It was a nice surprise to find that Sunday afternoon's Great American Songbook concert at the Kimmel, with Marvin Hamlisch and Michael Feinstein, was on despite the snowstorm.

Even more surprising was to see how many people attended.


The predominantly over-50 crowd showed up because, like the practitioners on-stage, they hunger to keep the standards of the 20th-century song alive. That storied songbook includes early composers like Arthur Schwartz, Irving Berlin, and Burton Lane; latter-day saints like Stephen Sondheim and Hamlisch himself. At the finale, he joked how he was his own personal favorite - and then launched into "The Way We Were," playing piano while Feinstein sang softly.

No one knows the favorites better than Feinstein. Renowned for his musicological (in fact, anthropological) skills, this one-man college of musical knowledge holds every rarely heard introductory verse and obscure lyrical phrase at his ready. Does anyone remember Rodgers and Hart's "Any Old Place With You" or the line "I'd go to hell for ya / Or Philadelphia"? Feinstein did.

He spent his time at the Steinway thrilling the audience with tidbits, like the backstory of how a shattered Ira Gershwin wrote the romantic words to "Our Love Is Here to Stay" to fulfill a contractual obligation just weeks after the melody's composer, his brother George, died. Feinstein sang and played that Gershwin great with quietly nuanced tenderness. Or how Cole Porter, "the gentile" among pop's battery of Jewish composers, had to learn "old-world modality" to write hits such as "So in Love," which Feinstein emboldened with big-voiced brio. He was at his best with songs intoned with kittenish sass such as the conversational "I Love a Piano" - although, hey, the zestfully trilling Feinstein could have fluttered through the phone book and sounded delightful.

During his half of the program, Hamlisch told humorous stories on himself - when he wasn't busy playing renditions of his favorites in a delicious Thelonious Monk-like fashion.

"I know this is supposed to be the Great American Songbook - but Cliff Lee?!" he exclaimed. After that, Hamlisch launched into several swift, key-jumbling medleys, featuring his songs from A Chorus Line and Academy Award-losing nominees (Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," and Hamlisch's own "Nobody Does It Better," from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me). Then he teamed with Feinstein for a piano duet of a pixie-ish "Tea for Two" and a hammy "Moon River" that would have broken Ferrante & Teicher's hearts.