The Great American Song

Classic Arts Features   The Great American Song
Lincoln Center's American Songbook series tunes up for an illustrious seventh season.

Since its inception in 1999, the acclaimed American Songbook series has become one of the highlights of the Lincoln Center season. Initially presented at Alice Tully Hall with evenings devoted to standards, the series now spans a range of genres and performers. And this season American Songbook will be presented in two brand-new spaces at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall, located within the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

This seventh American Songbook season will kick off with a one-woman show from Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who nabbed her fourth Tony last spring for her riveting performance in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun. McDonald will offer an evening of standards and works by new composers in her January 6-8 concerts at the 1,000-seat Rose Theater. The Rose will also house an all-star concert staging of the Tony-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Passion (March 30-April 1) backed by a 56-piece orchestra. The dark piece, which explores one woman's obsession with a handsome soldier, will feature the talents of Tony Award winners Patti LuPone (as the ill-fated Fosca), Michael Cerveris (as soldier Giorgio) and the aforementioned McDonald (as Giorgio's beautiful mistress Clara); Lonny Price directs with musical direction by Paul Gemignani.

But McDonald's evenings and the Passion concerts are only the beginnings of a jam-packed season that boasts performances from such theatrical luminaries as The Music Man and Secret Garden soprano Rebecca Luker (February 12), who will be making her New York solo concert debut; Caroline, or Change's Tonya Pinkins (February 26), who will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Harold Arlen; and new Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch (March 4). The latter, who triumphed with her Tony-winning solo evening, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, will create an all-new show for American Songbook.

Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's Vice President of Programming, describes the genesis of the Songbook series as a meeting of the minds. "Nathan Leventhal, a former President of Lincoln Center, always had a personal passion for popular standards," she says. "In addition, we're always working on program development, and exploring the world of American music is a priority for us in all genres."

The upcoming season, the most diverse to date, is a direct result of the new theaters at the Time Warner building. "We really used the opening of those spaces as a kind of catalyst for another expansion of the program," Moss explains. "The larger space is the Rose Theater, which is a fully functional theater. It has a huge stage and complete stage equipment. It feels more like a theater than a concert hall, with a full orchestra pit. So the range of what we can do there is greatly expanded. Then we have the cabaret space, The Allen Room, which has a dazzling view overlooking Central Park. If you look at the presentations, it's a far broader range of artists than we've had in the past." Producer Nakagawa adds, "With the move to the new jazz theater, we're really trying to expand the series. We've always tried to show the link between the Great American Songbook and contemporary songwriters today. In doing this season, we're trying to make it even more inclusive."

Among the artists one might be surprised to find in the series‹which has previously spotlighted such theater performers as Betty Buckley, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Judy Kuhn, Marin Mazzie, and Carol Woods‹are Grammy Award winner Rosanne Cash, who will perform her special fusion of country and rock on February 10; Nashville's Laura Cantrell, who will perform an evening of country and folk, February 24; Dar Williams, who will blend folk and pop on March 3; and singer/songwriter Nellie McKay, known for her dazzling debut album Get Away from Me, who is set for March 1.

Staged readings of works in progress will be another part of this year's line-up. On February 2 Michael Mayer‹of Thoroughly Modern Millie fame‹will direct a staged concert reading of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening, a new musical based on Frank Wedekind's 1891 tragedy. And on February 9 Joan Morris will head the cast of a staged reading of Casino Paradise, a musical satire about a town that becomes a gambling mecca due to the schemings of a Donald Trump-like tycoon. Lisa Petersen will direct the piece, which is penned by William Bolcolm and Arnold Weinstein.

February will also feature two special events celebrating Black History Month. Singer-actor Darius de Haas is scheduled to reprise his critically praised tribute to Stevie Wonder on February 4. Entitled "The Stevie Wonder Songbook," de Haas will wrap his soaring tenor around such tunes as "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "Visions," and "Summer Soft." De Haas will also be one of the participants in the February 23 evening, "At Harlem's Height," which combines spoken word and music and features the songs of Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others. Joining de Haas will be pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier and vocalists Dana Hanchard and James Martin.

Other highlights: On February 25 Ann Hampton Callaway will host "Café Society" and a March 2 evening, titled "McSweeney's vs. They Might Be Giants," will feature the Brooklyn-based band playing off readings by Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, and other cutting-edge writers.

As for the future of the American Songbook series, producer Nakagawa says, "We would like to see the series continue along the lines that we've been pushing it, which is to show the breadth and diversity of American songwriters from Stephen Foster through Stephin Merritt."

Lincoln Center's Moss concurs: "We're getting to where we want it to go, especially in terms of what I would put in the category of 'volume and quantity.' It makes sense for us to do two or three larger shows and then ten to 20 smaller cabaret-type programs. We've made such a diversification effort that we will probably continue to do that. I suspect what we'll be doing in future years are in-depth explorations of particular genres. We may even break it down into more of a festival format, having everything in a compressed period of time with a particular focus."

Andrew Gans is an editor for Playbill On-line.

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