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The American Way

Deborah Voigt, k.d. lang, Kelli O'Hara, Eric Comstock, and David Yazbek take part in this year's eclectic American Songbook series. logo
Deborah Voigt
(© Angel Records/Joanne Savio)
If there's one thing that makes getting through a bleak New York winter a little easier, it's the promise of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, a veritable potpourri of entertainment that can warm the chilliest heart. This year's series kicks off on January 23 at the Allen Room with opera singer Deborah Voigt and concludes there on March 1 with rock singer Patti Smith in a tribute to songbirds of the 1950s. In between those amazing women is everyone from R&B queen Bettye LaVette (February 8) to indie rock favorite Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (February 21), jazz legend Jimmy Scott (February 22), and Tony Award winners John Lloyd Young (February 23) and Christine Ebersole (February 29).

"We try to highlight the foundation of this series, which is great Broadway artists singing great standards, and follow the threads from there," says Charles Cermele, the series' associate producer. "This year, we've added three salutes to great composers and lyricists, Leonard Bernstein (January 25), Charles Strouse (February 2), and David Yazbek (February 9), who've worked in theater but have had great success in other areas. And we've made a real commitment to country and bluegrass in a town that's not known for that music, by inviting people like Lori McKenna (January 24), the Punch Brothers (February 20), and of course, k.d. lang (February 26-28)."

Lang's appearance will be tied to Watershed, her first studio recording in six years, of which the Grammy Award-winning singer is a producer as well as a writer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist. She calls it "a culmination of everything I've done. It really feels like the way I hear music, this mash-up of genres, and I think it reflects all the styles that have preceded this in my catalogue."

While she's a legend in the opera world, Voigt's program -- created with musical director Ted Sperling -- will be what she terms "Broadwayesque." "I thought about the ladies I admired in musical theater, like Julie Andrews, Barbara Cook, and Mary Martin, and what they sang," says Voigt. "I did The Music Man in high school, although I was better as Gooch in Mame, and I spent a lot of time dancing around the house to My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. My father is still heartbroken that I'm never going to play Maria." Along with standards from those shows, one highlight of the concert promises to be the little-known song "Willow" from the musical Kean. "I tossed out a couple of Ted's suggestions, but I decided I wanted to put in the time on this song," says Voigt. "It's slightly classical and has a beautiful melody. Perhaps because I started out playing the piano, I tend to get excited about the music first."

Two-time Tony nominee Kelli O' Hara's concert on January 26 promises to be a very eclectic affair. "I'm going to do a couple of my friend Harry Connick Jr.'s songs, a song written by my husband, Greg Naughton, called 'The Sun Went Out,' and a song I wrote called 'Here Now," she says. "I'll definitely do some standards, perhaps something from Pajama Game, and definitely something written by Ricky Ian Gordon. I may also do this arrangement of 'Fable' from The Light in the Piazza that Harry did for my upcoming album -- even though Adam Guettel may hate it. It's a version of how I think Clara heard the song -- as a lullaby sung by her mother. I think it's very interesting."

Eric Comstock, the singer-pianist who is creating and headlining the Strouse salute, is focusing on the Broadway composer's jazzier side. "I remember when I was in college seeing this show on CBS cable called The Songwriters, which really recreated concerts from living writers at the 92nd Street Y, and I noticed watching the Strouse one that he had more evolved, more loose and jazzy approach to his songs, "he says. "Then when I started performing, I began to collect vintage jazz records, and I found a lot of jazz headliners and orchestras did whole albums of Strouse shows like All American and Bye Bye Birdie." The show -- in which Strouse will also perform -- will include numbers from many of the composer's Broadway hits, plus such lesser-known gems as "I'm Home," from a television version of Alice in Wonderland. And expect an emphasis on the musical Golden Boy, Comstock's personal favorite. "My wife, Barbara Fasano, will sing the title tune; and when she did it last year at the Metropolitan Room, Charles told her it was the way he always wanted to hear it."

David Yazbek
(© Susan Stava)
Conversely, Yazbek's concert will focus not on his theater music, but on selections from his soon-to-be-released CD, Evil Monkey Man -- many of which were written during the past two years and mix jaunty melodies with pitch-dark lyrics. "They came out of this dark, angry, and sad time right after my mother got sick and died," he says. "Plus, having had success with my Broadway shows [The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels] has forced a reexamination of my identity. I'm very serious about that work, but it's an expression of what those characters are feeling instead of a direct expression of what I'm feeling."

Yazbek has also invited two very special ladies -- Nellie McKay and Lauren Flanigan -- to join him on the stage. "I don't usually take my live shows too seriously; if you fly by the seat of your pants, more interesting things can happen," he says. "But because of this amazing venue, I wanted to make it special, and I also thought it would be good to have a female voice around. My friend Ted Sperling gave me Nellie's first album, and while I thought I might hate it, she reminded me a lot of what I was like at her age. So she's going to do this song called "Wasted" from the new album, and give a different spin to 'Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True' from Scoundrels."

But how did he convince Flanigan, another of the world's great opera singers, to take part? "I heard her voice on NPR about eight years ago, and it really stuck out for me as a major musical instrument," he says. "Ted knows how to network, so he got me to call her. When I did, she said she was a fan of mine. And I've since found out she's just like me; she's game to do anything."

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