Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim

Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim

by Rob Kapilow


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Finalist • The Marfield Prize [National Award for Arts Writing]

“Not since the late Leonard Bernstein has classical music had a combination salesman-teacher as irresistible as Kapilow.” —Kansas City Star

Few people in recent memory have dedicated themselves as devotedly to the story of twentieth- century American music as Rob Kapilow, the composer, conductor, and host of the hit NPR music radio program, What Makes It Great? Now, in Listening for America, he turns his keen ear to the Great American Songbook, bringing many of our favorite classics to life through the songs and stories of eight of the twentieth century’s most treasured American composers—Kern, Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, Berlin, Rodgers, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Hardly confi ning himself to celebrating what makes these catchy melodies so unforgettable, Kapilow delves deeply into how issues of race, immigration, sexuality, and appropriation intertwine in masterpieces like Show Boat and West Side Story. A book not just about musical theater but about America itself, Listening for America is equally for the devotee, the singer, the music student, or for anyone intrigued by how popular music has shaped the larger culture, and promises to be the ideal gift book for years to come.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Todd S. Purdum

Rob Kapilow may be contemporary America's most passionate evangelist for the quaint discipline known as "music appreciation." As a composer, conductor and host of the What Makes It Great? programs…he is a winning combination of Leonard Bernstein and Bill Nye the Science Guy, an infectiously enthusiastic explainer of the inner mechanical workings of music, that most abstract of all arts…[Kapilow] rewards those patient enough to hold his hand as he walks them through just what makes these songs great…[in] this enlightening study…

Publishers Weekly

★ 10/14/2019

Composer and music journalist Kapilow (All You Have to Do Is Listen) recounts the 20th-century history of American popular music in lyrical prose. Focusing on the development of 16 songs and their composers—including George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow”—Kapilow chronicles the evolution of pop music from blues and jazz to Broadway musicals as well as the cultural forces that shaped the music. With the 1927 song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Jerome Kern created a distinctively American voice by weaving African-American work songs and spirituals into a 32-bar blues Broadway musical song. Harold Arlen embraced the blues as a rich source of inspiration for “Stormy Weather,” which premiered at the Cotton Club in 1933. Richard Rodgers, with his partner Oscar Hammerstein, wrote such musicals as Carousel that reflected a post-WWII world in which audiences yearned for music to reflect the moral values of society. In “Tonight,” from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein expressed his hope for a future of racial harmony. Kapilow works in musical notations in each chapter to illustrate the ways that the music itself incorporated various styles as it developed. Kapilow’s melodious writing hums with the vibrant music of American history and American popular culture. (Nov.)

Boston Globe

"It’s a cheering thought that this kind of missionary enterprise did not pass from this earth with Leonard Bernstein. Robert Kapilow is awfully good at what he does. We need him."

Robert Kimball

"Listening for America is an impressive achievement and one of the finest contributions to the annals of musical theater."

New York Times

"Praise for Rob Kapilow:

Rob Kapilow leaps into the void dividing music analysis from appreciation and fills it with exhilarating details and sensations."

Katie Couric

"A wonderful guy who brings music alive!"

Carolyn Mulac

"The Great American songbook is a national treasure, and in this engaging and instructive guide, composer, conductor, and music commentator Kapilow unlocks its riches. Sixteen gems by eight American masters of song.... are analyzed and set into historical and cultural context, resulting in a greater appreciation of these American musical masterpieces.... The songs selected for examination make for a musical theater fan’s ultimate playlist.... A treat for music fans and a great addition to any performing arts or popular culture collection."

Todd S. Purdum

"[An] enlightening study.... Rob Kapilow may be contemporary America’s most passionate evangelist for the quaint discipline known as 'music appreciation'... a winning combination of Leonard Bernstein and Bill Nye the Science Guy, an infectiously enthusiastic explainer of the inner mechanical workings of music.... A nifty companion website for the book includes helpful, easy-to-grasp audible demonstrations and vocals, as does the e-book version. For me at least, this digital crib-sheet was a vital tool for appreciating Kapilow’s arguments.... It is a testament to the depth and catholicity of Kapilow’s knowledge that he can effortlessly compare the sweet-sour takes on love in Rodgers and Hart’s “I Wish I Were in Love Again” with Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” He writes engagingly of Irving Berlin’s astonishing journey from a Russian village and Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the heights of fame, [and] astutely surveys the radical changes in popular taste in the 1960s and ’70s that dislodged the Broadway musical.... But it is the analysis of the songs that is the meat of the book — and something like its soul as well.... [Kapilow] rewards those patient enough to hold his hand as he walks them through just what makes these songs great."

Dan Meyer

"Kapilow doesn’t just explore what makes these songs catchy and unforgettable—the author dives into how societal issues like race, immigration, sexuality, and cultural appropriation can intertwine themselves into the greatest theatrical masterpieces."

Michael Giltz

"Impossible to resist.... [Kapilow’s] insight combined with the ability to share it easily will deepen your knowledge of the best that Broadway has to offer."

Terry Teachout

"Infectiously readable.... A carefully thought-out act of selection that gives you a starting point for your journey through the Great American Songbook. Who could ask for anything more?"

Lynn Ahrens

"Through the lens of musical theater, Rob Kapilow allows us to experience the unique sound and spirit of a changing America. I came away inspired and ready to write."

Kirkus Reviews

A user-friendly guide to appreciating show tunes.

Composer/conductor Kapilow's (What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers, 2011, etc.) popular NPR program, What Makes It Great? inspired this lively and highly informative look at what makes musical show tunes great. Using 16 of his favorite songs by eight of Broadway's greatest songwriters, he focuses on the "intersection between history and music," employing a "close-focus musical reading" of each song to demonstrate how they are "deeply meaningful reflections of an evolving America finding its voice." Kapilow includes basic musical notations to show how the songs' notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms fit together to fashion masterpieces. Each chapter is a gem of explication and informed opinion. Jerome Kern's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," from Show Boat, "turns on the relationship between black music and white music." The "landmark" show, Kapilow writes, "radically widened the dramatic range of the Broadway musical." The final cadence in Kern's "All the Things You Are," from Very Warm for May, a "complete flop," is "one of the most remarkable in the American Songbook." George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," from Girl Crazy, with its gay, Jewish, and Native American sensibilities, is the "voice of a southern black community in a work that would ultimately become the quintessential American opera." Harold Arlen "became famous overnight thanks to the success of a single song," "Stormy Weather," from The Cotton Club Parade of 1933. Before The Wizard of Oz film was released in 1939, studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted to cut out Arlen's iconic "Over the Rainbow." Kapilow considers Stephen Sondheim "one of the greatest innovators in the history of the musical theater." The author also discusses Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, and Leonard Bernstein, and the prologue contains useful information about minstrel shows, vaudeville, revues, operetta, ragtime, the blues, and jazz.

A seamless blend of music, history, and biography.

Library Journal


According to conductor, composer, and NPR commentator Kapilow, well-known songs from 20th-century Broadway musicals embody the American social experience. To illustrate his point, he chooses eight male, mostly Jewish composers-lyricists (Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim) and 16 of their songs, which often infused African American-inspired styles such as jazz and blues into a 32-bar pop song format. Kapilow contends that the songs reflected their social and historical contexts. Though at times effectively making a direct connection between the music and its settings (e.g., Bernstein's "I Can Cook Too" and World War II), for the most part, the author isn't as successful. He describes songs that offer stilted views of issues such as race (Kern's "Can't Help but Lovin' dat Man," Bernstein's "Tonight," and Gershwin's "Summertime") and songs by Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin that ignored major events including the Great Depression to create escapist fantasies. VERDICT While Kapilow doesn't quite make his case, he has written an engaging, informative, and provocative book that is recommended for fans of Broadway musicals.—David P. Szatmary, formerly with Univ. of Washington, Seattle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631490293
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 471,406
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.70(d)

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