If the phrase "American Songbook" only conjures up names like Gershwin, Kern, Ellington, or Styne, it's time to experience American Songbook in the Penthouse, a new initiative of Lincoln Center's long- running, annual American Songbook series. Now in its third season, the Penthouse series continues to expand the definition of American Songbook by exploring a diverse range of singers and songwriters in established traditions and those creating new ones in our own backyard and across the Americas.
American Songbook in the Penthouse takes place in the 225-seat, cabaret- style setting of the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center's Rose Building on West 65th Street. "We use the Kaplan Penthouse because we can take risks here," says Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center's Director of Contemporary Programming. "The Kaplan allows us to be more adventurous in the choices that we make."
Nakagawa and Charles Cermele, Producer of Contemporary Programming, have planned six Penthouse concerts this March, showcasing a wide range of artists, each with something special to offer. "We picked these acts in particular because of the size of the venue," notes Cermele. "The Kaplan Penthouse is much more intimate than The Appel Room [the venue at Jazz at Lincoln Center where Part 1 of American Songbook continues this month]. The beautiful lights of the city outside of the window, candles on every table, the warm atmosphere: it's almost like being in someone's living room."
Opening the series on March 11 is In Need of Music: The Songs of Ben Toth with performances by Cheyenne Jackson, Lindsay Mendez, Darius de Haas, Alexandra Silber, and others. Considered a singer's composer, Toth has served as musical director and vocal coach for an unparalleled list of Broadway stars: Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Mandy Patinkin, and Jackson, among them.
March 25 also puts a spotlight on new directions in musical theater when singer/songwriter Shaina Taub, a rising star and 2014 winner of a Jonathan Larson Grant, offers an evening of her original songs.
The Penthouse series also explores "traditional Mexican, Spanish, and Latin musical forms being brought into the 21st century," says Cermele. The Villalobos Brothers, the first band from Mexico to play at the legendary Apollo Theater, will bring their brand of energetic fiddling, which incorporates the folkloric melodies of Veracruz, Mexico, to the Kaplan Penthouse on March 13. With influences as diverse as Miles Davis and Mongo Santamar‹a, Magos & Lim‹n's convergence of jazz (Magos Herrera) and minimalist flamenco (Javier Lim‹n) comes to the Penthouse on March 26. The duo's concert will be a mix of new material and familiar songs.
"[When] any American song is performed in our own way, I think it helps to give an extended vision or perception of it," Magos conveys. "I think it's the beauty of New York: and it is the beauty of music as well: to have this flexibility." She adds, "I think that's one of the greatest things about jazz. It is this generous genre where you can actually [explore the diversity of cultures, ideas, and directions]." "What Magos & Lim‹n do together is almost like a sexy whisper," says Cermele.
Another series focus is on singers whose material is richly evocative and filled with personal storytelling. Jose Llana, praised for his striking portrayal of former president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos in the smash Off- Broadway musical Here Lies Love, is one such storyteller. He makes his New York City solo concert debut on March 12.
"I think it's great that Lincoln Center's American Songbook asked someone of Filipino heritage to perform," says Llana. "I was born in the Philippines, and I moved here as a young child. My progression as an artist in America is, to a lot of people, the American dream. My journey as a singer and as an actor on Broadway very much chronicles that."
Closing out the Penthouse series with two performances, March 27 and 28, is rising actress-singer Allison Williams, who is also making her New York solo concert debut. A star of the hit HBO series Girls (playing Marnie Michaels) and seen this past December in the title role in NBC's live musical television event, Peter Pan Live!, Williams will perform some of her favorite songs to illustrate her unfolding life and career journey.
Without a doubt, the breadth of music and talent offered by this season of Songbook in the Penthouse is stunning. Its eclectic mix of styles and personalities: served up with complimentary wine and sparkling water, no less: invites audiences to explore the new byways of American song.