Friday, 1 June 2007

Glitter And Be Gay - A Profile of Barbara Cook

It was back in 1986 that I saw this weeks essential performer live in concert for the first time. I had seen Barbara Cook in the BBC’s Arena special “Follies In Concert”, a documentary taking us behind the scenes of the historic all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1971 musical “Follies” at New York’s Avery fisher Hall (at The Lincoln Centre). A few months later whilst I was working front of house on “La Cage Aux Folles” I had the opportunity to see Miss Cook live in person as part of the Donmar Warehouse’s Show People season.
So what did I think of her? In short, from the moment she began singing her oft opening number “Sing A Song With M”e I was mesmerised by the natural charm and style she possessed. At sixteen/seventeen a soprano like Barbara was not the sort of voice I would normally enjoy, but she was (and is) so much more than just a soprano. She possessed the ability to sing almost anything, it seemed, from traditional Broadway songs and standards to more recent “pop” tunes with her natural style and charm she made everything work. The stories and anecdotes between the songs added to the experience immensely as well, and you couldn’t fail to be touched by the warmth radiating from the stage.

Of course the story did not begin there for Miss Cook, as she had already been performing for over thirty years, so before I meander along with my personal remembrances of her I feel we should venture back to the early fifties and her first stage appearances.

It was in 1951, some fifty six years ago, that she made her Broadway debut in the whimsical Fain/Harburg musical “Flahooley”. Now “Flahooley” was by no means a big hit, but Barbara’s solo’s were enough to get her noticed and the rest of the decade saw her become Broadway’s favourite ingénue. She followed this by playing Ado Annie in a revival of “Oklahoma” followed by a tour of the same show. Her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in a revival of “Carousel” was followed by her next major role, as Hilda, in the hit musical “Plain And Fancy” (Composed, incidentally, by Albert Hague the TV “Fame’s” Shorofsky!) focussing on America’s Amish community. 1955 saw Barbara as the first to sing the vocally astonishing “Glitter And Be Gay” when she portrayed Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s, then unsuccessful, “Candide”. In later years this show has, very much, become part of the operatic repertoire and Cooks performance on the original cast recording has no doubt influenced the continuing ongoing interest in the piece. 1957 saw a bona fide block buster when she was cast as Marian, the librarian, in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” where she introduced “Till There Was You” later to become the only show tune to be covered by The Beatles. The fifties were rounded out by Barbara’s first solo recordings. “Songs Of Perfect Priority” was an experimental album of Dorothy Parker poems set to music (the only of her solo albums never to have a CD release) and “From the Heart” (recently re-released by DRG) is a collection of songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I would describe the arrangements on this recording as both quaint and antiquated but it’s well worth a listen to hear a youthful Barbara Cook at the height of her Broadway career.

As the sixties came, the Broadway musical was still very much a part of Barbara’s life as she starred in 1961’s “The Gay Lif”e and 1964’s “Something More”, but it was the 1963 show “She Loves Me” which provided her with, possibly, the best role of her career. As Amalia Balash a shop assistant in Budapest she performed (what were to become) signature numbers “Will He Like Me”, “Dear Friend” and the breathtaking “Ice Cream”. Barbara also played the lead roles in City Center revivals of both “The King And I” and “Carousel”. Sadly as the sixties rolled on the ingénue roles began to dry up and it wasn’t until 1971 that she starred in her last Broadway musical role to date in the short lived “The Grass Harp” based on a story by Truman Capote. During these years Cook experienced a number of personal problems however she re-emerged in the mid-seventies as a successful concert/cabaret performer aided and abetted by her long time accompanist/arranger Wally Harper.

It was in 1975 that Barbara was to make her concert debut at no less a venue that New York’s Carnegie Hall. This concert was such a resounding critical and popular success that an album was released proving my point that not only was Cook one of the finest exponents of show tunes and the standards but she could turn her hand to pop with equal success.

Pop music was more in evidence on her next album, 1977’s “As Of Toda”y where she included Janis Ian’s “Stars” as well as Carol Hall’s touching “Ain’t Love Easy”. “It’s Better With A Band” followed in 1981 capturing a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall and featuring new specially written material such as the stunning title song and the “The Ingenue” both written by Wally Harper and David Zippel. “The Ingenue” was a wonderful self parody and the lyrics touched on many of the roles she had played some twenty or more years before as well as “The movie roles you long to play they give to Shirley Jones to do”, noting her failure to get the role of Marian in “The Music Man” movie.

It was in 1985 that RCA decided that, as only a truncated version of the score had been released when the show had its Broadway run, they would record Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” in it’s entirety – and Cook was signed to play Sally Durant Plummer giving voice to definitive versions of both “Losing My Mind” and “In Buddys Eyes”.

So this takes me back to where I began my story in the mid-eighties. The Donmar season was a huge hit receiving rave reviews and Barbara Cook became a regular presence on television over the following few years. Particular highlights of this period included an all star “Night Of A Hundred Star” at The Palladium where she brought the house down with her energetic performance of “Carolina In The Mornin”g, as well as the first of several Royal Variety Performances and appearances on the SWET (now Olivier) Awards as well as The Tonys. She returned to the recording studio to participate in a newly orchestrated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” where she played Julie Jordan, a new musical version of “The Secret Garden” and, delightfully, “The Disney Album”, a solo collection of songs from the golden age of Disney animation. Almost every year Barbara would also return to London for a concert or two and over the years she has played at the Barbican, The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall and The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The late eighties also saw her triumphant return to Broadway with “A Concert For The Theatre”, and her last book musical to date. Sadly “Carrie” was not the most successful of experiences, despite great excitement at its announcement, it was felt at the time that she was miscast and its said that Barbara was unhappy in her role as Carrie’s mother. She stayed with the show for the duration of its run in Stratford Upon Avon, but did not perform in the short-lived Broadway run – that honour instead went to Betty Buckley.

The nineties saw a continuing concert and cabaret programme for Barbara, and London continued to be a big part of this, especially her seventieth birthday concert at The Royal Albert Hall where she was joined by guests including Elaine Stritch. 1993 saw the beginning of a her ongoing relationship with DRG records when she released “Close As Pages In A Boo”k a collection of songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. A spectacular season at London’s Sadlers Wells followed accompanied by one of her best recordings “Live From London”. Further studio sets followed with “All I Ask Of You”, and “Oscar Winners” which focussed on the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein. Her Café Carlyle season in tribute to theatre legend Gower Champion (“The Champion Seaso”n) was also released on CD around this time. As the new millennium dawned there were no signs of the pace slowing down as she enjoyed a “Mostly Sondheim” season at Carnegie Hall (reprised at London’s Lyric Theatre) where she showcased a selection of Sondheim’s greatest works along with some songs that he wishes he had written. Happily for Barbara, one of Sondheim’s favourites was “Ice Cream” from “She Loves M”e so she got to re-visit that number as well as deliver her own take on “Send in The Clowns” which, for my money, ranks amongst the best versions. A double album of the concert was released along with a DVD version. Fascinatingly the DVD also contains a “master class” with Barbara passing on her wisdom to other performers – offering a fascinating insight into her gifts. Barbara followed this season with “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” a tribute to Broadways golden age where she featured many songs from the era she was a Broadway performer herself. Favouring longer runs rather than on off concert dates on her London visits these days, Barbara brought this show to The Gielgud for a season, but sadly this was curtailed due to ill health. It was shortly after a second season at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket that Barbara’s long time musical arranger, Wally Harper, died. Special tribute must be paid to Wally whose presence in Barbara’s concert was very important indeed. He was extremely simpatico to Barbara and has proved irreplaceable in his absence. However Barbara’s career continues without Wally and she has released a further studio album, “Tribute”, featuring songs new and familiar to her repertoire. 2006 saw Barbara make her solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York the first non operatic female singer to hold this distinction. With Eric Stern conducting, and special guests Audra McDonald and Josh Groban this concert as well was released on CD. So what now for Barbara? Well a further album, “No One Is Alone” was released in the last few weeks based on her most recent Carnegie Hall concert, there can’t be many recording artists whose most prolific period was after they hit seventy! As for the future, she has a busy concert schedule, and although there are no further appearances planned for the UK we can only hope that she will return one more time so London audiences can experience the magic of Broadways greatest ingénue.

Well, as I have mentioned, Cook has been nothing if not prolific, and most of her recordings are currently available on CD. Almost all of her great Broadway roles are now available on CD with the exception of “Something More” which was never recorded. There are even two versions of “Showboa”t on release as well as a lovely studio recording of “The King And I” – a role she played at The Lincoln Centre (Anna that is!) I would most recommend her recordings of “She Loves Me”, “Carousel” and “Follies”. Of her solo recordings she is at best when she sings live so her “Live From Carnegie Hall” is excellent, although possibly the best set has to be 1994’s “Live From London”. Then of course there is last years” Live At The Met” and 2001’s “Mostly Sondheim”. DRG, her current label, seem to be in the process of getting the rights to all the Barbara Cook recordings that are currently out of print and so far have re-released “From The Heart”, “As Of Toda”y, “It’s Better With A Band” and the cast albums to “Plain And Fancy”, “The Gay Life” and “Flahoole”y. Who knows, we may even be able to look forward to “Songs Of Perfect Priorit”y at some point. This year has also seen a “Broadway Legend” release from Sony featuring many of Cook’s performances from her Broadway years. Anyway I look forward to hearing the new release “No One Is Alone” with interest! I really must get down to!

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