The 2018 season of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook once again invites audiences to revel in this country’s boundless musical sonorities in three campus locations: The Appel Room, David Rubenstein Atrium, and Rose Theater.
The Appel Room remains Songbook’s ideal setting, perched panoramically atop the Time Warner Center overlooking Columbus Circle. Opening the series on January 24 will be singer-songwriter John Paul White, formerly one-half of The Civil Wars, the much beloved roots-Americana vocal duo. On his own, White continues to create exquisite music in songs of raw despair and redemption, sounding the depths of America’s southern heartland as he sings us all out into the light.
“The fans of The Civil Wars were brokenhearted by the breakup,” remarks Charles Cermele, producer of Contemporary Programming at Lincoln Center and himself one-half of a duo responsible for American Songbook, along with director of Contemporary Programming Jon Nakagawa. “Those fans no longer have to wonder where they can hear John again. He’s right here.”
The very next night, introspection takes a holiday as musical theater’s most side-splittingly abrasive luminary, the titanic Jackie Hoffman, hauls her post-vaudeville kvetch-fest up to The Appel Room, on the laurels of her Emmy-nominated performance as Mamacita in FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan. Watch out. “I keep thinking we should label this show, ‘For Adults Only,’” Cermele laughs. “Jackie sometimes works blue. Hopefully the parents of those kids who know her from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will exercise discretion.”
In Hoffman’s wake, Cloud Cult descends. Singer-songwriter Craig Mineowa’s ineffable indie-rock ensemble out of Minnesota pursues its finely wrought explorations on January 26, including, as per Cloud Cult tradition, a spontaneous work of art painted onstage by resident artist Scott West. “This is also an environmentally conscious band,” notes Cermele affectionately. “I love how they make music happen.”
Songbook’s dynamic first week concludes on January 27 with a traditional turn by the untraditional Matt Ray, best known as the genre-expanding musical director for the genre-bending vocalist Taylor Mac. Ray will offer his own spin on the music of that most American of all-American popular songwriters, Hoagy Carmichael.
“Matt received the Kennedy Center Prize for Drama last year with Taylor for creating their epic A 24-Decade History of American Popular Music,” points out Cermele. “He’s a very modest guy. He deserves a little spotlight of his own.”
Songbook moves a couple of blocks uptown on February 1 for its traditional free concert interlude at the David Rubenstein Atrium, where each season a sizzling young talent is featured. This year, the honor goes to Jalen N’Gonda, a marvelous singer-songwriter out of Great Britain immersed in the influences of classic ‘60s soul, with a hip-hop and R&B tang. “Jalen has been opening for the likes of Laura Mvula, Martha Reeves, Lauryn Hill,” recounts Cermele. “He has an amazing voice and performance persona, something like a young Otis Redding. He also writes great songs. We’re catching him just as he is ascending.”
The inimitable Stew & The Negro Problem (which features Stew’s musical co-conspirator Heidi Rodewald) return to American Songbook on February 7, offering up new work from, among other projects, their acclaimed James Baldwin–inspired song cycle Notes on a Native Song. “Stew and Heidi go back with Songbook as far as 2003,” Cermele notes. “I admire them both so much. I think their Baldwin songs right now are particularly timely.”
Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s lives could well be the essence of a great American novel. Having carved majestic parallel singing careers independently after surviving a family tragedy when they were teenagers, the sisters came together last year to record Not Dark Yet, their first-ever joint studio album. The reunion aspect of their Songbook appearance on February 8 promises to be unforgettable. “So many of our shows this season seem to be about redemption,” remarks Cermele. “Coming through the darkness into a lighter place.”
Aaron Tveit embodies the venerable verities of the Broadway leading man for a new generation. His Songbook debut on February 9 will showcase his vocal allure on an intimate stage. “Aaron’s a charismatic singer,” Cermele says. “Let’s face it: he’s a heartthrob.”
Rachel Bloom’s arrival at The Appel Room on February 10, together with her Emmy- and Grammy-winning song partner Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne fame), should be an alternately glamorous and hilarious affair. As the Golden Globe–winning star and writer of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Bloom has created her very own, deliriously twisted, personal songbook. Cermele observes, “She sings and she writes songs and she’s a big TV star. A triple threat.”
Singer-songwriter Lizz Wright returns to American Songbook on February 14, having grappled with the divisiveness of our last presidential election by reconnecting with her own Georgia-bred Southern roots on her latest album Grace. Wright’s Valentine’s eve concert will look to romance and beyond. “Lizz continues to knock people out with the breadth of her creativity,” says Cermele. “The comparisons people make are endless—Norah Jones, Odetta—but she’s really just Lizz Wright and she’s amazing.”
Pioneering transgender performance artist Justin Vivian Bond takes on the haunted all-American pop sheen of The Carpenters on February 15 in a masterstroke of Songbook programming. The results should be revelatory. “I love Vivian’s take on them,” marvels Cermele, “especially on Karen Carpenter as this tomboy who played the drums. Then they made her stand up and put on a dress. It pretty much broke her.”
The Blind Boys of Alabama are a 70-plus-year gospel institution that spans the Jim Crow South to now confront the present day, when their healing voices are needed more than ever. Clarence Fountain, one of the group’s last original living members, will join the current lineup for a special Songbook evening on February 16. “It feels like the right moment to bring them back to Lincoln Center,” says Cermele simply. “We need to hear their songs and their story once more.”
The 2018 Appel Room season closes on February 17 with a quintessential Songbook tribute evening celebrating a new-era Broadway song team, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, whose recent musical scores for Grey Gardens and War Paint were a fresh breath of classicism. Frankel and Korie’s songbook will be sung by two theatrical standouts, celebrated British stage and television star Julian Ovenden and Broadway’s own Kelli O’Hara, who really requires no introduction.
“We don’t want to predetermine anything for our audiences,” sums up Jon Nakagawa. “We curate a season that weaves together strands of every facet of American popular music. If you went to all the concerts, you would get a good idea of where American music was, is, and is going. Past, present, and future: That’s what we’re about.”
Barry Singer currently writes about the arts, literature, and Winston Churchill for the Huffington Post.
Watch highlights from Scott Frankel and Michael Korie‘s musical Far From Heaven, starring Kelli O’Hara: