Monday, February 17, 2020
Books: "Listening For America" On The Country's Greatest Composers
Listening For America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim
By Rob Kapilow
Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company; hardcover, 480 pages; $39.95
Rob Kapilow, the creator of the hit NPR series What Makes it Great, is one of America's great interpreters of music. For decades, he has brought his show to live audiences around the world, including five years of sold-out performances at Lincoln Center.
In his new book Listening for America, Kapilow has turned his keen ear to the Great American Songbook, telling the story of the nation through the songs of eight of its most treasured Broadway composers - Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim.
Irving Berlin once said, "Songs make history, and history makes songs." That is the guiding wisdom of this landmark work, a book that explains why songs like "Over the Rainbow" are so memorable, as well as expands our understanding of Broadway's importance by exploring how race, gender, immigration, and cultural appropriation are integral to how we experience such classics as Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess.
Kapilow writes of the music landscape and how it fit into tough movie censors, in the late 1930s, "For Roaring Twenty composers like Cole Porter, who had been pushing the envelope of what was morally permissible on Broadway, it was hard to find an article in the Hays Code that in some show or song he had not already broken. Moving from the permissive world of Broadway to the puritanical world of Hollywood required considerable adaptive skills on the part of songwriters, and though the composer of five racy Cotton Club shows might seem ill-suited to the restrictive world of film, Harold Arlen would collaborate with Yip Harburg on one of the most successful Hollywood films of all time. A film that by its very nature would fit smoothly into the world of the Hays Code. The quintessential family film: MGM's The Wizard of Oz.
"By the time Arlen and Harburg became part of the Wizard of Oz team, they both had considerable experience with Hollywood, and none of that experience had been particularly unusual or rewarding. Busby Berkeley's extraordinary 1933 trifecta of hits - 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and Golddiggers of 1933 - had revived interest in the film musical, and Arlen was one of the many composers hired to fill the renewed demand. For his first picture, Let's Fall in Love (1933), Arlen wrote five songs: two were discarded, two remained in the film, and one was turned into background music. This was a much better result than most. When Rodgers and Hart's musical On Your Toes was turned into a film in 1939, all that survived from the original score were a few songs that had become underscoring.
"The Wizard of Oz, however, was one of the few film musicals of the 1930s in which the music, lyrics, dances, and book were fully integrated into the final film. Though ten screenwriters wrote multiple versions of the script and four directors at different times worked on portions of the script and four directors at different times worked on portions of the film, all of the songs and lyrics were Arlen's and Harburg's...
"They began with what they called 'the lemon-drop songs' - the lighter material like 'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead' and 'We're Off to See the Wizard' - but thought these songs came relatively quickly, the struggled with the ballad that would define Dorothy's character and become the film's signature song. 'I felt we needed something with a sweep, a melody with a broad, long line,' Arlen said. 'Time was getting short, I was getting anxious. My feeling was that picture songs need to be lush, and picture songs are hard to write. Though stories about the inspiration for famous songs tend to be polished over years and years of retellings, according to Arlen, the song came to him out of the blue while he was driving with his wife to a movie at Grauman's Chinese Theater. He immediately stopped the car across from Schwab's drugstore and jolted down the melody. 'It was as if the Lord said, 'Well, here it is, now stop worrying about it!'"
Kapilow combines close readings of Broadway hits with a wide-angled historical point of view, keeping his ears to the music, always listening for ways into an essential facet of American culture through a particular song. Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" sparks an illuminating discussion of changing views on sexual morality, while another chapter juxtaposes the actual facts of Puerto Rico gangs in 1950s New York with the fabricated version of Bernstein's West Side Story.
There also is a look at how Kern and Hammerstein, while writing the landmark Show Boat, took great liberties with their source material, reimagining African-American work songs and spirituals to suit their own theatrical purposes. They felt no more need to see the Mississippi River than the writers of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" felt the need to see baseball.
Listening for America is one of the best examinations of how popular music has shaped the larger culture, the perfect book for the deovtee, the first-time listener, the singer, or the music student.