Orpheus Ascending

Classic Arts Features   Orpheus Ascending
Acclaimed musical-theater composer Ricky Ian Gordon brings a world-premiere production to Lincoln Center's Great Performers.

"It's the myth of the muse‹the birth of art, the birth of creation," says composer Ricky Ian Gordon about the meaning of the classic Greek myth "Orpheus and Euridice."

That myth, which concerns a great love, a terrible loss, a visit to the underworld, and a second tragic death, is being retold in a new version featuring music and libretto by Gordon, the award-winning composer of the musicals Dream True, States of Independence, and My Life with Albertine. Gordon's interpretation, simply titled Orpheus and Euridice, have its world premiere production at the Rose Theater at the new Jazz at Lincoln Center complex October 5, 7, and 8.

Gordon spent his young life studying to become a concert pianist, but it was during his first year at Carnegie Mellon University when he realized that his true calling was composing. It was probably not too much of a surprise for the Long Island native, who had been writing music all his life. In fact, a group of mostly anti-Vietnam War songs, including one titled "Oh, I Wish I Were a Dove," had made him a seventh-grade celebrity, and since college the 49 year old has been composing obsessively and prolifically. "I wouldn't say the process of composing‹or where it comes from‹is easy," Gordon explains. "I would just say that it's a necessity."

The gifted composer comes from an equally talented family. Mom Eve Samberg was 15 when she won a contest in Central Park singing the "Indian Love Call." It was there that Jenny Grossinger heard the young performer and brought her to the famed Catskills resort Grossinger's, where she became a teenage star and later a Borscht Belt singer-comedienne called Eve Saunders. Gordon's sisters‹Susan, Lorraine, and Sheila‹also boast impressive resumes. His eldest sister, Susan Gordon Lydon, who recently died of cancer, was among the first group of women to attend Yale University, and she eventually became the editor of London Life, helped create Rolling Stone magazine, profiled celebrities for the New York Times, and was one of the architects of the modern women's movement. Sister Lorraine Garnett, now a yogi and psychic healer in Virginia, was formerly a jazz electric blues guitarist, who was part of the all-women's band Goldflower. And, youngest sister Sheila Wolff, says Gordon, is "an extraordinary painter." Only his late father, Sam, had a more conventional career as an electrical contractor and owner of a marina.

Gordon's life with his family was recently depicted in his musical For My Family, which was workshopped at Sundance in a production directed by Tina Landau and featuring Malcolm Gets (Ricky), Diane Sutherland (Eve), Michael Rupert (Sam), Jessica Molaskey (Susan), Lauren Ward (Lorraine), and Judy Blazer (Sheila). "It was a really great experience," says Gordon, "and now Tina and I want to do it elsewhere." Family and an operatic version of The Grapes of Wrath are currently on Gordon's plate, but this month he's focusing on Orpheus and Euridice, which boasts direction and choreography by Doug Varone and features soprano Elizabeth Futral, clarinetist Todd Palmer, pianist Melvin Chen, and the Doug Varone Dancers. The creative team comprises set designer Allen Moyer, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, and costume designer Jane Greenwood.

The genesis of Gordon's Orpheus dates back to 1994 when clarinetist Palmer, a fan of Gordon's work, asked the composer if he could commission a piece for singer, clarinet, and piano. It was also during that time that Gordon's partner, the late Jeffrey Grossi, began his battle with AIDS. "Because so much was going on with Jeffrey," Gordon recalls, "I just didn't have ideas for [Palmer's piece]. But one night at four in the morning, I woke up and thought, 'Orpheus and Euridice. I have to tell the story of Orpheus and Euridice!' I didn't even wake Jeffrey up. I went into the dining room, and I could see the piece. In the piece Todd was Orpheus, and Orpheus played the clarinet."

Gordon's writing of Orpheus became a way to deal with his lover's illness. "At the time," says Gordon, "a kind of pre-grief was tearing me apart, knowing that Jeffrey was going to be gone soon, and his virus was taking him from me. In my version Euridice doesn't get bitten by a snake; she gets a mysterious virus. There's a line, 'As she slept, he wept bitterly and dearly, growing more and more bereft, as in increments she left.' It was a way to exorcise my story and prepare myself for what was going to happen, which, of course, it didn't at all because grief is so violent. But if we're lucky enough to have something like music as a vehicle, we get to pour our emotions into that. Frankly, I don't know what I would do if I didn't have that."

What was supposed to be a short clarinet piece became an hour-long song cycle, and the question that resulted from this change was, "Where are we going to perform it?" In the fall of 2001 Gordon premiered the piece at Cooper Arts, a contemporary music series at Cooper Union produced by Howard Stokar. That production, directed by recent Tony Award winner Ted Sperling, featured clarinetist Palmer, singer Elizabeth Farnum, and pianist Scott Dunn. "When we did it at that time," admits Gordon, "I realized two things: one was it needed slight expansion, and, two, I felt like it was hungry for another form, but I wasn't exactly sure what it was."

Enter Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center's producer of contemporary programming and a longtime champion of Gordon's work. "We had originally thought of a more straightforward theatrical approach and hiring a theater director," says Nakagawa, "but then the more that Ricky and I looked at the piece, the more we thought, 'Hey, maybe it's more about song and movement.' Everybody knows the story, and it's not like we're telling the story in a totally different way, so how do you make it fresh and different? By bringing movement to it, I think it's something that will give it a different take." And, after viewing a video of Doug Varone's The Bottomland, Gordon decided that Varone was the perfect choice to helm Orpheus.

A few months ago, a work session with Varone was held in New York with the three soloists and Varone's dancers. "Doug had already done all of this work," says Gordon. "He took one of the dancers from his company and used her as Euridice. So, what he had to do was put Elizabeth Futral into all the sections he had made. You would have thought that Elizabeth studied with the American Ballet Theatre her whole life. She's very beautiful and very thin, a beautiful opera singer with a beautiful voice. All he had to do was show it to her once, and she was in the piece. You could feel something happen that day in the room. Everybody became really excited about her. And then Todd Palmer showed up. Doug started moving him around and putting him in the sections. It was kind of mind-blowing to me. Once we started building the piece in the room, it was just a really remarkable feeling. I felt like I hadn't quite seen anything like it. Everything is built around the idea that Doug is using the dancers and Todd and Elizabeth as a landscape as well as as individuals. Melvin Chen, the pianist, will be on a platform, but it's a moving platform, so even the piano can morph into other things like the boat that goes down the River Styx."

Orpheus may have been borne out of a time of pain, but Gordon is thrilled to "have it now be done in a form that feels right. I was really grateful to the people who did it at Cooper Union to allow me to see it and appreciate it. They were fantastic, and now we have taken it to the next level."

Andrew Gans is an editor for Playbill On-line.

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