By Donna Herman
If you’re a theater lover and you haven’t been to Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series, the 2017 season should get you there. You may not equate the American Songbook series with groundbreaking theatrical forms, but you’re wrong. The first place I heard the Hamilton Mixtapes was at the opening concert of the 2012 American Songbook series: Lin Manuel Miranda. While this season’s opener, American Songbook: Andrew Lippa & Friends, may not be breaking new ground musically, Lippa does not write your grandma’s musicals.
Taking the stage at The Appel Room Wednesday night, Mr. Lippa sat down at the piano and launched into the autobiographical “Marshall Levin.” The song tells the story of a fateful day when a shy sophomore boy gets introduced by a knowledgeable senior boy to…Sondheim. Lippa’s strong feelings and versatile voice make him an excellent performer as well as a composer, and he had the audience hanging on every note from the first chord.
When the song was over, Mr. Lippa confessed that he was a quadruple minority, gay, Jewish, left-handed and a Mac user. He went on to say that what he loves about writing music for the theater is the opportunity to explore a character through song. Perhaps his perception of himself as a multiple minority gives him the empathy to write insightful and touching songs from the perspective of troubled and flawed characters.
The evening was a highly polished retrospective of Mr. Lippa’s work that spanned his shows from Broadway’s “Big Fish” and “The Addams Family” to the award-winning Off-Broadway hit “The Wild Party”, “Asphalt Beach” and a new musical in development, “The Man in the Ceiling.” It also included a song from his oratorio “I Am Harvey Milk.”
Writing songs for musical theater is a different animal than writing a stand-alone song. A song in a musical has a specific job to do. It must take the character and the audience somewhere specific that relates to what’s going on in the story. A stand-alone song tells a whole story in a few minutes. “Time Stops” from “Big Fish,” hauntingly sung by Kate Baldwin who originated the role on Broadway and Matthew Scott (“An American in Paris”) this evening, does both. You don’t need to know anything about the bigger story to understand what’s going on in this song – two people meeting each other for the first time and recognizing their destiny in each other.
By the same token, songs that introduce or explain characters in a musical do quite well outside of a story, and Lippa is a master of these. Kate Baldwin showed her range by going from the demure Sandra in “Time Stops” to the dominatrix in “Cindy,” a one-off song not written for a show. A re-imagining of the character of Cindarella after the slipper fit “No one plays with Cindy anymore/Now I like my lovers tied up on the floor/The prince thought I was there to amuse him/Now he pays me just to abuse him/No one plays with Cindy anymore.” Belted by Baldwin like a true diva, the Lincoln Center crowd ate it up.
As they did the “Old Fashioned Love Story” from “The Wild Party”, performed by the West End star Caroline O’Connor with impeccable comic timing. And Joaquina Kalukango whose big voice was tailor-made for “Life of the Party,” as well as the marvelous young Noah Hinsdale with whom Lippa sang the duet “Hands/Mr. Floperoo.”
When Lippa sang the final song of the evening (before the encores of course!) “I Do What I Do” from his upcoming show “The Man in the Ceiling,” a lightbulb went on in my head. The character of Mr. Floperoo, who Lippa was very quick to say wasn’t himself, is a musical theater composer who has never written anything but flops. Here, he sings that why he continues to write no matter who likes it or not – is because he loves what he does. Maybe I’m late to the party, but my lightbulb moment told me, that’s a successful person -someone who loves what they do, no matter what the critics say.
This critic says, if you love musical theater, or even if you just love music, get yourself to the 2017 season of the American Songbook. Of the 23 shows left that run until May 13th, 8 of them revolve around theater and theatrical formats. The rest around music of every genre from soul to country to jazz to folk.
American Songbook: Andrew Lippa & Friends, Created by Andrew Lippa and David Babani, Directed by David Babani & Jen Bender, Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
WITH: Kate Baldwin (Vocals); Noah Hinsdale (Vocals); Joaquina Kalukango (Vocals); Caroline O’Connor (Vocals); Matthew Scott (Vocals); Paul Staroba (Piano, Musical Director); Will Curry (Viola); Kristina Musser (Violin); Anik Oulianine (Cello)
For American Songbook: Lighting design by Matt Berman; sound design by Scott Stauffer; Angela M. Fludd, Wardrobe Assistant; Janet Rucker, company manager. For Lincoln Center: Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz Artistic Director; Jon Nakagawa, Director, Contemporary Programming; Charles Cermele, Producer, Contemporary Programming. Tickets for American Songbook: https://americansongbook.org/ or 212-721-6500.