I Feel a Song Coming On: A Peek at the Eclectic Season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook

By Barry Singer
January 5, 2013

Lea Salonga, Alice Ripley, Brian d'Arcy James, Rob Fisher, Karen Akers, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Stephanie Blythe, Tom Kitt, Brian Yorkey and Kristin Chenoweth are among artists bringing warmth to the winter in the American Songbook series, in two unique Manhattan rooms.



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After 14 seasons of acclaimed eclecticism showcasing the richness of American popular music — most on one of the loveliest stages in New York City, The Allen Room, with its shimmering, backdrop of Central Park — Lincoln Center's American Songbook series expands its musical vistas in 2013 to include a second room with a spectacular view, the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse.

This is both a return and an expansion. "Over the years, we've been very successful at The Allen Room," says Jon Nakagawa, one half of Songbook's production team alongside his booking partner, Charles Cermele. "We also feel that with our success, we've gotten a little safe."

Cermele agrees it's time to shake things up. "We want to go back to taking risks. So we're going back to the Kaplan Penthouse, where we presented more adventurous fare during the early years of American Songbook, while maintaining our full schedule in The Allen Room."

The first installment of the newly expanded season commences on Jan. 30 with an opening Allen Room concert by Lea Salonga, the silvery-voiced Tony Award winner. She became a star at the age of 20 as the Vietnamese bar girl Kim, the humane heart of the original 1991 Broadway production of Miss Saigon. Salonga is now a mature artist, yet her voice retains its childlike luster.

Valerie Simpson
Valerie Simpson arrives on Jan. 31, offering a follow-up to the stirring concert she delivered this past summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors commemorating the one-year anniversary of the passing of her longtime songwriting and singing partner, her husband, Nick Ashford. The following night, Simpson's funk will give way to cabaret chanteuse Karen Akers' refinement. Cabaret singers come in many flavors these days but few represent classic cabaret style with more polished, yet penetrating, panache than the mesmerizing Akers.

Songbook's first week closes out on Feb. 2 with Cécile McLorin Salvant, perhaps the most riveting new voice in jazz. Winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, the 23-year-old, Florida-born singer was schooled in France, where she first garnered attention for her profoundly earthy sense of jazz classicism. Her concerts are both boldly theatrical and compellingly swinging occasions.

No Songbook season would be complete without a salute to Broadway by conductor Rob Fisher. On Feb. 6, with Ring Them Bells!, Fisher will celebrate John Kander and Fred Ebb, leading a stellar cast, slated to include Kander and Ebb veterans Joel Grey and Chita Rivera.

Stephanie Blythe
Bonnie "Prince" Billy (better known to his parents as Will Oldham) brings his lovingly dissipated sense of American folk rock to The Allen Room on Feb. 7, oozing echoes of San Francisco's Summer of Love and Buffalo Springfield. To best comprehend the breadth of American Songbook's musical scope, one only needs to consider the juxtaposition of Bonnie "Prince" Billy with Stephanie Blythe. Blythe, the Metropolitan Opera star, returns on Feb. 9 to reprise her Songbook triumph of last season: We'll Meet Again — The Songs of Kate Smith, Blythe's patriotic tribute to the big-voiced lady who turned "God Bless America" into her own personal anthem.

The presence of Sondre Lerche leading off the third week of American Songbook on Feb. 13 reminds us that American pop music is also world music. The Norwegian singer-songwriter first conquered Scandinavia and then the rest of Europe before moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn a few years ago and becoming a full-fledged American indie rocker. His Beatles-inspired, Revolver-esque songwriting and recording style is harmoniously off-kilter and terrifically engaging.

Countering the fresh with the classic, Songbook will turn to Mavis Staples on Feb. 14, the Grand Dame of the Staples family, who will shower her Allen Room audience with the unyielding gospel spirit of soul music, Staples style.

The hugely talented Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth returns to American Songbook. As a performer, the Tony Award-winning singer and actress leads and — to paraphrase Thomas Paine — everyone else just gets out of the way. On Feb. 15, in The Allen Room, Chenoweth will deliver an evening of unadulterated Kristin Chenoweth (Drama Desk winner Mary-Mitchell Campbell is the music director, with Richard-Jay Alexander helping to shape it).

Songbook's third week concludes with the political activist and balladeer Tom Morello, best known for his guitar work in the band Rage Against the Machine. On Feb. 16, Morello will perform with his own acoustic act, The Nightwatchman, whose politicized Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan influences are uncompromising.

Kathy Mattea
Songbook's final week at The Allen Room kicks off on Feb. 27 with Kathy Mattea, the multi-Grammy Award-winning country singer and bluegrass instrumentalist, whose roots run deep into the soil of American folk music. Mattea will bring an authentic dose of Southern comfort to Songbook's Upper West Side precincts before yielding on Feb. 28 to the Southern Gothic sensibility of Lost in the Trees — music that might best be described as baroque alt-rock. If the very notion sounds like an oxymoron, welcome to the wall of sound conjured by Lost in the Trees' composer/leader Ari Picker, whose lavish musical vision floats somewhere between Neil Young flannel and Carmina Burana.

Alice Ripley
Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography
In a tidy segue, perhaps Broadway's equivalent to Lost in the Trees' jangling mysticism arrives on March 1 with the songs of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey. The duo's blisteringly original score for Next to Normal, their very unconventional Broadway musical about bipolar disorder, not only won the team a Tony Award in 2010 but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Their Songbook evening will feature the lauded original stars of Next to Normal, Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James.

The Allen Room portion of the series concludes on March 2 with an appearance by singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson, network television's favorite indie popster, who has composed music for "The Vampire Diaries," "Scrubs," "Grey's Anatomy" and many more. "She's a local girl made good — so talented, so successful and really overdue for a visit," says Songbook's Cermele.

In recent years, that would wrap it up for American Songbook, whose season traditionally ended the first week of March. In 2013, however, the party moves to the Kaplan Penthouse with six concerts from March 29 to April 20.

Penthouse programming includes Dogfight and Godspell actress Lindsay Mendez and musician Marco Paguia on March 29; edgy international cabaret artist Meow Meow, with musical director Lance Horne March 30; Once Tony nominee Cristin Milioti April 5; the music of Ricky Ian Gordon April 6; the music of songwriters Kate Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk April 19, featuring Michael Arden, Nikki M. James, Carrie Manolakos and Josh Young; and singer-songwriter, cellist and composer Ben Sollee April 20.

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American Songbook is a presentation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Major support for American Songbook is provided by Fisher Brothers, in memory of Richard L. Fisher Amy and Joseph Perella Additional corporate support is provided by Bank of America and PVH Corp.

For more information, visit AmericanSongbook.org.

A version of this roundup appears in the January 2013 Playbill for Lincoln Center.