Theatre yesterday and today



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Since Barbara Cook's death a few days ago, there has been an outpouring of affectionate tributes. Among those in her generation of theatrical luminaries, she was as deeply beloved as anyone, not only for the strengths of her talents, but for being a survivor. The theatre is not a profession for the weak-willed. It has the capacity to devour; without thought or care, chewing someone up and spitting them out. It comes with the territory. And to borrow a phrase from one of her most famous shows, Barbara Cook knew the territory.

Barbara Cook (1927-2017).

Yesterday, someone posted on Facebook asking me why I hadn't leaped into the fray to write about Cook immediately following her death earlier in the week. As I'm developing an ever-growing readership, this is not all that uncommon. However, this request came from someone who could have more easily picked up the phone and asked the question directly, since it came from my mother, Sylvia. At eighty-nine, and born within the same year as Barbara Cook, my mom can lay claim to having been one of her biggest fans.

I told her that I hadn't written anything due to my being intimidated by the number of profoundly eloquent (and highly personal tributes) that were already pouring in. Journalists such as longtime music critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty shared their memories of being in the thrall of her voice, delving to emotional depths in their writing—and beautifully so. Both can be read here:

Knowing how special she was to my mom, I asked what it was about Cook that made her and my dad take so many trips into Manhattan from their home on Long Island to see her live. They had purposely sought her out from the very beginning of her comeback in the mid-1970s, when Cook left the Broadway stage entirely in order to focus on the more intimate setting of nightclubs. There she would stand, alone on stage with a microphone in hand and a small band behind her: nothing to filter the purity of her voice and the emotion she could invest in song after song.

"Well, she sang like nobody else," my mom explained as if there was no contesting the statement. "There was no one besides her that could use an operatic soprano voice in a song like Irving Berlin's "Always" and not make it about the notes. She was always about interpreting the words and putting them in a context that told a story. The one I never tired of hearing her sing was "Come in From the Rain." As soon as she would start the first few bars, I would start to cry."

Cook at an early rehearsal of The Music Man (1957) with director Morton DaCosta, composer Meredith Willson, choreographer Onna White and co-star Robert Preston.

Thirty then, Cook looks more like eighteen, doesn’t she?

As Ado Ado in a 1953 production of Oklahoma!

As Cunegonde in Candide (1956).

With the great Jack Cassidy in She Loves Me (1963).

I have a number of friends who were close to Cook, some of whom go back many years, especially during the tough times when a less stronger person might have been down for the count. In her auto-biography Then And Now, published in 2016 when she was eighty-eight, Cook was candid about her battles with food and alcohol addiction. As she told interviewer Terry Gross: "I thought if somebody's reading it who's in trouble with alcohol or, you know, having other problems that perhaps if they're open, you know, if they have an open mind, perhaps they'll see that it's quite possible to come out the other side of these things and have a second life, in a sense, which is certainly what happened to me."

On Tuesday, as soon as I heard that she had died, I spent much of the day listening to her. But strangely enough, that didn't include any of the multiple cast albums on which she was so prominently featured. Not her first Broadway musical, Flahooley, nor Plain and Fancy, Candide, The Music Man, The Gay Life, She Loves Me or The Grass Harp. I didn't even listen to the speciality sessions that produced beautiful versions of Carousel, Showboat and The King and I, the latter featuring her Miss Anna, perhaps my favorite of all the roles she essayed, where she triumphs from song to glorious song. Instead, what I concentrated on was the forty year section of her career from 1975 to 2015, where she took the time to offer her versions of what felt like everything out of the Great American Songbook.

It's hard to single out a favorite among all her live recordings, especially as some go from being performed in small venues to 2,500 seat theatres. Two of the ones I treasure most are impossible to compare. One, The Champion Season, a salute to songs from shows staged by the director/choreographer Gower Champion, performed live at the intimate Cafe Carlyle, and the other, Barbara Cook at the Met. At the age of eighty, Cook proved she was still going strong, singing from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, where she had once dreamed of appearing as a young girl. Who says dreams can't come true?

Barbara Cook possessed a towering talent, that alongside the humility and grace with which she comported herself, is a loss to everyone who knew her personally, or had been charmed from afar by the sound of her voice; one that will never be silenced, since her recordings will live on until the end of time.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book