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  • Spring is officially here and that usually means something's cooking -- mainly concert appearances of legendary, seemingly ageless vocalist Barbara Cook and perennial collaborator/musical director Wally Harper, recipients of MAC Lifetime Achievement Awards. And what a lifetime it's been for Cook and, since she rarely ventures anything without his expert touch and guiding hands, Harper. Some things in life are expendable, but not Harper. They've been a team 30 years.

    They're spinning their lyrical and musical magic Fridays-Sundays at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre through April 18 [when LCT's production of King Lear is not performing]. This is a don't miss event.

    In this "new" concert, Barbara Cook's Broadway, the singer takes fans on an autobiographical musical tour of Broadway's "Golden Years," something she knows about since for two decades [1951-1971] she created roles in the original Candide, The Music Man and She Loves Me!.

    Cook jokes about those so-called "Golden Years," saying, "I didn't know it. I was just walking, one foot in front of the other, wondering where my next job would come from. Do you think, one day, the actors working today will look back at this time as the 'Golden Years' of musicals."

    On second thought, rolling off names such as Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and the shows they were appearing in at the time, she opines "I guess those were golden years. And I was lucky to be where I was. It was just the right time and I was the right package. I was so fortunate to have worked with such amazing people."

    Cook, in her now-standard black pants suit, black over-garment that's a cross between a chemise and light evening jacket and those oh-so-comfortable sandals, gives a 90-minute compact crash course in the changing nature of the Broadway musical, starting with Carousel, then Oklahoma!, the quite radical She Loves Me [no chorus, lots of plot-driven songs] and on to Sondheim.

    For Music Man, Cook won a 1958 Tony. Strangely, it was in the Featured category but she was the co-star with Robert Preston and was billed above the title. She also laughingly points out, "I was the hands-down winner since I was the only nominee!"

    She says she couldn't have asked for a more outstanding, easy-going or nicer co-star than Robert Preston. "It was such a pleasure to come to work and hard to believe you were enjoying every day as much as you were. Robert was the engine of the show, the spark. Onstage, he had enough electricity to light Chicago 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 chit chat and said, 'Coop's out front.' I replied, 'Coop?' He said, 'Yes, Coop. Gary Cooper.' That got my attention. I told him if I didn't meet Gary Cooper there'd be hell to pay. After the curtain, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there he was. I said, 'Oh, Mr. Cooper, it's so wonderful to meet you. I'm a huge fan.' And Gary Cooper replied, 'Gosh.' Yes, there are some disappointments in life."

    In 1964, when her She Loves Me! co-star Jack Cassidy was nominated for a Tony Award, there was a big one: a stunning blow. In an inexplicable and horrific oversight, the Tony nominators totally passed over Cook.

    Though concerts and cabaret are her bread and butter, "Broadway," she says, "is still my first love." She was thrilled to be named to the Theater Hall of Fame in the early 90s. "Candide, She Loves Me! and The Music Man were great experiences. Though I haven't done musical theater since 1971's The Grass Harp [there was a play, LCT's 1972 production of Gorky's Enemies], there's nothing like it. I loved everything about it, especially the rehearsal period and being with people all working toward one goal. I made bonds that will last forever. 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 and Amalia Balash? "No, when they didn't get along with Barbara Cook," she reports. "It happened occasionally. But usually it was like we were all fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other."

    On those rare occasions when there were serious falling outs or a problem with a fellow performer, Cook says, "It was difficult to leave hurt feelings backstage, especially when you had to go out and sing a romantic ballad and do love scenes. Oh, a couple of times it was quite the most difficult thing! But, most of the time, I just went out and did it. Thankfully, the problems I had didn't last long. I'd try to patch things up quickly. It all comes down to the fact that you're not out there alone. Some actors thrive on that. I never did. I hate that! I always tried to keep things cool because it's hard to work if you feel you can't trust the other person."

    Obviously, even in the temperamental world of theater and divas [it's no secret that Cook has a temper], Harper is someone she not only trusts but whom she's grown to feel is indispensable. To anyone in the business who knows him, he's as gracious as he is talented.

    That's not to say they don't argue and disagree. "Just like old friends," she points out, "we go at each other over just about everything under the sun, but we get along quite nicely. Maybe it's because we rarely disagree. On those occasions when we do, I listen to him. The best I can say about Wally is that he's a musical genius!"

    From their first meetings in the 70s, Harper wanted to add another "element" to Cook and her lyric soprano voice, to experiment to see what she and it were capable of doing. Cook explained he really pushed her, not always willingly, and the result was the addition of a strong rhythmic pattern to her vocals. It's an incredible partnership where one seems to know what the other is thinking before they even think it. It's Harper who helps select new material. He is very carefully to think out Cook's repertoire, and as a rule it's not heavy with the songs Cook made famous during her Broadway heyday.

    Harper has worked as musical director, conductor, dance arranger on such shows as Company, Irene, Peter Pan, The Grand Tour, Brigadoon, Nine, A Day In Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, Grand Hotel and My One and Only. He's also a composer [his best-known show is Sensations] and has been a symphony conductor with the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Melbourne Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    Onstage, he has such an easy-going style that it's like he and Cook are in some living room. He doesn't use sheet music. He doesn't need it. He's knows the repertoire. It's fun to watch him, as music director, giving eye cues to sideman Peter Donovan on bass.

    Over the past several years, it's been pointed out that Cook's crystal soprano has changed a bit. Well, she has aged but, if there's been a change, it's imperceptible. In fact, it's hard to believe you're sitting there listening to a 77-year-old, who's not in the best physical shape, do a 90-minute program. Maybe Cook's soprano is a bit darker, but she's still capable of sustaining mesmerizing and lengthy high notes with great clarity. You might wonder how much longer she can go on.

    "It's something I love doing," says Cook, "so, as long as I can do it, why stop?" Surprisingly, Cook never does vocal exercises. "I was fortunately born with a naturally sweet soprano. I had a wonderful vocal teacher who helped me build my voice. I learned good technique and I've always done what I was supposed to do. A lot of it has to do with the genes."

    There's not a lot of moving around. However, in this program, more so than in others, Cook gossips a lot with the audience with the sort of behind-the-scenes stories -- how she requested of Jerry Bock a change in the lyrics of a showtune that, years later, came across as anti-feminist and especially one about Elaine Stritch -- that are a bit devilish but fun. In recent programs, there was a bit of monkey business: feigning forgetting the lyrics to songs she's sung thousands of times. It was embarrassing, coming from so brilliant a talent as Cook, but the audiences loved it. Well, she's deleted those moments and now seems to forget where she is in converation with the audience. And, it should be pointed out, there are times when she turns to Harper to tell her what's next or to jog her memory about some incident.

    Sing she can, and it's amazing how very personal she makes those lyrics. You can see she's feeling them; and so are you.

    Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times in 1999, noted: "A singer at her absolute peak, Ms. Cook continues to deepen as a dramatic interpreter of Broadway showtunes, infusing them with a wistful, all-forgiving wisdom and, when the occasion demands, creating full-scale characters. It is all done in simple graceful strokes, without fuss or embellishment, Ms. Cook's autumnal lyric soprano slices to the melodic heart of a song and extracts its lyrical juice into a powerful elixir of distilled memory and longing."

    At Cook's old stomping grounds, the intimate, elegant Upper East Side boite Caf? Caryle, Cook didn't do a lot of her theater songs. When she did, they were sharply reinvented by Harper.

    Even in this Broadway concert, she's chosen to keep it sparse, but what there is is memorable: "Wait 'Til We're Sixty-Five" from Clear Day, "The Gentleman is a Dope" from Allegro, Music Man's "Till There Was You," "No More Candy" from She Loves Me!, "Mister Snow" from Carousel and "The Party's Over" from Bells Are Ringing.

    The showstoppers are the poignant ballads Cook does better than just about anyone: Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?," first heard in 1923's Music Box Revue; "In Buddy's Eyes," from her memorable Follies concert with the New York Philharmonic; "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific;Bob Merrill's "His Face" from Carnival; and "Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel.

    Beginning with her legendary 1976 Carnegie Hall debut [still available as Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall], Cook and Harper have performed to international acclaim, including two seasons ago at Lincoln Center in her Tony Award-nominated Mostly Sondheim concert, which she performed on tour [and which is available on DVD and video]; three subsequent appearances at Carnegie Hall; on Broadway with her 1987 Drama Desk Award-winning performance Concert for the Theatre; and several London appearances, including her 1997 Birthday Concert at Royal Albert Hall. Besides the Tony and Drama Desk Awards, Cook's also is the recipient of a Grammy Award.

    She's recorded eight original cast albums. Her concert CDs include Oscar Winners: The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, All I Ask Of You and The Champion Season: A Salute to Gower.

    Cook was greatly influenced in her approach to concert and cabaret music by the legendary song stylist [the late] Mabel Mercer. "I owe so much to Mabel for all I learned from her."

    She came to New York from Atlanta in 1948 "to seek my fame and fortune." It took three years. "Considering the great talents in theater at that time," she says, "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."

    Her first Broadway break came at 23 in Harburg and Fain's 1951 musical satire Flahooley. Brooks Atkinkson, the respected New York Times critic wrote, "More plot crosses the stage than in a 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 84 performances. But then came Candide [1956]. What a glorious experience! And what I learned working with [director] Tyrone Guthrie."

    The original Candide lasted only 73 performances, but what a pedigree it boasts: the only musical libretto by Lillian Hellman and one of Leonard Bernstein's best scores. Candide's lyricist, John LaTouche, died prior to rehearsals and Richard Wilbur took over. However, no less than Dorothy Parker made a few contributions.

    "When I heard it was in the works and who was putting it together," explains Cook, "I really wanted to be cast, but I never thought I'd get a part. Interestingly, my, 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 Cook arrived at her first audition and found she was surrounded by opera singers.

    Bernstein was always late, "but," relates Cook, "I used the waiting time to look at the sheet music and, with all those high notes, you could have mistaken it for grand opera."

    Audition she did, and Bernstein was impressed enough to want to hear more, but not what she was prepared to sing. In what she called quite a brazen and foolhardy moment, she told the mastro that she could do an aria from Madama Butterlfy but that, unfortunately, she didn't have the music.

    "He said, 'I don't need the music! I know it.' And Mr. Bernstein sat at the piano and started playing -- at a different place than I knew. He was playing a part of the aria I didn't know! But we got on the same page and I gathered all my strength and ended with a D Flat and, boy, did he perk up!."

    As one might assume, Cook says she learned a lot about music working with Bernstein. "He was wonderful and made me feel as if I could do anything." She adds, "He loved to catch you off guard. He made a point once of coming back to tell me that Callas was out front and I said that was not what I needed to hear before a performance. He laughed and replied, 'Watch out! She would kill for some of your E Flats!'"

    Some other Cook shows are: the short-lived 1967 comedy Little Murders and the musicals Something More! [1964, also short-lived], The Gay Life [1961]; Ado Annie in the City Center revival and subsequent tour of Oklahoma!; and 1955's Plain and Fancy with music by Albert Hague and lyrics by Arnold Horwitt. She also eventually went into 1964's Any Wednesday and did two revivals of Carousel at City Center, portraying, respectively, Carrie Pipperidge and Julie Jordan.

    "Playing Carrie was so much more fun," she laughs. "Julie was crying all the time."

    But when Cook speaks of theatrical experiences, she omits one. Wasn't it Barbara Cook who starred in the original production of the infamous Carrie? "That was in England, at Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company production," she carefully reports, "but, I guess, it still counts. I'm not at all sorry I did it."

    It was stunning casting. Cook's ingenue days had long passed, but she had a reputation for playing nice girls, not rabid religious fanatics. It didn't take long for all sorts of unflattering gossip to spread though the theatrical community. Cook had more than her share of "creative differences" during rehearsals with director Terry Hands, but she courageously stuck with the musical through its opening.

    "Courageously" is not used casually. "On opening night, in one of those freak stage accidents, I was almost decapitated," she reports. "I did absolutely the right thing in leaving. [Betty Buckley starred in the ill-fated 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, 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 somewhere. What were they thinking?

    "I don't know if it was so much ill-conceived, or just problem-plagued," she continues. "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."

    Carrie, if successful, would have been a new theatrical beginning. Tastes had changed and Cook found her style of music out-of-favor with "audiences that count." Work was hard to find. 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."

    Part of her "recuperation" was getting back onstage and singing. And her concert appearances and new recordings led to a rediscovery from new audiences.

    This is the performance schedule for Barbara Cook's Broadway: Friday, April 2, 8 P.M.; Saturday, April 3, 2 P.M.; Sunday, April 4, 2 P.M.; Friday, April 16, 8 P.M.; Saturday, April 17, 2 P.M. and Sunday, April 18 at 2 P.M.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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