What Makes a Songbook American? Justin Vivian Bond and Rosanne Cash Have a Few Answers

What Makes a Songbook American? Justin Vivian Bond and Rosanne Cash Have a Few Answers


Justin Vivian Bond performed songs from Karen Carpenter’s catalog at the Lincoln Center series American Songbook.

Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

What the heck is the American Songbook at this point? The annual Lincoln Center series bearing that name may not be clarifying matters. The 2018 season started back in January with the country-folk rocker John Paul White, formerly of the Civil Wars, then went on to feature the disparate likes of the Broadway heartthrob Aaron Tveit, Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger of television’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Rosanne Cash, who wrapped things up on Tuesday — with, perhaps tellingly, a set incorporating songs from her forthcoming musical based on the film “Norma Rae.”

What connects these dots? And if the American Songbook is everything, is it anything?

The series’ debut slate, in 1999, consisted of two programs focusing on classic composers. The first was dedicated to Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather”) and the second honored Richard Rodgers (“My Funny Valentine,” “Some Enchanted Evening”). The interpreters were drawn mostly from the cabaret and Broadway ranks: Barbara Cook, Faith Prince, Audra McDonald — names familiar to people who spend quality time ensconced in red-velvet seats. Clearly the American Songbook (many people qualify it as “Great”) consisted of songs from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, blessedly untouched by rock ’n’ roll or singer-songwriter confessionals.

Nearly two decades later, the definition has gotten a little muddled — which is not a bad thing at all. Guests have ranged far and wide, and included Thurston Moore; the rapper Talib Kweli (though hip-hop has, overall, not been featured nearly enough); the Magnetic Fields performing all of their “69 Love Songs”; and Joey Arias pulling off full Billie Holiday realness, gardenia in his hair.

On the surface, little connects the last three shows in the 2018 edition: Justin Vivian Bond singing the Carpenters; an evening exploring the catalog of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the team behind such musicals as “Grey Gardens” and “War Paint”; and Ms. Cash, a literate Americana writer and performer who has stepped outside of her father’s long shadow. And yet, all three programs felt very much part of a continuum — and not just because the audience always sat politely, the performers had dressed up for the occasion, and nobody ever broke a sweat.

In their own way, the shows explored not so much what makes the songbook — is that another way to say the canon? — as what it means to be American, often from the perspective of an outsider telling truth to power. To do that, the shows all emphasized storytelling.

A vision in a silver lamé dress and platinum hair, like a late-period Dusty Springfield, Mx. Bond (who prefers that honorific and the pronoun “they”) made it clear early on that they were tackling specifically Karen Carpenter rather than the Carpenters as a whole. Mx. Bond’s sharp wit fuels what may well be the best banter in the business — honed in unhinged shows as the fictional cabaret singer Kiki DuRane — and the best part of the evening was the convoluted, off-the-cuff narratives that framed the numbers. We heard, for instance, of how they discovered Karen Carpenter (after flunking a family softball game) and how the singer’s nontraditional femininity helped shape Mx. Bond’s conception of “queerness” — “I’m on the opposite end of the gender speculum,” they quipped. Still, there were no particular insights on Karen Carpenter’s life and music, and the songs themselves were delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, in overly tasteful arrangements by the pianist Matt Ray.

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