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O.C. Cabaret

Ballad on a Grand Scale

Time has given Broadway legend Barbara Cook a much more profound reason to sing: appreciating life's beauty.

September 28, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By age 30, Barbara Cook was acclaimed as one of the most gifted singers on Broadway.

But it wasn't until she was well into middle age that she came to view her talent as something meaningful.

Now, a month shy of 73, Cook, a hearty, unpretentious talker, has some lofty things to say about her calling and her mission of touching her listeners inwardly. Her next opportunity to achieve that intense, person-to-person connection comes tonight through Sunday during a five-show stand in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"I used to think that what I did was kind of a frivolous way to lead your life," Cook said Monday from a hotel room in Los Angeles, where she had spent most of the previous day decompressing after a long flight back from Australia. There she had performed in a festival tied to the Olympics, including a concert at the renowned Sydney Opera House.

Now, as she spoke, Cook was catching up on some of the athletic action that completely eluded her during a hectic week of rehearsals, interviews and performances in Australia that allowed no time for sports. The television in her room was tuned to a beach volleyball match between Australia and Brazil.

But she was speaking with full focus about a serious matter: how she came to see singing for a living as something more than a "frivolous" diversion from life's important pursuits.

Cook became a star during the mid-1950s in revivals of "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" and "The King and I." She showed her mettle as a soprano singing in Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." And in 1957, she created her signature, Tony-winning role as the original female lead in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." She was Marian the librarian, falling for the scam artist Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston) and helping turn him into an honest man. Cook's climactic number, delivered in her gleaming soprano, was "Till There Was You," one of those love songs almost everybody knows.

But she says she didn't see the true value of her accomplishments until much later. She says that reading comments the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer made upon receiving the 1978 Nobel Prize for literature affected her greatly:

"He said he felt it was the artists in the world who would bring people together."

Some of what Singer said in his Nobel lecture bears repeating:

"While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet . . . may rise up to save us all."

Before those words captured her, Cook said, "I just didn't want to see myself as having been given something special. I began to accept the fact I have been given a gift, and there is something I want to give back."

She sums up that mission in a word: healing.

As a singer, "I try to be present, really, really be present for the moment in the most authentic way I know how, so I can connect with people on some deep level. When I do, I think there's a kind of healing that takes place, for lack of a better word. If we share our humanness together, then we are not so alone for a moment. That, I think, is healing."

That Cook still has the vocal power to make deep connections is apparent on two albums she released in 1999, one in each of her two performing modes. A studio album, "All I Ask of You," pairs her with a full orchestra; "The Championship Season" was recorded live in a cabaret setting at her home venue, Manhattan's Cafe Carlyle, backed only by a bassist and pianist Wally Harper, her musical director since 1974. She will perform with Harper and bassist David Carpenter in her cabaret shows in the 300-capacity Founders Hall.

When Cook teamed with conductor Marvin Hamlisch and the Los Angeles Philharmonic two months ago at the Hollywood Bowl, Times critic Daryl H. Miller found her voice "nearly as lustrous today, at 72, as when she originated such roles as Cunegonde in "Candide," Marian the librarian in "The Music Man" and Amalia in "She Loves Me."'

Cook says she takes no special pains to protect her voice, other than to sing with the same technique she learned nearly 50 years ago from a valued vocal teacher, Robert Kobin. She says she was a tag-along in 1953 when her then-husband, actor David Le Grant, was studying with Kobin. Gradually, she became persuaded that some of Kobin's "unusual" ideas about voice-training made sense and became his student.

Kobin's other long-lasting gift to Cook was introducing her to Harper. Teaming with the pianist, she moved away from Broadway acting roles and into a career focused on concerts and cabaret shows that she likes to arrange with the formal structure of a concert.

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