There's no surer sign of spring than Barbara Cook bursting upon New York -- accompanied as always by the sensational Wally Harper -- at the Cafe Carlyle.  Through May 3rd, Cook, a legendary star of Broadway and a leading light of the cabaret, concert, and recording world, will mesmerize audiences in this intimate, elegant boite, one of the most romantic spots in town, with her lush renditions of Broadway classics.   This season's theme is "Oscar Winners II," a tribute to the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, which, as it happens is the title of her new DRG Records (91448) CD.

Cook likes theme evenings, and three years ago a friend suggested, a night or two after the Academy Awards telecast, a tribute to Hammerstein with the title "Oscar Winners."  She liked the idea and debuted the show last fall to enormous success and acclaim.  "We wanted to do a recording but had to interest a record producer," sighed Cook, breathless from moving furniture and belongings from her apartment of 21 years to a larger one in the same building.  "As luck would have it, Hugh Fordin, head of DRG Records, came and afterward said, 'We have to record this!'   Wally and I didn't disagree."

Barbara Cook stands out as a musical theater legend, particularly for her work in The Music Man, the original Candide, and She Loves Me.  "Three great  theatrical experiences," she sighed.  "Though I haven't done theater since 1971's The Grass Harp, it's still my first love."  Wait, isn't this the same Barbara Cook who starred in the infamous  Carrie?  "That was in England, at Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company production."

Doesn't it still count?  "I'm not atall sorry I did it," she replied, even after being reminded she was almost decapitated on opening night in a freak stage accident.  "But 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!  I don't know if it was so much ill-conceived from the beginning, but the biggest problem was that not one person working on the show had done a show from scratch.  No one had a clue as to how to fix it.  "Terry Hands was the leading light of the RSC.  I liked his original vision for the show.  I also thought if a scene didn't work, he'd see it.  He didn't.  He was used to directing works by dead authors, and he'd never done a musical [actually, there was one]. Carrie was a whole different can of peas.  And I think we may have had a few cans of them onstage somewhere."

Cook says, "Still, there's nothing like theater.  I love the rehearsal period, being with people all working toward one goal.  You make bonds that last forever.  There's a sense of family and camaraderie.  Even when you don't always get along!  Then it's like being at war with somebody!"

Not get along with Marian the Librarian, Cunegonde, Amalia Balash?  (The latter performance won the 1958 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, even though Cook received star billing above the title.)  "No, Barbara Cook," she laughs, "and it's happened occasionally.  But usually it's like you're fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other."

Fans of Ms. Cook and cabaret will want Night and the Music: Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, and Julie Wilson, Inside the World of Cabaret (Schirmer Books). Still available on DRG Records is "Barbara Cook, Live from London" (91430), her July 1994 concert, and "Barbara Cook, Close As Pages in a Book," with special guest Tommy Tune (91412).  Sony Classical has remastered and reissued on CD "Barbara Cook, Live at Carnegie Hall," her still-talked about 1975 concert (with new material never released on the LP).


Key Subjects: 
Barbara Cook, Carrie, Cafe Carlyle, Oscar Winners II
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).