Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, which runs this season from January 11 through February 11, embraces that diversity. "My quick way of summing up our 'mission statement,'" as Director, Contemporary Programming, Jon Nakagawa, puts it, "is that we cover everything from Stephen Foster to Stephen Sondheim to Stephin Merritt." (The latter, as some old-timers, including myself, might not be aware, is the force behind the cutting edge alt-rock band The Magnetic Fields.)
Charles Cermele, Producer, Contemporary Programming, elaborates: The series is Lincoln Center's celebration of great American songwriting, which gives us a lot of leeway. The series has expanded a lot in the last ten years. Our focus is on the great songwriters, and the people who sing their songs. We have built on a foundation of what we consider the standards, the music that was written for the theater, and now we include all sorts of American storytelling: country music, rock 'n' roll, indie rock, folk music, R&B, soul, hip-hop." They stress that this is a "lyric-driven series," so any primarily verbal musical forms are potentially applicable.
Traditionally, songbook and cabaret-style concerts rarely drew upon forms and styles beyond the world of the Gershwins and Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein. At one point, it was considered a stretch to include any songwriters from the folk-rock-pop side of the fence, even icons like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Laura Nyro. But now, as Nakagawa explains, "We're trying to connect the dots between all those genres because there is a uniquely American thread of songwriting that began at the start of the last century and runs through today."
Nakagawa and Cermele emphasize that Lincoln Center's American Songbook series is not just a museum, as it were, of songs that are already considered classic, no matter what the genre. They make a point to include performers who are currently active and even on the cutting edge. "We look for artists who have already contributed something, even at a young age, that has either synthesized that thread which goes through all of American songwriting or extended it," adds Cermele.
For example, one might not expect to find Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs as part of the same series as Broadway ing_nue Leslie Kritzer. Garbus's work, which utilizes electronics and techniques learned from African music, is so experimental that it can't quite be called a "band" (she describes tUnE-yArDs as a "project"). "tUnE-yArDs' songs are based on a specific form, express a strong point of view, and have a great deal of emotion behind them." As Mr. Cermele points out, "I think that Merrill Garbus is a very creative and unique artist. We're incredibly excited to have someone like that." Ms. Kritzer, by contrast, celebrates that most iconic of musical theater composers, Jule Styne.
The traditional Broadway songbook is still front and center. In addition to a rising talent like Kritzer, there are also current stars like Laura Benanti (who won our hearts in Nine), the Tony Award-winning LaChanze of The Color Purple; and the team of Gavin Creel (Hair) and music director Stephen Oremus, as well as Elaine Paige, who, though only 63, is already regarded as a living legend. "She's famous for doing American shows in London and British shows in New York," states Nakagawa.
The series specialty is, in fact, special projects. "We encourage everyone to do something of a one-off," says Cermele. "The invitation to be part of the series is an opportunity to do something special. It shouldn't be just another night on the tour where you happen to play The Allen Room." Among the special projects he's most excited about is a work in progress by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won a Tony Award for In The Heights. Miranda is now working on a piece about founding father Alexander Hamilton: you can't get much more American than that.
Many of these "one-offs" involve artists known for one thing showing that they are just as good at something else. Michael Cerveris is one of the contemporary theater's leading Sondheim specialists (as in Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Road Show, and Lincoln Center's own production of Passion) yet he is building his own spotlighted show, An Idea of South, around the music of his adoptive home, New Orleans.
There's also Thurston Moore, celebrated guitarist of Sonic Youth, one of the longest-lived and loudest rock bands in history. As Cermele puts it, Moore's new solo album, Demolished Thoughts, is a definite departure from Sonic Youth: "This is a different sort of sound for him. It's still guitar-based, but softer, more like a folk singer/songwriter sound." He also draws our attention to Ozomatli, an L.A. _based ensemble inevitably described with a lot of hyphens ("Latin - Hip-Hop - Rock - Dance - Protest music"). "They do wonderful things with large crowds," says Mr. Cermele, "but now they're coming into this comparatively intimate space, where they'll do an evening talking about their songwriting process and then perform some of their material within that frame."
"We would love for our audiences to come and see every show," opines Nakagawa, "but that doesn't happen, of course, people can't make that kind of commitment. Even so, with the shows that any given person does see, they can make their own connections and connect their own dots," Cermele adds, "Everybody who likes country and pop knows J. D. Souther from his songs for The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. But the same people who come to that concert would probably also like Bill Callahan if they were to hear him."
Overall, the biggest idea driving the American Songbook series is that there should be no single, dogmatic idea driving everything. "American popular music has become a porous idea, and things are constantly changing as the world flattens," concludes Cermele. "People talk about world music: don't forget: America is part of the world too."