Listening for AmericaPosted: April 7, 2020
Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim
Liveright (November 5, 2019), 472 pages
Kindle edition $19.24, Amazon Hardcover $22.49
Rob Kapilow is a renowned music educator and in this book he has done a first rate job of educating his readers about the history of the Broadway musical. He delivers what he promises in the title, starting before Gershwin, in fact, with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and taking us right through to Stephen Sondheim. He points out in the epilogue that the most popular post-Sondheim shows have either been from overseas (for example, the many shows of the British master of spectacle Andrew Lloyd Weber or French productions such as Miss Saigon and Les Misérables) or Disney movie reincarnations (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the like).
Each chapter focuses on one song from one show, for example George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” or Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Before getting to the song, however, Kapilow discusses the life of the composer, tells us about his collaborators, and explains where the show from which the song came stood in the history of Broadway and the country. When he gets to the song he describes, in fairly technical terms, what makes it special. He has an associated YouTube channel in which he offers clips from the songs, and demonstrates how the composer was innovative in contrast to how the song might normally have been written. The marvelous thing about the Kindle edition is that the book links directly to the clips.
The notes are done in a rather odd way. The references are numbered footnotes and are in the back of the book. There are also notes that use symbols: asterisk, double dagger, the section sign (§), and the pilcrow (¶, the paragraph marker – I’ve been waiting for the chance to use “pilcrow” in a sentence). These add additional details and are at the end of each chapter. Fortunately in the Kindle edition both types of notes pop up seamlessly at the bottom of the screen. This convention, however, must be very annoying in the print edition where the reader must constantly flip back and forth.
There is a lot of interesting detail in the book. For example Kapilow tells us that Richard Rodgers “collaborated exclusively with [Lorenz] Hart from 1919 until Hart’s collapse and death at the age of forty-eight in 1943, and then with Oscar Hammerstein II from 1943 until Hammerstein’s death in 1960,” while other composers frequently changed collaborators. You might be interested in knowing that Fred Astaire would adhere scrupulously to what the composer wrote, while “Judy Garland, for example, scarcely sings a single rhythm of “Over the Rainbow” as [Harold] Arlen wrote it.”
While the book discusses in detail only sixteen songs out of the entire Broadway canon, it provides, in a highly readable manner, a fairly comprehensive history Broadway and how the musical has evolved.