A highlight of the local performing arts calendar for me each year is the Great American Songbook Foundation’s Songbook Academy summer intensive finals concert which I attended Saturday. It’s always one of the best shows in town. This year’s edition was no exception, as a Lexington, Kentucky, rising college freshman Lily Rasmussen, was crowned Songbook Youth Ambassador.
Singing in front of a mostly older audience which nearly filled the Palladium, the poised and beauteous Rasmussen dazzled the crowd and obviously the judges, with her spectacular voice, singing versions of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?’” from “Carousel” by Rogers and Hammerstein and “The Man That Got Away,” by Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen, made famous by Judy Garland in “A Star is Born.”
The finals capped a week-long intensive of workshops and professional mentoring, along with 39 fellow singers, by the likes of current Broadway performers Alexander Gemignani (“Carousel”), Fergie L. Philippe (“Hamilton”) and Becca Petersen (“Mean Girls”), as well as TV producer Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”), opera and cabaret star Sylvia McNair, pianist-composer Nat Zegree and actress-singer Mary Lane Haskell.
And like the title of the movie from the latter song she sang suggests, Rasmussen’s singing career will surely ascend. The perks of her winning include performances with Songbook Foundation founder and Academy lead mentor Michael Feinstein at renowned venues, such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and the five-time Grammy nominee’s cabaret clubs in New York and San Francisco.
Other top-ten winners included Anaïs Reno of New York City, who was awarded the Songbook Inspiration Award, and Zoë Stewart of Mendon, Massachusetts, who received the Songbook Celebration Award. The other finalists this year were Olivia Broadwater of Zionsville, Indiana, Reed Gnepper of Cincinnati, Emma Hackworth of Pittsburgh, Abigail Marotta of Ocoee, Florida, Eevie Perez of San Diego, Johnny Rabe of Naperville, Illinois, and Gabriel Schonman of River Forest, Illinois.
Aside from the finalists singing two songs each during the nearly three-hour program, other highlights of the concert were Feinstein, joined by the Songbook Choir, singing “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” Zegree, who has played Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” causing joyous commotion as he performed “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin, On” in character, 2018 Songbook Youth Ambassador Finn Sagal, who crooned “Time After Time” and “I’ll Be Seeing You, and the poignant “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” sung by the Songbook Choir.
I have attended the Songbook Finals since 2009 when it was first presented by the Songbook Foundation. The reason I look forward to it every year is not only because its highly entertaining, but also because it’s very inspiring—especially within these past few years, at a time when toxicity and divisiveness is flourishing and pitting us against one another. Observing and listening to these fresh-faced, gifted young people, singing songs that hearken back to simpler times, provides me with a respite from all the cynicism and anger that exist in the world today. These emerging artists give me hope for better times through music that has the power to calm and unify.
For more information about the Great American Songbook Foundation and the Songbook Academy, visit thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.