes — of love and hope and joy, of pain and isolation — seemed terribly moving and accessible. I just felt Ricky, after so many years of work on this piece, had created the definitive performing edition, and that the cast — with its smooth combination of Broadway and opera voices — couldn't be bettered. So we made very quick arrangements to tape two of the performances in Dayton."
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, MO, in 1902. He would become one of the leading African-American literary figures of the 20th century, penning poems, lyrics, children's stories, novels and plays. His lyrics are heard in the musical Street Scene, a rare chance for a black writer to contribute to the form dominated by white artists. He died in 1967.
Broadway soprano Christine Andreas' new recording, "Here's to the Ladies," a tribute to Broadway leading ladies and their songs (newly arranged and heard with a 45-piece orchestra) gets released by PS Classics Oct. 15 (with an Oct. 1 web release on the label's site).
Gordon (who is also a lyricist) is currently collaborating with book writer and co-lyricist Richard Nelson to create the world premiere musical, My Life With Albertine, borrowing events from a section of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." It premieres in early 2003 at Playwrights Horizons' new 42nd Street mainstage Off-Broadway.
— By Kenneth Jones