Legendary Barbara Cook Plans to Have Fun in Concert May 10 and May 31
By: Ellis Nassour
There are two upcoming metropolitan area dates to catch legendary two-time Tony and Drama Desk winner, Olivier and Grammy nominee, and 2011 Kennedy Center Honoree Barbara Cook performing her new act Are You Havin’ Any Fun?: Barbara Cook in Concert: Saturday, May 10 at 8 P.M., Colden Auditorium, Kupferberg Center, Queens College; and Saturday, May 31 at 10 P.M., South Orange Performing Arts Center, New Jersey.
Throughout her unparalleled career onstage, on recordings, and worldwide concerts for five decades, Miss Cook has been acclaimed for her crystal-clear lyric soprano, and on May 16, she’ll receive a Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theatre honor at the 80th Annual Drama League Awards. She’s widely recognized as one of the "premier interpreters" of musical theatre songs and standards, in particular those of Sondheim.
In her new act, Miss Cook continues her foray into her newly-developed repertoire of jazz and swing while also reprising her now-classic renditions of songs from Broadway and the great American songbook. Tunes will run the gamut from Arlen, Berlin, Gershwin, Mercer, and Youmans to Lennon and Sondheim.
Accompanying her will be music director Ted Rosenthal on piano, Dave Riekenberg on woodwinds, Warren Odze on drums, and Jay Leonhart on bass. Rosenthal, a 1988 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition, has performed as a soloist and sideman with such jazz greats as Art Farmer and Gerry Mulligan.
A leading star of Broadway (musicals as well as comedy), records, and TV in the ’50s and ’60s, as "Broadway’s favorite ingénue," she made her Broadway debut at 23 in 1951 in Flahooley, went on to play Ado Annie in a revival of Oklahoma!, and created three classic roles in the American musical theater: Cunegonde in Bernstein and Hellman’s Candide [adapted from Voltaire’s novel]; Marian, the librarian, in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, for which she received her first Tony; and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me (Drama Desk Award).
The original Candide lasted only 73 performances. It might have been because too many fingers were in the pie, which often created a nightmare for director Tyrone Guthrie. But what a pedigree it boasts: the only musical libretto by Hellman and one of Bernstein’s best scores.
"When I heard who was putting it together," explains Miss Cook, "I wanted to be cast, but never thought I’d get a part. My vocal instructor insisted I learn Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, even though I kept telling him it wasn’t the type of music I wanted to sing."
As it turned out, that insistence was a huge pay off when she arrived at her first audition and found she was surrounded by opera singers.
Bernstein was always late, "but," she relates, "I used the time to look over the music. With all those high notes, you could have mistaken it for grand opera."
Audition she did and Bernstein was impressed and wanted to hear more. "I was quite a brazen and foolhardy," she admits. "I said I’d do an aria from Madama Butterfly if he had the music. He said, ‘I don’t need the music!’ Mr. Bernstein sat at the piano and started playing – at a part I didn’t know! We finally got on the same page and I gathered all my strength and ended with a D Flat and, boy, did he perk up!"
She got the role. Then, the company got a shock. Prior to start of rehearsals, John LaTouche [Cabin in the Sky, Banjo Eyes, The Golden Apple], co-lyricist with Dorothy Parker, died of a sudden heart attack. Richard Wilbur [two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and a U.S. poet laureate] stepped in.
As one might assume, Miss Cook learned a lot about music working with Bernstein. "He was wonderful and made me feel as if I could do anything. He loved to catch you off guard. There was one time I could have strangled him. He came to my dressing room and took great delight in telling me Callas was out front. ‘That’s not what I need to hear before a performance,’ I shot back. He laughed and replied, ‘Watch out! She’d kill for some of your E Flats!’"
For Music Man, Miss Cook won a 1958 Tony, strangely, as Featured Actress, though she was an equal co-star with Robert Preston. However, she says, "I couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding, easy-going or nicer co-star. It was such a pleasure to come to work and hard to believe I was enjoying it so much. Robert was the engine of the show, the spark. Onstage, he had enough electricity to light Broadway for ten years!
"It was nice being in a show that was such a hit," she adds. "Everyone who was anyone came, and came back after. One night Robert came into my dressing room for our usual pre-show chit chat and said, ‘Coop’s out front.’ I replied, ‘Coop?’ He said, ‘Yes, Coop. Gary Cooper.’ I told him if I didn’t meet him there’d be hell to pay. Afterward, there was a knock on my door, and there he was. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Cooper, it’s so wonderful to meet you. I’m a huge fan.’ And he said, ‘Gosh.’ Yes, there are some disappointments in life!"
There was a huge one for her in 1964. She Loves Me! co-star Jack Cassidy was nominated for a Tony, but in her leading role she was inexplicably overlooked by the Tony nominators.
Miss Cook also appeared in Albert Hague and Arnold Horwitt’s 1955 Plain and Fancy, as Julie Jordan in the 1957 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, a role she was to reprise 30 years later in concert, and Anna in their 1960 revival of The King and I; Schwartz and Dietz’s The Gay Life in 1961; a 1962 revival of Fanny; and Magnolia in the 1996 revival of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. Her last original musical role was Dolly in Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie’s 1971 adaptation of Capote’s The Grass Harp.
Speaking of what are called "Broadway’s Golden Years," she says, "I didn’t know it. I was just walking, one foot in front of the other, wondering where my next job would come from." She rolls off names: Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and the shows they were in and opines, "I guess those were golden years. And I was lucky to be where I was."
She ventured into non-musical roles, stepping into Any Wednesday, starring in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, and the Lincoln Center production of Gorky’s Enemies.
There is one theatrical experience she prefers not to discuss — and it won’t take long to figure why.
Tastes had changed and the style of music Barbara Cook was famous for "was falling out of favor with audiences that count. Work was hard to find." When director Terry Hands offered her the co-starring role in the musical adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel Carrie at Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company, "It seemed like a good idea. It would be a new start." It was almost the death of her.
Margaret White was definitely off-beat casting [the part was played on Broadway for a few nights by Betty Buckley]. Throughout her career, Miss Cook played those nice girls Broadway audiences of that period loved. She wasn’t quite your vision of a rabid religious fanatic, but she dug in and gave it her all. There were more than a few "creative differences." She and Hands had heated arguments. "I wanted to quit," she says, "but thought that would be unprofessional, so I courageously stuck with it.
"On opening night," she continues, "in one of those freak stage accidents, I was almost decapitated when one of the props malfunctioned! I bolted as soon as possible. I did absolutely the right. It was a debacle. There were some good songs, but as a whole it was…Oh, God!"
Hands, a leading light of the RSC, she explains "had a good vision – in the beginning. But he was used to directing works by dead authors. He’d never done a musical [actually, he had]. Carrie was a whole different can of worms. And I think we may have had a few cans of them onstage! I don’t know if it was so much ill-conceived, or just problem-plagued. The biggest problem was that not one person working on it had done a show from scratch; and 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."
Miss Cook’s new theatrical beginning was not to be. She admits she found solace in alcohol, "which led to manic depression. Somewhere, somehow when I saw how I was spiraling to that point of no return, I pulled myself up and sought help."
With mad determination, she set out to reinvent herself as a cabaret and concert star, accompanied by long-time collaborator Wally Harper. She notes she was greatly influenced by legendary song stylist Mabel Mercer. "I owe so much to Mabel."
Memorable achievements include sold out performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Avery Fisher, Vivian Beaumont, New York Philharmonic, and seven Carnegie Hall appearances. Standouts are her concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, the first female solo pop singer in its 123-year history; and the sensation she created in 1985 as Sally in the concert of Sondheim’s Follies with the Philharmonic. In 1986, she was Olivier-nominated for her Donmar Warehouse one-woman show.
Miss Cook, who’s performed at the White House for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton, was elected to the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994. She won the NY Drama Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a Drama Desk for her Barbara Cook’s Broadway; Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Mostly Sondheim; and a Tony nomination for Sondheim on Sondheim, which marked her return to Broadway stage after 23 years.
In February 2001, sh
e returned to Carnegie Hall for Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim, winning a Tony for Best Theatrical Event and two Olivier nominations for the London edition. She performed the concert at Lincoln Center for a sold-out 14-week run. Her most notable recent appearance was her sold-out 85th birthday concert. She’s been a perennial headliner at Café Carlyle and the late Feinstein’s at the Regency.
Miss Cook’s many recordings for DRG Records include Oscar Winners: The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, Barbara Cook at the Met, It’s Better With a Band, Mostly Sondheim, Barbara Cook’s Broadway, her Grammy-nominated Count Your Blessings, and her performance with Michael Feinstein, You Make Me Feel So Young. Cast recordings of The Music Man and She Loves Me won Grammys.
Though concerts and cabaret became her bread and butter, "Broadway," she says, "is still my first love. Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me! were great experiences. I loved everything about theater, especially the rehearsal period and being with people all fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other, working toward one goal. I made bonds that have lasted a lifetime. Theater offers a wonderful sense of family and camaraderie. Even when you don’t always get along!"
What? Not get along with Cunegonde, Marian, the Librarian, Amalia Balash? "It happened occasionally." When there were serious falling outs, it was difficult leaving hurt feelings backstage, especially when she had to sing a romantic ballad and do a love scene. "It’s hard when you feel you can’t trust the other person. But I went out and did it. I didn’t have a choice. The problems didn’t last long. I’d try to patch things up because you’re not out there alone. Some actors thrive on that. I never did.
Tickets for Barbara Cook in concert: May 10, Queens College (65-30 Kissena Boulevard, Flushing, NY), $45, $55, and $69, www. kupferbergpresents.org; May 31, South Orange Performing Arts Center, $60, $75, and $95, www.sopac.org or call (973) 313-2787.
Miss Cook will also be appearing Saturday, June 14 at 8 P.M., Tarrytown Music Hall, Tarrytown, NY. For information and tickets, sscall (877) 840-0457 or visit tarrytownmusichall.org.