One of my favorite books I read this year was Rob Kapilow’s Listening for America, a tour through the genius of American musical theater. I was delighted to get to write an appreciation for Fare Forward.
Reading Kapilow took me one step further into appreciation. He has a gift for worked examples and teaches by rewriting the songs he’s showcasing. He changes just one small detail at a time to show how it supports the song. He might remove a bluesy swing, a shift up the octave, a chromatic note, to come up with a more pedestrian variant he calls the “Kapilow version.” None of his rewrites have a wrong note, but they lack inventiveness.
Playing his rewrites side by side with the originals, you can hear how the expected version might sound good enough, but the real version is sublime. […]
The composers build up their songs layer by layer, so that each small choice is marked by how it harmonizes with what has come before. I can’t capture the chord by having a friend guide my fingers to ring out those final measures in isolation.
Our institutions and connections to each other are similarly built piece by piece. Here, my mistake of trying to play just the finale looks a little different. We try to remix or excerpt the cultural traditions that have sustained us, pulling out the single element that seems necessary. But, cut from the full tapestry, it unravels in our hands.