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Gordon, Ricky Ian (b. 1956)  

Of the handful of young theatrical composers often designated as heirs to the musical legacy of Stephen Sondheim (who revolutionized musical theater with complex, groundbreaking musicals such as Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, and Into the Woods), one of the most talented is Ricky Ian Gordon. Gordon has been praised for the lyrical quality of his music and for bridging the worlds of theater and art song.

Born on May 15, 1956, Gordon grew up on Long Island. His father, Sam, was an electrician. His mother, Eve, a former singer, gave him the name Ricky Ian because she thought it had a nice ring and would look good on a marquee. Gordon's family history was documented in Home Fires, a book by Donald Katz.

Gordon grew up in awe of his three sisters; one of them, Susan Gordon Lydon, became a founding editor of Rolling Stone. Susan would tuck Ricky into bed at night by reading poems aloud, sparking his lifelong love of poetry. Gordon has set many poems to music, including works by Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Jean Valentine, among others. He set several poems from What the Living Do, Marie Howe's moving collection detailing her brother's death from AIDS.

In a pattern typical of adolescents who turn out to be gay, Gordon grew up conscious of being different from other children and was victimized by neighborhood bullies. The arts were an important consolation for him. He was particularly drawn to the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poet Hughes, perhaps because of its expression of Hughes's outsider status and the cultural criticism it embodies. In 1995, Gordon created Only Heaven, a stage work that presents 29 songs set to poems by Hughes.

Proximity to Manhattan offered Gordon the advantage of visits to Lincoln Center, where he nourished his fascination with opera. The word "opera," Gordon later remembered, held for him the same excitement as the word "penis." His favorite operas included Alban Berg's Lulu and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, though popular music by the likes of Joni Mitchell also caught his ear.

A watershed moment occurred in 1975 when Gordon heard Sylvia Plath's Ariel poems in settings by composer Ned Rorem. "Her poems leapt out from the page for me," Gordon recalled. "Suddenly, I understood [them] as I never had before."

At this point, Gordon had already begun writing songs. He entered Carnegie Mellon University intending to major in piano, but soon switched to composing instead.

Speaking of his motive for composing, Gordon has compared himself to the late Robert Lowell, who said he wrote poetry "to break people's hearts."

The AIDS-related death in 1996 of Gordon's lover, Jeffrey Grossi, inspired Gordon to write the songs that eventually found their home in Dream True (1998), a musical in which the love between two men takes on a mythic aspect.

Gordon's other works include Stonewall/Night Variations (1994), a musical commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. The site-specific work was performed on a vacant Hudson River pier in New York.

Among Gordon's operatic credits include The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1996), an opera with a libretto by Jean Claude Van Itallie; Autumn Valentine (1992), a two-character operetta based on the works of Dorothy Parker; and Night Flight to San Francisco (2000), an operatic monologue from Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

Gordon's work is available on several recordings. Audra McDonald, the sensational young theatrical diva, recorded several of his songs for her debut CD, Way Back to Paradise (1998). McDonald also appears on Bright Eyed Joy (2001), an impressive collection devoted to Gordon's songs, which features as well Dawn Upshaw, Adam Guettel, Theresa McCarthy, and other performers.

The original cast recording of Gordon's score for My Life with Albertine, a musical based on the work of Marcel Proust, is also available. This show, with book by Richard Nelson, who also collaborated on the lyrics with Gordon, was produced off-Broadway in 2003 with Brent Carver and Emily Skinner in its cast.

Soprano Harolyn Blackwell recorded "Genius Child," a song cycle including several of Gordon's settings of poems by Hughes, for her album Strange Hurt (1994).

Gordon's work has also been performed by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, and soprano Renée Fleming has added his setting of Emily Dickinson's "Will There Really Be a Morning?" to her repertoire.

With many future projects and recordings underway, Gordon's work should soon become even more widely known.

Greg Varner


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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

arts >> Overview:  Opera

Opera, an eclectic synthesis of voice, drama, music, costume, visual arts and spectacle, has played an integral role in queer culture since its development in seventeenth century Venice.

arts >> Blitzstein, Marc

American composer Marc Blitzstein, whose homosexuality probably inspired his sympathy for outsiders, attempted to write politically relevant music, and in doing so influenced other composers to blend classical and popular forms.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

literature >> Kushner, Tony

In addition to being a prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner has become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

arts >> LaChiusa, Michael John

Composer Michael John LaChiusa, identified as a heir to Stephen Sondheim's legacy in the American musical theater, creates works that demand intellectual involvement on the part of the audience.

arts >> Larson, Jonathan

Although apparently heterosexual, musical theater composer Jonathan Larson wrote sympathetically about a diverse community of artists, many of whom are glbtq.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

literature >> Rorem, Ned

The American composer Ned Rorem has achieved literary prominence by publishing a series of diaries that include candid descriptions of homosexual love affairs and relationships.

arts >> Sondheim, Stephen

One of the most innovative talents of the musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Sondheim has only indirectly reflected his homosexuality in his work.

social sciences >> Stonewall Riots

The confrontations between police and demonstrators at the Stonewall Inn in New York City the weekend of June 27-29, 1969 mark the beginning of the modern glbtq movement for equal rights.


Blackwell, Harolyn. Strange Hurt. RCA CD, 1994.

Gordon, Ricky Ian. Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon. Various Artists. Nonesuch CD, 2001.

_____. My Life with Albertine. Original Cast Recording. PS Classics CD, 2003.

_____. Only Heaven: A Musical Work by Ricky Ian Gordon Based on the Poetry of Langston Hughes. Various Artists. PS Classics CD, 2002.

Holden, Stephen. "Composer's Happy Leap into the Beauty of Poetry." The New York Times (April 30, 2002): E3.

Katz, Donald. Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

McDonald, Audra. Way Back to Paradise. Nonesuch CD, 1998.

Varner, Greg. "Broadway's Future Is Here: Recordings Offer a Peek at the Musical Theater to Come." Washington Blade (May 14, 1999): 47.

_____. "A Gesture on Behalf of the Poem: Composer Ricky Ian Gordon is Equally at Home in Theater, Concert Hall, and on Record." Washington Blade (May 5, 2000): 41-43.

_____. "A Heavenly Recording: Talented Singers Interpret Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon." Washington Blade (June 1, 2001): 39.


    Citation Information
    Author: Varner, Greg  
    Entry Title: Gordon, Ricky Ian  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated January 21, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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