Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of Off-Broadway's Dream True, has given wing to the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the results will be heard on a forthcoming CD from the independent label ps classics.
Gordon's Only Heaven is the setting of nearly 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 works there that the performance was recorded live in late February. The forthcoming disc, expected Oct. 1, will be the first live recording offered by ps classics, which focuses on theatre music and classic American pop music. Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite will also be released by ps classics Oct. 1. Image Entertainment distributes ps classics discs.
Only Heaven will be edited and mixed in New York over the summer. Tommy Krasker, founding producer of ps classics, expects to do one additional recording session in New York in the next two weeks "to patch some passages made problematic by the complicated staging of the Dayton production," the producer told Playbill On-Line June 11.
"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,'" 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." 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.
— By Kenneth Jones