I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky

John Adams

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I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky Review

by William Ruhlmann

Composer John Adams and lyricist/librettist June Jordan took as inspiration for their musical I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky the Northridge earthquake of 1994; the title is based on a quotation from a survivor that Jordan culled from the Los Angeles Times. The more general inspiration was L.A. itself, however, as Jordan weaved an ensemble drama examining the lives of seven contemporary Los Angelenos: a young black man; his girlfriend, an illegal Hispanic immigrant; a young black minister with a wandering eye; one of his female parishioners; a white rookie cop not quite ready to confront his homosexuality; a white TV news anchorwoman wondering why the cop isn't paying enough attention to her; and a first-generation son of Vietnamese boat people who has become a public defender. Their lives intersect in a period leading up to an earthquake that changes those lives drastically. The show was first produced in 1995; this studio cast recording, made in 1996 and 1997, retains only two members of the original cast, Darius de Haas as David, the minister, and Welly Yang as Rick, the public defender. Otherwise, the cast has undergone some upgrading, at least in terms of name recognition, with Broadway stars Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie stepping into the roles of Consuelo, the illegal immigrant, and Tiffany, the anchorwoman. The episodic nature of the plot and the differing ethnicities allow Adams to try many different musical styles. After beginning with the title song, which is in the familiar repetitive style of Philip Glass, Adams incorporates elements of rock, pop, blues, and gospel in appropriate ways in the successive tracks, albeit without actually using the styles to create satisfying popular music. He comes closest in the lusty trio number for the three women, "Song About the Bad Boys and the News," and in the duet for David and his potential new girlfriend Leila (Angela Teek), "Three Weeks and Still I'm Outta My Mind," which has something of the flavor of a Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell performance. He is constrained, however, by the demands of the plot, which is trying to pack a lot of social commentary into a single musical. As a show and as a record, the work is ambitious, but somewhat overstuffed.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, songplay
1 John Adams 08:05
2 John Adams feat: Darius de Haas / Angela Teek 03:11
3 John Adams feat: Audra McDonald 04:55
4 John Adams feat: Richard Muenz 03:22
5 John Adams feat: Marin Mazzie 04:52
6 John Adams feat: Marin Mazzie / Michael McElroy / Richard Muenz / Angela Teek 02:51
7 John Adams feat: Audra McDonald / Angela Teek 06:20
8 John Adams feat: Michael McElroy / Welly Yang 05:40
9 John Adams feat: Angela Teek 04:17
10 John Adams feat: Darius de Haas / Angela Teek 05:12
11 John Adams feat: Darius de Haas / Marin Mazzie / Audra McDonald / Welly Yang 04:37
12 John Adams feat: Michael McElroy 05:29
13 John Adams feat: Audra McDonald / Michael McElroy 04:27 Amazon
14 John Adams feat: Audra McDonald / Michael McElroy 02:00
15 John Adams feat: All 04:36 SpotifyAmazon
blue highlight denotes track pick