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Singing From Experience

Theater* Barbara Cook survived fame and the lack of it to find a renewed career stretching out before her. She's touring with 'Mostly Sondheim.'

June 14, 2002|CHIP CREWS | WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — It's Barbara Cook's laugh that stays with you--a full, throaty, lived-in, been-through-the-flood kind of laugh. Her knee is hurting for some reason, and she's having all kinds of trouble pulling names out of her memory bank. But in the end these frustrations, like so much else, are answered with a chuckle.

Seated in her sun-happy living room on Riverside Drive, the 74-year-old singer is marveling at the current upswing in her long career. "Mostly Sondheim," an evening of songs written by or admired by Stephen Sondheim, has been delighting audiences in various venues for more than a year now, eliciting critical superlatives that exceed the ones she routinely receives.

"The first thing to acknowledge is simple incredulity," announced the New York Times when the show played here in January. "Her soprano pipes sound prime of life like: mellifluous, rangy, bell clear and either full or delicate, as necessary."

"Cook's voice is a natural wonder," concurred the Daily News. Concluded the New York Post: "What a privilege to hear her in this unexpected prime."

So Cook has many reasons to be jolly on this afternoon. "Yeah, this has been an amazing thing, really," she says. "To be a hit again."

She hasn't exactly been a flop during nearly three decades as a concert and cabaret artist, but the point is well taken. For many years she was a connoisseur's singer, admired and even revered by a loyal claque. But suddenly Cook is, well, very hot. "We're doing very well this year in particular," she acknowledges. "It's gotta be the show, you know, the 'Mostly Sondheim.' ... It's the first time that I've been booked as Barbara Cook doing this show, rather than Barbara Cook singing whatever Barbara Cook is singing at the moment."

It Started With

Sondheim's List

This production's point of origin was a list Sondheim assembled two years ago, of songs he said he wished he'd written. His choices were eclectic, including such disparate concoctions as "I Had Myself a True Love," "The Trolley Song" and "Hard-Hearted Hannah." Cook was intrigued and, with her longtime musical director, Wally Harper, began assembling an evening combining Sondheim's own works with tunes from his list. Early last year she took it to Carnegie Hall and triumphed. (The performance was preserved on CD.)

"No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara," Sondheim says.

In spirit and demeanor, Cook seems to be of no particular age. The wide face is framed by blond curls, and on it you can see various former selves as she evokes them over a couple of hours of reminiscence and reflection. She speaks directly about her work and herself. Suggest that her voice is in remarkable shape and she'll answer: "Yes, it's good, isn't it? Yeah."

"I can't remember when I didn't sing," says Cook, who grew up in Atlanta. "My father was a traveling salesman, and he would call home several times a week, and I would always sing for him on the phone."

In 1948, at 20, she came to New York, and in 1951 made her Broadway debut in a musical satire called "Flahooley." It flopped.

Around this time she married David LeGrant, a comedian. Their son, Adam, now 42, is pursuing acting in Los Angeles.

In 1955, she won the female lead in a mild success called "Plain and Fancy." The next year brought her the role of the guileless and impulsive Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." The centerpiece of the part was "Glitter and Be Gay." The vocal requirements of Cunegonde were diabolical. The memory brings a chortle. "It was four E-flats over high C. There were six D-flats, 16 B-flats and 21 high Cs. Twenty-one high Cs. That's what it was. And I did that eight times a week."

"Candide," now a revered production, played only nine weeks.

She finally scored an unqualified success in 1957, when she originated the part of Marian the librarian in "The Music Man," opposite Robert Preston--a long run and Tony Awards all around. But her later efforts didn't work out as well. "The Gay Life" (1961) had Cook and a beautiful score but not enough beyond that. "She Loves Me" (1963) was a wonderful show with superb performances and strong reviews, and still only a nine-month run.

On Broadway in the mid-'60s, big, splashy star vehicles were being written to glorify the likes of Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand and Gwen Verdon. Cook was nearing 40, and opportunities to "work from the material" were growing fewer. In 1965, she divorced. And sometime in this period she began gaining a great deal of weight.

"I called it a kind of 'middlescence,' " she says. "Like adolescence? A middlescence, like 'What do you do now?' "

During that period, wounds were inflicted that she'll never forget. "At some point I had to work," she says. "I had to make some money. And it was hard for me. People were very unkind. Very cruel about it."

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