Preview: Ricky Ian Gordon's musical 'Sycamore Trees' at Signature Theatre

Although the bare outlines of his early life are echoed in a gazillion tales of postwar America -- Bronx Jewish family in search of better things moves to squarely middle-class Long Island -- few of the entries on the résumé of composer Ricky Ian Gordon hew so conveniently to the path of conformity.

A writer of art songs and emotive off-Broadway musicals ("Dream True," "My Life With Albertine"), as well as operas distilling the melodic essences of epic stories ("The Grapes of Wrath," the forthcoming "Garden of the Finzi-Continis"), the 53-year-old Gordon has shown over the course of his career that he's anything but cut from a mold.

That is why it was particularly gratifying when Signature Theatre announced that Gordon was one of the initial recipients of a $100,000 commission, derived from a gift from the Shen Family Foundation, for the creation of new musicals by the Arlington company. The first of those musicals, "Giant," received its premiere at Signature last spring.

Now comes the second entry: Gordon's "Sycamore Trees," a musical based on his Long Island life, a piece that seeks to reaffirm that every story of a family can be a landscape of original contours. Directed by longtime collaborator Tina Landau, the production begins performances May 18 with a top-drawer cast that includes Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudisch, Jessica Molaskey and Diane Sutherland.

"I practically started writing 'Sycamore Trees' when I decided to become a writer," Gordon is saying from the little lakeside cottage in the Catskills he shares with his partner. "It was just this thing that was forming in journals and notebooks and songs on the side." Then Signature's grant -- paid out as $25,000 a year for four years, plus health benefits -- materialized. Contemplating his options, he eventually circled back to the jottings about his family. "It was the universe telling me I was supposed to do 'Sycamore Trees.' "

The title arises from the greenery of his youth, planted over wide expanses of the suburbs, or what Gordon calls "a sand pit surrounded by water." The trees, he says, "had this sort of mythological significance for me." But the inspiration is his family, and, most colorfully, his mother, who, under the professional name Eve Saunders, was a popular Borscht Belt singer and comic in the 1930s. She had won a singing contest in Central Park at 15. "Jennie Grossinger brought her up to the Catskills and made her a star," Gordon said, referring to the renowned Catskills hotelier.

His mother stepped back from the spotlight to raise Gordon and his three sisters, so he never saw her onstage, though years later he made recordings of her around the piano, singing Yiddish songs and old American standards. "In a way, the story of my mother is a story of quiet regret," he says. (His father, Sam, who ran an electrical business, died several years ago; Eve lives in Florida.)

Gordon is specially qualified to understand the implications of putting the family on public view. In 1992, the author and journalist Donald Katz detailed the story of the Gordons in a widely admired 600-page social history, "Home Fires." The family seems to have had a bred-in-the-bone affinity for theatricality: The children were all named for movie stars or their characters, Gordon for Humphrey Bogart's timeless alter ego, Rick, in "Casablanca."

Naturally, "Sycamore Trees" diverges imaginatively from straightforward biography, but still, birthing it has produced a special brand of anxiety. "I'm both excited and terrified about this," he says, "more than anything I've ever written."
- Peter Marks, Washington Pos, January 31, 2010