Inside the Great American Songbook From Gershwin to Sondheim
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A user-friendly guide to appreciating show tunes.

Composer/conductor Kapilow’s (What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers, 2011, etc.) popular NPR program, What Makes It Great? inspired this lively and highly informative look at what makes musical show tunes great. Using 16 of his favorite songs by eight of Broadway’s greatest songwriters, he focuses on the “intersection between history and music,” employing a “close-focus musical reading” of each song to demonstrate how they are “deeply meaningful reflections of an evolving America finding its voice.” Kapilow includes basic musical notations to show how the songs’ notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms fit together to fashion masterpieces. Each chapter is a gem of explication and informed opinion. Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” from Show Boat, “turns on the relationship between black music and white music.” The “landmark” show, Kapilow writes, “radically widened the dramatic range of the Broadway musical.” The final cadence in Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” from Very Warm for May, a “complete flop,” is “one of the most remarkable in the American Songbook.” George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” from Girl Crazy, with its gay, Jewish, and Native American sensibilities, is the “voice of a southern black community in a work that would ultimately become the quintessential American opera.” Harold Arlen “became famous overnight thanks to the success of a single song,” “Stormy Weather,” from The Cotton Club Parade of 1933. Before The Wizard of Oz film was released in 1939, studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted to cut out Arlen’s iconic “Over the Rainbow.” Kapilow considers Stephen Sondheim “one of the greatest innovators in the history of the musical theater.” The author also discusses Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Leonard Bernstein, and the prologue contains useful information about minstrel shows, vaudeville, revues, operetta, ragtime, the blues, and jazz.

A seamless blend of music, history, and biography.

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-63149-029-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Liveright/Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2019