Mention the words "American Songbook" and such names as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers immediately come to mind. And, while it's likely that the works of these 20th-century master songsmiths will be heard at some point during this season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook, this year's series also celebrates the young songwriters who are carrying those same high standards into the future.
In keeping with the mission of the series, this year's lineup includes opera diva Deborah Voigt in her cabaret debut, Tony Award-winning talents Brian Stokes Mitchell, Victoria Clark, James Naughton (who will be appearing with his talented children Greg and Keira), and Lillias White, plus a rare acoustic set by Grammy-nominated rock stars (and New Jersey natives) Fountains of Wayne.
Closing the series will be a concert on May 1 by another great Tony winner, Bernadette Peters, which will take place at Avery Fisher Hall. While the show was still being put together at press time, one can expect the diminutive diva to showcase some of her favorite composers and roles. "What will be so great about her show, other than Bernadette herself, is that we'll get to use a symphony orchestra," says producer Jon Nakagawa, "just like we did last year with Passion."
Lonny Price's staged version of that Sondheim musical turned out to be a real feather in the Songbook cap. It was presented last March in the Rose Theater, with a cast led by Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, and Audra McDonald, and presented on PBS's Live From Lincoln Center. The broadcast won the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Programming.
Yet, American Songbook is determined to attract more than just theater music fans.
Following up on the innovative programming found in last year's series‹which included such non-theater-oriented singers as Nellie McKay, Dar Williams, and Rosanne Cash‹this year's edition will also have a decidedly 21st-century feel, encompassing indie-music sensation Sufjan Stevens, bluegrass stars Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, country-folk group Hem, downtown legends the Loser's Lounge in a tribute to Burt Bacharach, and pop-rock star Duncan Sheik. Sheik's new musical, Spring Awakening, was presented as part of last year's series and will receive a full production by Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company this spring.
"The series is eclectic by design," explains Nakagawa. "What we've been trying to do is, through the diversity of our acts‹and diversity is very important to us‹to showcase the American popular song from its birth until today, from Irving Berlin to someone like Stephin Merritt. I think that's one of the great contributions this series can make to the arts community. There are other places where you can just hear standards, and other places where you can just hear contemporary stuff. What we're trying to do is show the lineage between the two."
Three of this year's shows are particularly good examples of fulfilling that mission, says Nakagawa: An evening devoted to the songs of Tony-winning lyricist David Zippel (City of Angels) stars the peerless Barbara Cook and Broadway veterans Brent Barrett and Brian D'Arcy James; cabaret favorite Eric Comstock's salute to the brilliant composer Jule Styne featuring Comstock's wife, cabaret singer Barbara Fasano; and a revue of songs by John Bucchino.
To many, Styne is best known as the composer of such legendary Broadway hits as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Funny Girl, and, of course, Gypsy. But songs from these shows will only be a fraction of what Comstock will offer up to the Songbook audience. "I'm not going to give short shrift to the theater works, but I want to reconcile all the strands of his life," says Comstock. "Before Styne began working in the theater, he had a whole career in Hollywood, mostly writing great songs for mediocre movies. And I also want to honor his contribution to the jazz repertoire, since his 'songbook' has been extended by so many jazz vocalists and instrumentalists."
Comstock even promises to showcase some of Styne's most obscure works. "Not many people know that he wrote three songs with Stephen Sondheim (his collaborator on Gypsy) in the late 1960s, and I'm doing one called 'Home Is the Place,'" says Comstock. "And he and Bob Merrill also did this television musical in 1965 called The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood, which starred Liza Minnelli, Cyril Ritchard as the Big Bad Wolf, and Vic Damone as this dumb but dear lumberjack. Michael Feinstein‹who also tracked down the music of 'Home Is the Place'‹sent me the music for one song from it called 'Along the Way.'"
John Bucchino is no stranger to theater either; he has written Lavender Girl, which is part of 3ree, a trio of one-act musicals, and is currently collaborating with Harvey Fierstein on a musical version of the Bette Davis film The Catered Affair. But Bucchino's greatest success has been in writing contemporary songs such as "Grateful," "Sweet Dreams," and "Painting My Kitchen." His work has been covered by a who's who of artists, including LuPone, Minnelli, Feinstein, Cook, Kristin Chenoweth, Andrea Marcovicci, and Sally Mayes, to name just a few.
For many years, Bucchino has tried to put together a revue of his material‹but nothing really worked for him until last summer, when his good pal Daisy Prince helped create It's Only Life. That show, a sell-out smash at the 2004 Summer Play Festival, is the basis for this concert presentation. "The problem with revues is so many of them diminish the songs, rather than elevate them," he says. "I didn't want mine to be one of those shows where you leave thinking the material isn't as good as you originally thought it was."
He says that isn't the case here. "Maybe it's because Daisy knows me so well, or maybe it's because she's just so smart, that this revue works," he notes. "There's no story or characters, but there is this flow, this spiritual progression to the evening, which the audience last year found very moving. I can remember hearing a lot of people crying toward the end, not because my songs are sad, but because of a combination of feeling so many emotions." That reaction was also due in part to the cast‹notably Billy Porter, Jessica Molaskey, and Andrea Burns‹some of whom Bucchino hopes will join him again.
If there is one common theme to the diverse shows in American Songbook, says Nakagawa, "it's that we believe in the artists we choose, and we always tell them to do programs that reflect themselves and their work. We trust that what they decide to do will speak to the audience."
Brian Scott Lipton is executive editor of TheaterMania.com.