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.
I wrote here not long ago about cutting back on our streaming subscriptions. I dropped Hulu and CBS All Access. That was just before we were all told to stay home except for grocery shopping and medical appointments.
And, of course, the library is closed so that cuts off a source of DVDs for Terry. She asked me to subscribe to Acorn to which I agreed when I saw their thirty day free trial and their very attractive annual rate. (For BritBox fans, I have read that Acorn has a larger selection of shows, both BBC and ITV, and they stream the Lucy Lawless series, My Life is Murder, in which she plays a detective in England, something that Terry wanted to see.)
Given current circumstances I had to rethink dropping Hulu. They do have a great selection: Xena (speaking of Lucy Lawless), seventies comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bob Newhart, quirky series such as The Mindy Project, and originals like the new favorably reviewed mini-series Little Fires Everywhere. So, sipping a Scotch and Crystal Geyser (my standard weeknight drink) on a recent evening I reinstated my subscription. And bless their technological hearts, everything I had stored in the My Stuff section was there and preserved for me. Thank you, Hulu.
So in the words of the marvelous Miss Emily Litella, “Neevvverrr Mind!”
Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Narrated by Andréa Burns
Macmillan Audio, October 22, 2019
$24.98 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
Still Here is a comprehensive, deeply researched, exquisitely written book about the life of Elaine Stritch. The author takes us from Elaine’s birth (before it actually, describing in too much detail her parents’ wedding night) to Stritch’s final breath.
Stritch had a big ego that started in childhood and lasted throughout her life. She called attention to herself, constantly annoyed and frustrated the other actors with whom she worked, had trouble remembering her lines, frequently ad-libbed in scripted shows, and audiences loved her.
She was somewhat (somewhat?) neurotic, drank in order to be able to go on stage, had a series of not so healthy relationships, and made unreasonable demands upon her producers, many of which were agreed to. She didn’t marry until age forty-eight when she wed John Bay. Bay was an actor whose family ran the Bay English Muffin empire (used in the Egg McMuffin), but who had no access to the family wealth. Bay was gay, but Stritch stayed with him until his death. In fact, she was buried next to him.
Still Here is one of those titles that works superbly as an audiobook. Voice actor Andréa Burns does an exceptional job of reading Still Here. Her ability to perfectly channel the whiskey voice of the mature Elaine Stritch is absolutely delightful and makes the audio book a real pleasure to listen to.
Lovers of show biz will love Still Here.
Writers & Lovers: A Novel
Grove Press (March 3, 2020), 320 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.20
Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers is written in the first person. The protagonist and narrator Casey at age 31 is trying to finish her novel after six years of fits and starts, attempting to make a living as a waitress, and trying to pay off her past-due student loans.
Casey seems quite competent as a waitress at an upscale restaurant to which she commutes by bicycle from her living space, a garden shed turned cottage next to her landlord’s house, but her manager puts her on probation twice for reasons that don’t seem to be entirely fair. She becomes involved with a writer her own age and also with an established author, widowed with two young sons, sixteen years her senior. She has a past: her high school coach father retired in shame after some sleazy activity in the locker room and her mother ran off to Mexico with another man and later died there mysteriously.
The story takes place in the early 1990’s, with occasional passing references to the likes of Whitewater special counsel Ken Starr. Casey has an answering machine rather than voicemail and no one seems to have a cell phone. Nonetheless this is not a period piece by any means; it could just as easily be set in 2020.
The writing is lively and King keeps the story moving at a rapid clip. There is one incident towards the end of the book involving Casey’s brother and her landlord that seems to serve no purpose, and we never learn the circumstances of her mother’s death, but otherwise the story holds together well. The final scene is a bit quirky, but it does its job in offering a solid conclusion. The ending is not open-ended, leaving us adrift, as is the case with many novels.
I don’t know if Writers & Lovers qualifies as literary fiction, but it is certainly a highly readable novel.
Terry and I first got serious about streaming video when CBS announced their CBS All Access streaming service and the launch of Star Trek: Discovery. Before that we had Netflix and Amazon Prime which we accessed via our Blu Ray players. With the launch of CBS All Access we bought a Roku device, since our Blu Ray devices didn’t know about CBS All Access.
We knew that we both had surgeries coming up: Terry with her knee replacement surgery in October 2018 and me with my gastrointestinal surgery that ultimately happened in February of last year. We added Hulu as a streaming service and bought a second Roku device for the bedroom. After my surgery and then my setback, which meant a second stay in the hospital, I added CuriosityStream.
As it turned out, neither of us watched a whole lot of streaming video during our respective recoveries. Star Trek: Discovery was a disappointment, as was the first episode of the much-anticipated Star Trek: Picard earlier this year. After some initial streaming of programs like The Mindy Project and WKRP, I rarely watched anything on Hulu, and in spite of its quality content I watched very little on CuriosityStream.
So this month we did the opposite of cord-cutting. We did some stream-narrowing. I cancelled Hulu and CBS All Access. I also cancelled CuriosityStream, but reinstated it when I got an offer for an absurdly low annual rate. That leaves us with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video along with some free services, including PBS and AllArts, which is pretty darn cool.
That will nearly cover the difference in our higher cable bill as our promotional period comes to an end.
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe
Knopf (February 18, 2020), 416 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $19.89
Brian Greene is a working physicist who is also well-known for writing popular books on science. Until the End of Time is his latest. I read a couple of very positive reviews of this book when it first came out and was intrigued enough to purchase it.
Green covers a variety of topics, including entropy, evolution (both biological and non-biological), quantum physics, the big bang and the earliest days of the universe, and the ultimate fate of the universe, which scientists now generally see as continued expansion until there is nothing there.
Greene is an excellent writer when it comes to popularizing science; he is clear, concise, and witty. He certainly knows his stuff, and the work is well-annotated. There is a lot of interesting material here and I learned a few things that I didn’t know before. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed: I came away without any new insights about the search for meaning.