Spring has come a little late this year (2002). In the past, a sure sign of spring would be Barbara Cook appearing nightly at the elegant Upper East Side Cafe Carlyle, where it seemed Cook was singing just to you as if in the intimacy of your living room. Well, it's the dog days of summer and Cook is appearing Sunday and Monday nights in Mostly Sondheim at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center.

The design of the Beaumont gives -- depending on where you are seated -- a sense of intimacy, but it requires the type of amplification the Cafe Caryle and Feinstein's at the Regency, where Cook appeared in October 2000, does not. Unfortunately, that makes the experience less exhilarating. It takes a moment to adjust to the amplification in such a large space; but adjust you will and, as the evening progresses (90 plus minutes without intermission) with Cook singing a lot of  Sondheim and some of the songs he noted he would liked to have written, you can't help being drawn to the magic of her clarion voice. It's remarkable, indeed, that at age 75 she's capable of hitting her famous B natural notes.

What's most enjoyable about the concert is Cook as raconteur. The tales she reveals are delightful. It's fun to see Cook having the wonderful time onstage that, for so many years, she's given her audiences.

If anyone knows how to command a stage, it's Cook. She's proof that, even attired in a simple but elegant outfit and quite comfortable flats, you don't need flashy costumes, a set, extraordinary lighting or a full orchestra to impress. Her singing provides all the flourish you need. Among the songs you'll hear are: "Buds Won't Bud" (Arlen/Harburg); "I Got Lost in His Arms" (Berlin); "I Had Myself a True Love" and "I Wonder What Became of Me" (Arlen/Mercer); "The Trolley Song" (Blaine/Martin); and these by Sondheim: "Another Hundred People," "Everybody Says Don't," "Happiness," "In Buddy's Eyes," "So Many People"; "Happiness," "Losing My Mind,"  "Not a Day Goes By"; "Send in the Clowns" and  "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."

In 1999, Cook and perennial collaborator/musical director Wally Harper were honored by the MAC Awards for cabaret excellence with the association's Lifetime Achievement Award. They've been a team for 28 years and have amazing trust in the abilities and instincts of each other.

Cook's has been quite an interesting "lifetime." Now, thought of mostly for her cabaret and concert appearances (themed evenings, such as "A Salute to Gower Champion" and "Oscar Winners," a tribute to the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II) and recordings, Cook made her mark as a Broadway leading lady, starting in the 50s, in such classic musicals as Candide, The Music Man and She Loves Me. Her big Broadway break came in 1951 when she was cast in Fain and Harburg's short-lived musical satire, Flahooley. Of that show, Brooks Atkinson, respected critic of The New York Times wrote, "More plot crosses the stage than Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade...(the show is) a colossal non sequitur." It featured the exotic Peruvian, Yma Sumac, who had a four-octave voice, and the Bil Baird Marionettes.
"Only two critics found it tuneful and imaginative," recalls Cook, "Not enough to keep it running. It closed after 40 performances.

In 1955, Cook was in Hague and Horwitt's musical comedy Plain and Fancy, set in Pennsylvania Amish country. It had a respectable run of 461 performances. Then, in December 1956, came what she refers to as "a glorious experience," playing Cunegonde in Bernstein/ LaTouche/ (Dorothy) Parker/ (Richard) Wilbur's Candide, adapted by Lillian Hellman from the Voltaire classic.
It might have been glorious, but it was a season dominated by My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella, and the show was probably years ahead of its time. It received a Tony nomination for Best Musical, Featured Actress (Irra Petina), conductor Samuel Krachmalnick and set designer Oliver Smith (his nomination was in recognition of six shows, and he won for MFL). Candide ran 73 performances.

In 1958, Cook won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for the season's biggest smash, The Music Man (running just over four years). It's a moment in theatrical history she remembers vividly. "In one of those seasonal flukes the Tony nominating committee seem to create annually," said Cook, who played Marian the Librarian, "I was nominated in the Featured category, but my name was billed above the title."
It was the first of only three times two female leads won the Best Actress Tonys [Thelma Ritter for New Girl in Town and Gwen Verdon for New Girl in Town]. "I did win a Tony," smiles Cook, "and who knows what would have happened if I'd been nominated as Leading Actress!"

What made the night even more exhilarating was that Music Man star Robert Preston also won. "There probably would have been a riot if he hadn't won!" she reported. "Robert was a joy to work with and be around. In fact, it was truly a great company."

In April 1963, under the direction of Hal Prince and with musical staging by Carol Haney, Cook opened in Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me, which was made memorable by the incredible chemistry between Cook and co-star [the late] Jack Cassidy. Along with the musical, he was nominated for 1964 Tony Award Bests. However, in one of the most stunning oversights in Tony history, Cook was passed over for a nomination in the Featured Actress and Actress categories. She went on to do Dietz and Schwartz's The Gay Life (1961), Fain and (Marilyn and Alan) Bergman's Something More!, directed by no less than Jule Styne (1964, 29 performances), 1971's short-lived (12 performances) musical of Capotes's The Grass Harp (by Kenward Elmslie and Claibe Richardson) and revivals of Oklahoma!, The King and I and  Carousel.
Non-musical roles included a stint as a replacement in Any Wednesday, Little Murders (1967) and Enemies (1972). "Though I haven't done theater since 1972, it's my first love," related Cook. "There's nothing like it. I loved everything about it, especially the rehearsal periods and being with people all working toward one goal. I made bonds that will last forever. There's a wonderful sense of family and camaraderie. Even when you don't always get along!"

Not get along with Amalia Balash, Marian the Librarian, Cunegonde? "No, when they didn't get along with Barbara Cook!" she laughed. "It happened - occasionally. But usually it was like we were all fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other."

Cook stated that when she had a falling out or problem with a fellow performer, "it wasn't always easy to go onstage and sing a romantic ballad and do the love scenes. It could be quite difficult, but, most of the time, I just went out and did it. Thankfully, the problems didn't last a long time. I'd try to patch things up quickly because I've always felt it's so difficult to work if you feel you can't trust the other person."
She added, "It all comes down to the fact that you're not out there alone. Some actors thrive on that sort of thing. I never have. I hate that! I always tried to keep things cool."

Cook is the ultimate professional and gives 1,000 per cent in her performances, but she admitted that "on occasion," depending on how she's feeling and how smoothly things are running," she can become a bit piqued. And, just maybe, she can be a bit manipulative onstage. A favorite song from her She Loves Me repertoire is "Ice Cream," and she can still bring down the house with it. Except, some recent performances, she started, then stopped, giggling quite theatrically and joking how could she forget the lyrics when she's sung it thousands of times. Whether she really forgot the lyrics or it's a cute stunt is debatable, but it's certainly a fun and endearing moment from a performer who almost always seems picture perfect.

When Cook spoke of her theatrical experiences, she omitted one. Wasn't it Barbara Cook who originally starred in the infamous Carrie? "That was in England, at Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company production," she carefully reported. Doesn't it still count? "I'm not at all sorry I did it," she replied.
In spite of creative differences during rehearsals with director Terry Hands, Cook says she "courageously stuck with the musical through the opening."
"Courageously" is not used casually. "On opening night, in one of those freak stage accidents, I was almost decapitated," recalled Cook. "I did absolutely the right thing in leaving. [Betty Buckley starred in the ill-fated May 1988 Broadway production.]  It was a debacle. There were some good songs, but as a whole it was...Oh, God!"

Hands, then a leading light of the RSC, had a good vision, said Cook. "In the beginning," she added. "But he was used to directing works by dead authors. He'd never done a musical [actually, there was one]. Carrie was a whole different can of worms. And I think we may have had a few cans of them onstage somewhere. I don't know if it was so much ill-conceived from the beginning, or just problem-plagued. The biggest problem was that not one person working on it had done a show from scratch. No one had a clue as to how to fix it. I thought if a scene didn't work, Terry would see it. He didn't. We rarely agreed on anything."

It's totally different with Cook and Harper. They rarely disagree "and on those occasions when we do," said Cook, "I listen to him. The best I can say about Wally is that he's a musical genius! He carefully thinks out the shows, which we try not to make too heavy with songs I did on Broadway. Some are just not appropriate for cabaret."
Harper has music directed and done dance arrangements for numerous musicals, including Brigadoon, Irene, Company, Nine, My One and Only and Grand Hotel. In addition, he's conducted symphony orchestras and produced several albums of Cook and other artists, as well as composing musicals of his own [the best known of those is Sensations].

Another of Cook's musical geniuses is the legendary song stylist (the late) Mabel Mercer, another vet of the cabaret scene, "to whom I owe so much for all that I learned from her."
Never having been a fan of country music, she became, she admits reluctantly and a bit too late, a fan of Reba McEntire "and her absolutely brilliant portrayal" onstage in Annie Get Your Gun. For some time now, she's also been a big booster of opera tenor Jose Cura.

In her home town of Atlanta, Cook explained her family was so poor that they didn't have a record player. "Luckily, we had a radio. That and the movie musicals I'd see were my lifeline." She came to New York in 1948 "to seek my fame and fortune."  It took three years. "Considering the great talents in theater at that time," said Cook, "that was pure luck." A long-term cabaret experience in Boston prepared her for Broadway and clubs. "I spent nine months doing revues with small casts -- the music of Porter, Gershwin and Berlin."

She explained that she never does vocal exercises. "Fortunately, I was born with a naturally sweet soprano. My roots were planted firmly in opera and operetta. I had a wonderful vocal teacher who helped me build my voice. When I started in theater, we had a few microphones in the footlights. You had to be careful to look forward and sing forward, and sing loud and project. Without all the amplification we have today, it gave shows a kind of softness we don't have now."

Though she still occasionally gets asks to consider a Broadway musical, it would have to be something extraordinarily special and, so far, that hasn't come along.

Now, for a delicate question: Has she mellowed or gotten better with age? "I approach a song much better now than when I was younger," revealed Cook. "I factor in all my experiences along the way. I'm not as concentrated on register as before." She did admit that, with age, her voice has gotten darker.

One of the most affecting moments of Mostly Sondheim is when Cook returns for an encore sans microphone and totally mesmerizes the Beaumont audience with a poignant rendition of "Anyone Can Whistle."  It's wonderfully brave but, wouldn't you know that on the night I attended, right in the middle of that breathtaking moment, someone decided it was time to shuffle their shopping bag around in anticipation of making a quick exit. But even that and the chorus of Shhhhhhhhs that followed couldn't ruin the magic.


Fans of Barbara Cook will want "Night and the Music: Rosemary Clooney," "Barbara Cook and Julie Wilson," "Inside the World of Cabaret" (Schirmer Books).  Available on DRG Records are "All I Ask of You," which contains 12 tracks, including a stunning solo rendition of the title track (the Paris Opera house rooftop duet from The Phantom of the Opera) and five songs from She Loves Me; "Oscar Winners"; "Barbara Cook, Live from London" (a 1994 concert); and "Barbara Cook, Close As Pages in a Book," with special guest Tommy Tune. Sony Classical has remastered and reissued "Barbara Cook, Live at Carnegie Hall," her still-talked about 1975 concert, with never-released bonus tracks.



Key Subjects: 
Barbara Cook, Carrie; Candide, Flahooley, Mostly Sondheim, The Music Man, She Loves Me, Wally Harper,
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
June 2002
Barbara Cook Comes Back to Broadway -- Cabaret-Style