Physical jukeboxes may only be found in retro diners and dive bars, but imagine if one were to contain a full range of contemporary song. It would be big as a skyscraper. Luckily, we have digital options—and American Songbook. Lincoln Center’s beloved series returns in 2020 with a lineup of Broadway royalty, singer-songwriters from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and the breakthrough stars of tomorrow. Over its 13 events, Songbook audiences can “surf channels” from show tunes to classic rock, Latin pop, and Polynesian folk.

The mission of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook remains the same. Producer of Contemporary Programming Charles Cermele explains that the series “presents authentic storytelling that resonates across location and language. We want audiences to experience how the human voice reveals overlapping identities of gender, race and culture.” What is a song? American Songbook asks. What does it mean to be American right now? The joyous answer shows Lincoln Center taking a stand for America as an inclusive place that celebrates difference.

On January 22, the series begins with a bang: Rufus Wainwright plays Alice Tully Hall as he puts the finishing touches on Unfollow the Rules—his newest pop album since 2012. After several years exploring different avenues of music and theater, such as opera (he’s written two to date) and setting Shakespeare sonnets, Wainwright is promising a night of just him and a piano. For longtime fans and more recent converts, the Tully engagement promises to be a night to remember for one of pop’s most sophisticated, reflective stars.

We’re Playing Your Song
Photo by Josep Echaburu
Rufus Wainwright

This past summer, at the tender age of 73, Broadway icon André De Shields finally took home the gold when he won the Tony Award for his archly elegant performance as Hermes in the Broadway hit Hadestown. Equally at home in big-budget musicals as he is in more intimate cabaret settings, De Shields will take Songbook audiences on a funky and wise tour of his decades in showbiz in the sparkling Appel Room on January 29.

De Shields won’t be the only luminary from the Great White Way at The Appel Room. On February 1, rock-inflected songwriter Joe Iconis brings his raucously entertaining piano act to Songbook. This past season, Iconis—who has paid his dues around town—was finally thrust into the spotlight when the viral hit Be More Chill transferred to Broadway. And on February 28, Ali Stroker takes a night off from wowing them as Ado Annie in Broadway’s Oklahoma!—for which she won a Tony—and regales us with her favorite songs, and how she used a wheelchair for mobility to conquer Broadway.

A world-famous name from the world of opera drops in at The Appel Room on January 30—but with a radically different look. Yes, under the beard and macho swagger of Blythely Oratonio you will find mezzo-soprano superstar Stephanie Blythe. Her gender-bending pop-opera comedy act is ready for Lincoln Center. “One of the most remarkable things is the sound that she makes as Blythely,” Cermele marvels. “It’s such a beautiful tenor sound. It’s a transformation and a triumph!”

Puerto Rico has been much in the news, with the painful recovery from Hurricane Maria and now a FEMA-related corruption scandal. Can beauty and hope emerge from such hardship? The astonishing singer iLe (February 12) believes it can. The protean Latinx singer-songwriter proves that uplifting song and social change can walk hand in hand. This past July, iLe collaborated with Residente and Bad Bunny on the protest song “Afilando Los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening the Knives”), which garnered 2.5 million views on YouTube within a day of its release.

We’re Playing Your Song
Photo credit: Steven Pisano and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

Since American Songbook is dedicated to the art of the lyric, here’s a puzzle: Can you have a song without words? We will learn the answer at the February 13 engagement of the amazing a cappella group Roomful of Teeth. The Grammy Award–winning ensemble produces abstract, pitch-perfect sonic landscapes out of sighs, throat singing, whispers, and verbal fragments. Think of their extended numbers as the aural equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

If you didn’t have plans for Valentine’s Day, now you do. The dreamy and sensitive Broadway veteran Brandon Victor Dixon comes to The Appel Room in his first solo show there. Dixon has appeared in several high-profile musicals over the years (The Color Purple, Shuffle Along), but his biggest splash was a wildly charismatic turn as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC last year. Bring a date or come alone. Either way, love will be in the air.

Fans of indie-rock and folk will have an embarrassment of riches at The Appel Room this season. On January 31, the moody, mysterious Cowboy Junkies play a set as part of the tour for their latest studio album, All That Reckoning. And on February 26, Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) explores her extensive, lyrically potent catalogue in an intimate night with just her and guitarist Erik Della Penna.

Writer, producer, and classically trained musician Our Lady J may be known to fans of the TV shows Transparent and Pose (she’s an Emmy nominee for the latter). But this trailblazing trans pianist and singer also knows how to raise the roof. On February 15, Our Lady J’s sound melds her unique, “post-religious” gospel with Dolly Parton (one of her biggest fans, by the way).

On February 27, Hawaiian pop star Kalani Pe’a transports American Songbook audiences to a breathtaking new land. The two-time Grammy winner has shot to celebrity in recent years for equal parts showmanship and soulful connection to his musical roots. With a sweet and supple pop tenor, Pe’a mixes traditional Hawaiian oli (chants) with folk songs that feature plenty of ukulele and steel guitar.

The final event of American Songbook is a classic troubadour act: Martin Sexton (February 29). He’s a man with a guitar and a vocal instrument of amazing versatility and depth. “Even though Martin’s out on the road all the time, I know that this is going to be a special night for him,” Cermele notes. What is Sexton’s sound? Let’s just say that Dave Matthews and John Mayer—also exemplars of “blue-eyed soul”—have called him one of their favorites.

In 2020, Lincoln Center’s American Songbook’s singers and songwriters keep challenging binaries of male/ female, citizen/immigrant—even word/music. The world is changing, and these bold and brilliant artists reflect those changes.

David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York City.

American Songbook Lead Support provided by Holland America Line.

Endowment support provided by Bank of America.

Additional support for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook is provided by Christina and Robert Baker, The DuBose and Dorothy Heyward Memorial Fund, The Shubert Foundation, Great Performers Circle, Lincoln Center Patrons, and Lincoln Center Members.

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