Four years ago on his 50th birthday, gay composer Ricky Ian Gordon won an Obie Award for his song cycle, “Orpheus and Euridice.” On that very same day, he also learned that he’d received a $100,000 commission from Signature Theatre to compose a new musical as part of the Arlington company’s “American Musical Voices Project.” The result of Gordon being selected by Signature is “Sycamore Trees,” an almost entirely autobiographical piece chronicling his family’s story from the mid-1940s through the 1990s.
Initially, Gordon thought he’d satisfy his sizable commission by collaborating with an established lyricist and a playwright on a new musical work. When that didn’t pan out, Gordon sensed the universe was telling him something: “Do the family piece!” Certainly the material was there: His mother was a Borsht Belt singer and his father a macho World War II veteran. He and his three older sisters, Gordon attests, were the result of their parents’ outsized passion. And while the postwar Jewish family’s climb from the Bronx to suburban Long Island wasn’t unusual, their rancorous battles and hardcore addiction issues were.
Gordon first began work on the libretto and score that would become “Sycamore Trees” in the 1980s. “When I started, I had a story about my family but not self,” he explains. “I first had to live, bottom out, lose a lover to AIDS, and get clean. Only after putting my world back together did telling my story make sense to me. ”
In a Signature press release, “Sycamore Trees’” director Tina Landau says, “The whole piece feels like a poem — some haunting combination of memory, music, and dream.” But it’s also sharp, biting and very funny with an eclectic, melodic score. This world premiere production features a talented cast of Broadway vets including Judy Kuhn, Mac Kudisch, Matthew Risch, and Diane Sutherland. Tony Yazbeck plays Andrew, the Gordon character.
About midpoint in the musical’s development, Andrew had a poem, essentially a paean to his father’s laud worthy penis. Ultimately, the passage was cut. (“There’s only so much you can ask from an audience,” Gordon notes wryly, “Especially when you tell them that they’re seeing a musical.”)
But another scene recounting young Andrew’s disastrous sexual experimentation with another boy remains intact. Many changes and edits were made throughout the evolution of “Sycamore Trees,” and none of them came easily, says Gordon. When it’s your own story, it’s especially difficult to leave something out.
At just 16, Gordon entered Carnegie Mellon University. In his freshman year, he realized he was meant to be a composer. For him, it was “like walking into the light.” Today, Gordon’s advice to aspiring composers is to listen to all the music they possibly can. Writing for theater demands that they call upon all that they know to make every moment as authentic as possible. To do that, it’s necessary to have a broad musical vocabulary at your fingertips. Most young composers have yet to acquire that. With him it was different.
“I’m a trash heap of information,” Gordon happily reports. “As long as I can remember my ambition was to become a great artist, so I knew all the poets; foreign film greats like Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, Fellini, and Mizoguchi; and so many composers, particularly Shostakovich, Rorem, and Sondheim. Consequently, I was very informed and totally imitative.”
“I feel compelled to write musicals that are both emotionally and psychologically like the foreign films that I grew up loving. That’s my aesthetic,” adds Gordon whose other works include the opera “The Grapes of Wrath” and the musicals “Dream True” and “My Life with Albertine.”
“I like to bring the close-up to the stage. There’s intimacy even in my more epic work.”
“Sycamore Trees” is a love letter to Gordon’s family. And while he exposes himself and his kin, warts and all, his candid observations are exceedingly compassionate and beautifully rendered.
Through June 13
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington