NJTV, NJPAC celebrate American Songbook with televised series

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NJTV, NJPAC celebrate American Songbook with televised series

Posted on: January 15th, 2014 by tommyj

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Is it merely nostalgia that keeps listeners returning to the Great American Songbook? Or have the songs of Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and their accomplished peers endured because of their wit and elegance, their sturdy melodies, and the apparent confidence with which they were written?

The oldest material in the Songbook — the revered body of show tunes, movie themes and popular songs penned by American masters — was composed nearly a century ago. Yet to listeners who still adore these songs, they’re America’s answer to classical music: evergreens that retain their power to thrill, amuse and delight, and perennial reminders of stateside ingenuity.

Yet since the parameters of the Songbook have never been made formal, it remains open to interpretation. Can a song written after the dawn of rock ’n’ roll find its place in its pages? To merit inclusion, does it have to be something Frank Sinatra might have performed?

NJTV’s "American Songbook at NJPAC," which airs on the public television network tonight at 8, and for the next four Wednesdays at 8 (the debut episode featuring Rebecca Luker ran last week), takes a broader view. The shows, which were taped in June before live audiences at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, contain plenty of standards, but also expand the Songbook to include material from the American folk tradition and the heyday of Motown Records.

Next week’s episode, for instance, stars Valerie Simpson, the co-writer of some of the most enduring love songs of the 1960s and ’70s: "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," "You’re All I Need to Get By," "Some Things You Never Get Used To" and "Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing," among others. Simpson, who composed and produced those songs with her late husband Nick Ashford, isn’t usually included in American Songbook retrospectives, but perhaps she should be. She and Ashford were using methods — and song structures — that would have been familiar to great songwriting teams of the ’40s and ’50s such as Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe.

Likewise, the Feb. 5 episode of the program stars Maude Maggart, an imaginative cabaret singer who has always pushed at the boundaries of the Songbook. Her concert will feature interpretations of folk songs associated with Judy Collins and Joan Baez alongside standards by Cole Porter, Berlin and Kern.

Tonight’s show features a face familiar to millions. Yet most of his fans don’t think of him as a singer. No matter how many leads in Broadway shows he takes, Tom Wopat will always be best remembered in the passenger’s seat of the General Lee on the indelible "The Dukes of Hazzard." "American Songbook at NJPAC" should remind audiences that there’s more to the former Duke than a rebel yell.

Veteran Broadway performers (and married couple) Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley join voices on classic material on the Jan. 29 show.

Purists should be delighted by the final episode. The Feb. 12 installment features a performance by Sandy Stewart, a TV star of the ’50s who has long been associated with Great American Songbook material. She’ll be accompanied on piano by her son — neo-traditionalist Bill Charlap.

"American Songbook" also airs Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on channel 13 and 3:30 p.m. on WLIW21.

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