Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim

Liveright: Norton. Oct. 2019. 480p. ISBN 9781631490293. $39.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490309. MUSIC
According to conductor, composer, and NPR commentator Kapilow, well-known songs from 20th-century Broadway musicals embody the American social experience. To illustrate his point, he chooses eight male, mostly Jewish composers-lyricists (Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim) and 16 of their songs, which often infused African American–inspired styles such as jazz and blues into a 32-bar pop song format. Kapilow contends that the songs reflected their social and historical contexts. Though at times effectively making a direct connection between the music and its settings (e.g., Bernstein’s “I Can Cook Too” and World War II), for the most part, the author isn’t as successful. He describes songs that offer stilted views of issues such as race (Kern’s “Can’t Help but Lovin’ dat Man,” Bernstein’s “Tonight,” and Gershwin’s “Summertime”) and songs by Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin that ignored major events including the Great Depression to create escapist fantasies.
VERDICT While Kapilow doesn’t quite make his case, he has written an engaging, informative, and provocative book that is recommended for fans of Broadway musicals.

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