With 'Sycamore Trees,' composer digs deep into his past

Ricky Ian Gordon's autobiographical plays comes to Signature Theatre

May 27, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has been writing the same traumatic and hopeful story over and over again all of his life, in the form of operas, musicals and song cycles. Once, he even persuaded someone else to write his story for him.

But on Sunday night, when the curtain officially raises on "Sycamore Trees," the newest and most unabashadly autobiographical version, Gordon, 54, will have written his tale for the last time.

"My previous work — 'Green Sneakers,' 'Orpheus and Eurydice,' 'Dream True' — all were catapulted by grief," Gordon says over the phone. "'Sycamore Trees' is the culmination. I never need to write the specifics of this story again, because now I'm telling it to my family."

Gordon received a $100,000 commission to write "Sycamore Trees," the second installation of a three-year grant given to the theater troupe to develop new American musicals. The musical stars such well-known Broadway veterans as Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudisch and Diane Sutherland.

It relates the story of Sydney and Edie Sylvan, who move to Long Island from the Bronx after World War II in search of a place where their four precocious children — three girls and a boy — would thrive. Instead, they run headlong into nearly every hot button-issue to beset the American family in the second half of the 20th century, including drug addiction, domestic abuse, homosexuality and teen pregnancy.

Sydney is a World War II veteran who loves his family but can't excise his tyrannical streak. Edie, once a successful Borscht Belt singer and comedian, now lapses into a frightened compliance.

Writing about one's intimates can be a notoriously dicey proposition. But in the past, the Obie Award-winning Gordon has found a way to make it work. "I pretty much only write personal," he says. "Some of the things that happened to me, I couldn't get them out of my system."

His music branches alternately into opera, musical theater and song cycles, and his compositions have been performed by such singers as Audra McDonald, Renee Fleming, Frederica von Stade and Betty Buckley. His work also has garnered impressive plaudits.

"Oprheus and Eurydice" won an Obie (Off-Broadway) Award, while The New York Times describes his compositions as "caviar for a world gorging on pizza."

But all of Gordon's previous plots have worn a veil of fiction, however transparent. For instance, while "Orpheus," is a meditation on the 1996 death from AIDS of Gordon's partner, Jeffrey Michael Grossi, the song cylce follows the action laid out in the Greek myth.

The composer's newest musical abandons even this slight pretext. Unlike the operas and song cycles, "Sycamore Trees" recounts conversations among Gordon, his parents and his sisters.

"Sure, I changed the names,'" he says, "but the cat is out of the bag. 'Sycamore Trees' is a story about my family and my lover who passed away. Could it be more nakedly autobiographical?"

Just three members of Gordon's nuclear family are still alive, and two — his sisters Sheila and Lorraine — will attend Sunday's opening performance. The composer's elderly mother lives in Florida and is unable to make the trip to northern Virginia.

""I read the script to my mom," Gordon says. "She laughed, she screamed and she cried. But everyone agrees with the way I've portrayed them. I'm really happy about that."

But then, the Gordons are accustomed to seeing their lives explored in a public forum. Gordon used to discuss his family with his running buddy, an author and columnist for Esquire named Donald Katz. In 1992, Katz published the critically acclaimed "Home Fires," a 700-page book that followed the Gordon clan from 1945 through 1990. They subsequently appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" and PBS' "Charlie Rose."

In retrospect, Gordon thinks the book is "rough" on his eldest sister, Susan, while painting a romanticized portrait of their father.

"It's flattering to be interviewed for five years and written about," he says. "One of the incredible things about 'Home Fires' is that all of us told Don things we'd never told each other. But he never completely got what it was like to grow up in that family."

As a writer, Gordon is aware just how slippery a notion the truth can be.

While crafting his family saga with the help of dramaturge Nina Mankin, he found that the harder he tried to be accurate, the more he had to take liberties with the facts.

For instance, in the musical, a brother and sister battle their dependency on drugs, but only the character based on Ricky pulls through. In real life, Susan Gordon Lydon, a founding editor of "Rolling Stone," overcame what her brother terms "a horrific addiction" — only to die in 2005 from breast cancer.

And that's the way her death was recounted in early versions of the script. But Gordon found that relating the same drug addiction story twice lessened its impact on an audience.

"I have been clean and sober for 20 years, and it became more important to tell that story," he says.

But he also found that writing "Sycamore Trees" gave him insights into his own past that he'd never had.

"My father created four walls that we all had to burst through. But we all became really productive people. Susan may have been a junkie and a crack addict, but she founded 'Rolling Stone' and helped found the women's movement.

"I learned that I have a great resolve, and a swiftly burning inner flame. Not only did my childhood not destroy me, it gave me an intense need to be heard and to tell my story."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

"Sycamore Trees" runs at 8 pm tonight through June 13 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, Va. Tickets cost $52-$76. Call 410-547-7328 or go to http://www.signature-theatre.org.

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