A Great Volume With Many Chapters
When American Songbook began in 1999, the venue and artistic vision were a bit different than what they are today. Back then, the series took place at Alice Tully Hall, and the program was drawn from Broadway classics and Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. This year, from January 30 to March 4, audiences will hear not only Broadway standards, but also indie rock, Latin rhythms, performance-art pop, and new twists on classical and opera. And since 2005, American Songbook audiences have been flocking to the cozy Appel Room overlooking Columbus Circle.
What brings it all together? “It’s about storytelling, that place where lyrics and music come together with the human voice,” says Charles Cermele, producer of Contemporary Programming at Lincoln Center. As the name of the series indicates, American Songbook provides a sonic anthology from all the Americas—North, Central, and South.
The journey starts January 30 with Broadway’s Tony Yazbeck (On the Town), a quintessential song-and-dance man with a muscular vocal and physical style. Yazbeck has plenty of Broadway credits to his name, but the solo concert is a new way for him to dazzle—particularly on a specially installed dance floor.
Be ready to shift gears the next day when American Songbook welcomes singer-songwriter Rostam, forging a solo career after a decade with the hugely popular group Vampire Weekend. Rostam amicably left the band in 2016, tweeting at the time that “my identity as a songwriter + producer needs to stand on its own.” Since then it most certainly has, as evidenced by last year’s high-charting, acclaimed LP Half-Light.
On February 1, we’re back on Broadway for an evening with Jose Llana, the Philippines-born Broadway heartthrob last seen at Lincoln Center Theater in The King and I. Audiences still fondly remember a concert Llana did four years ago in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, where his diverse musical palette and pop-vocal instrument was on full display.
If you’ve seen a viral video—or live performance—of the roots-pop group Lake Street Dive, then you’re familiar with its enchanting lead singer, Rachael Price. Now the smoky-voiced chanteuse joins with guitarist and singer-songwriter Vilray to form a specialty act. Fans of old-fashioned swing duos (think Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong) should be in heaven on February 2.
The night before Valentine’s Day, you may just fall in love with American Songbook’s next offering: Nancy And Beth. Comprised of television stars Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) and Stephanie Hunt (Friday Night Lights), Nancy And Beth sample from the canon of American popular song, refracted through what they call “punk vaudeville.” In performance, they’re like a mirror act, moving and singing in close harmony.
Lovers of alt-rock, your hearts will beat faster on Valentine’s Day with the iconoclastic St. Vincent. That’s the stage name of singer and guitarist Annie Clark, who will be partnering with Thomas Bartlett (a.k.a. Doveman). Like last century’s iconic women of song—Piaf, Dietrich, Garland, Simone—St. Vincent explores the thrilling territory between joy and something darker.
Two ladies familiar from television will offer very different concerts. First Jenifer Lewis, self-described “Mother of Black Hollywood” and co-star on ABC’s Black-ish, will share stories, original songs, and her favorite Broadway tunes on February 15. Then, on March 2, Martha Plimpton (The Blacklist) combines the songs of rock goddess Aimee Mann with a highly subjective tour of U.S. Presidential history in a quirky show she calls All the Presidents Mann.
Fans of 1980s arena rock: Get ready to bang your heads (gently) at a retrospective of the work of Desmond Child (February 16). You may not know the singer-songwriter’s name, but you know his hits, made famous by classic bands such as Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and others: “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” and “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”
Central America is well represented by two artists with Guatemalan roots. First is Gaby Moreno (February 27), making her American Songbook debut. About a decade into her career, Moreno has shown a remarkable flair for songcraft in both Spanish and English, gliding between pop, soul, blues, and Latin folk idioms. The other talent is perhaps more familiar to moviegoers than to music fans: Oscar Isaac (March 1). Beloved as Poe Dameron in recent Star Wars films, Isaac also fronted the ‘90s third-wave ska band the Blinking Underdogs. Isaac’s plaintive, surreal tunes faintly recall early Bob Dylan— which probably helped him land the title role in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.
Ethereal and delicate, Son Lux brings its experimental sound to the Appel Room on February 28. The trio—made up of keyboardist and vocalist Ryan Lott, percussionist Ian Chang, and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia—have recently been exploring moods of love and loss in intimate musical settings.
What would American Songbook be without a leading lady of Broadway? Christine Ebersole (War Paint, Grey Gardens) does the honors this year with a February 20 concert in Alice Tully Hall. While Ebersole has been part of the series since the beginning—having done tribute concerts in the early years—a major solo concert in New York is overdue, and as her fans know, she has a genius for finding the story in a song.
Ebersole is not the only world-class diva gracing this year’s Songbook. Opera superstar Joyce DiDonato has drawn on classic repertoire and popular numbers to create SongPlay (March 4). The great mezzo-soprano (at the Met this spring in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito) will explore the musicological DNA that links, say, baroque vocal ornamentation with American standards.
Would you like to get in on the ground floor of the next great vocal star? The free concert featuring the South African–born Vuyo Sotashe in the David Rubenstein Atrium (February 21) marks one of the charismatic young singer’s first New York headlining gigs.
American Songbook really is a mighty volume: countless chapters, with many more still to be written.
For more informaton, visit AmericanSongbook.org.
David Cote is an arts journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York City.
American Songbook Lead Support provided by PGIM, the global investment management businesses of Prudential Financial, Inc.