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The House That George Built by Wilfrid Sheed

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It is an indulgence we probably all share: the sweet delight of an hour or two spent with a knowledgeable pal, swapping musical anecdotes and opinions. Such is precisely the feeling engendered by Wilfrid Sheed’s wise and witty treatise on the tunesmiths who shaped the Great American Songbook. Though the esteemed novelist, critic and biographer adopts a bashful “Gosh, gee whiz, I ain’t no expert, just a mighty big fan” stance in his introduction, it quickly becomes evident that Sheed’s theories and opinions are as insightful as they are intriguing. His style is breezily conversational, with a tale about, say, Harold Arlen igniting a comment or two about Yip Harburg that then meanders in the direction of Johnny Mercer before winding back to Arlen; and he respects his readers enough to assume they already have appropriate knowledge of, and appreciation for, the tunes and craftsmen he’s discussing.

Instead of yet another dull-as-dishwater catalogue of “and then he wrote” data, Sheed uses George Gershwin and Irving Berlin as the foundation for a musical tower of Babel, with dozens of disparate voices, extending from Jerome Kern and Cole Porter to Jimmy Van Heusen and Cy Coleman, overlapping to create a cacophonous symphony. He posits that Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls is, song for song, the finest Broadway musical ever. He argues that Harry Warren has never received the recognition he deserves. He insists that Rodgers plus Hart was eminently better than Rodgers plus Hammerstein. (Most would probably concur he needs to give South Pacific another listen.) He’s blindly loyal to New York and perhaps a bit rough on Hollywood. Indeed, his viewpoints are pretty much guaranteed to prompt both hearty nods of accord and mild storms of outrage from any fellow devotee; and isn’t that precisely what true, rich enjoyment of this music and these masters is all about?