DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Barbara Cook Plus Anne Runolfsson Soars at the Duplex

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Barbara Cook Plus Anne Runolfsson Soars at the Duplex News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Barbara Cook.
Tony Award winner Barbara Cook. Photo by Rahav (Cosi)

BARBARA COOK

Last Friday I had the pleasure of chatting with Tony Award winner and critical favorite Barbara Cook, who keeps a remarkably busy schedule. That evening she would perform Wally Harper and David Zippel's "Another Mr. Right" during the Zippel tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and this past Monday night she teamed with another theatrical legend, Elaine Stritch, for a Lincoln Center benefit at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The Cook-Stritch to-do featured the two women offering tunes from their respective songbooks as well as duets of "You're Just in Love" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." Now, Cook has returned to the Café Carlyle for a month-long engagement through April 1. The Carlyle has been a home away from home for the acclaimed singing actress for more than two decades, and Cook is celebrating the Carlyle years with a program of favorite tunes she has previously performed at the posh club. During our brief conversation, Cook spoke openly about the loss of her long-time piano accompanist and musical director, Wally Harper, as well as her love for opera and her now legendary master classes. That interview follows:

Q: You recently made your solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera. What was that evening like for you, and what did it mean to you?
Cook: Well, it was extraordinary. For me to come out and immediately to see the entire place standing was really quite an amazing thing. It made me feel that they felt I deserved to be there and that they were happy I was there. It was really wonderful. The Metropolitan Opera means a great deal to me. I've loved opera since I was just a little kid. I would go inside on Saturday afternoons [while the] other neighborhood kids would still be playing. They always knew Saturday afternoon I'd go in to listen to the Met broadcast from the time I was nine or ten years old.

Q: Did you have aspirations to perform in opera?
Cook: No, never. I didn't know anybody who liked classical music, much less opera. I think I formed my love for opera through films because they used to have all those wonderful musicals. . . . Risë Stevens and Grace Moore — all those people were performing in films in those days. I just loved the music, and I loved their singing.

Q: What do you think brought you to musical theatre?
Cook: Well, I always sang. And early on my mother and father took me to see some sort of musical performance. I must have been five years old. I have very early clear memories, and I remember coming home and doing the show for them. I sang every song. [Laughs.] Well, 'ya know, I made up my words, made up the whole thing. I did every dance, I did the whole show for them. Again, through films, you'd think I would have wanted to be in the movies, I loved movies so much. But, somehow, I wanted to be in the shows that were depicted in the movies — 42nd Street and all those things. It came from the movies. I've always had a really pretty, sweet voice, and people enjoyed my singing, and I enjoyed singing for them, so it just sort of developed — this desire to see what I could do with it. Q: The last time we spoke it was just before you and Wally Harper were about to open Barbara Cook's Broadway at Lincoln Center. I was wondering how it has been working without him.
Cook: A nightmare — really, really hard. And that's not intended to take away from the wonderful people who've been helping me. It's just that our work together I see now was spectacular. That's all. Spectacular. He was absolutely perfect for me and I for him. We inspired each other, and it's just one of those times of people coming together that are just exactly right.

Q: He was like your musical spouse.
Cook: Yeah, you could certainly say that. Almost 31 years.

Q: How did you two meet?
Cook: I don't remember the first few times we met, [but Wally] told me about them. He became very friendly with my voice teacher Robert Kobin. I had several voice teachers, but this is the one who was really my teacher, who I really learned from. They became very friendly after I had stopped studying with Bob or anybody. Bob took him to see She Loves Me or a couple of other things, and I met him backstage, but I don't have any memory of that.

I just remember in 1973 I toured with a concert of Gershwin songs called The Gershwin Years. It was the 75th anniversary of his birth, so it was a big Gershwin year. There were three or four of us who did a concert of his stuff, and Wally came to see us two or three times, and I remember somebody saying, "He's the best accompanist around. He's the best." And, I didn't know this either, but he had admired my work for a long, long time. The man who was the advance man for [the Gershwin] tour — I hadn't sung in New York in a few years — wanted to put together a concert. He was not able to do that, I think, because he didn't realize the kind of money it would take. Because of that, [Wally and I] started working together . . . and when that didn't work out, the people who owned Brothers & Sisters knew that we had some material together, asked us to come in, and that was the beginning of this whole story.

Q: Do you ever find yourself thinking about him before you go onstage or while you're onstage?
Cook: All the time. I think of him all the time, in life. It's amazing, it's like a year and four months since he died, and it's just as fresh sometimes as if it were yesterday. The cliché thing is you take a year to grieve. Well, sometimes it's longer than a year — a lot of people can tell you that.

Q: How did you even go about trying to find someone to play for you?
Cook: Many, many different ways. People suggested people. I knew people. Eric Stern, with whom I'm working now, was one of the first persons who was suggested to us, my manager and me. But he was not available then. Cy Coleman recommended him very, very highly, and it's working out very well with Eric. I enjoy working with him — he's very good.

Q: Tell me a bit about the show you're putting together for the Carlyle.
Cook: I think what they plan to do is move the Café to another area in the [Carlyle Hotel] because they can make so much money with that space — it could be a boutique or two shops — they could get so much more revenue that way. At the end of this season, this may be the last time the Café will be in that space. It will look the same, but they're gonna put it somewhere else in the hotel. I first worked in that room in 1980, so I've got 25, 26 years off and on of having played that room. So, I thought I would just do a retrospective of a lot of the things I've done. There are not as many show tunes in this set as I have sometimes done in the past. It's more the popular songs that I love. Things that I think are fun, unusual songs, a delightful song that a guy named Cliff Edwards — he's the man who sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" — sang. I worked with him when I was 15. I worked in burlesque when I was 15.

Q: What's it like returning to a smaller venue like the Carlyle, having just played the Met?
Cook: I'm used to doing that. I've done that through my whole career. I would play cabarets, then play a big hall. It's kind of nice to mix it up that way.

Q: Do you like the intimacy of the small room?
Cook: Yes, I like both for different reasons.

Q: Do you have to change how you perform at all, depending on the size of venue?
Cook: I think whatever change happens is automatic, as it is in normal conversation with people. If you're sitting at a table, your gestures are smaller, you don't have to speak so loudly, you don't have to be so big. Whereas if somebody's across the street and you want to get their attention — see what I mean — it's an automatic adjustment.

Q: How did your teaching of the master classes start?
Cook: A person I knew was taking a class about how to audition. She knew my work, and she just asked me if I would come in and give them some pointers about things, and it evolved that day. I don't think I knew anymore about auditions than she did, but I started talking about how I sing songs, how to get at stuff in songs. I realized I really had a good feel for this. My son was studying at USC in L.A., and he asked me when I was out there to come speak to his class. Some people sang for me then. That was in the seventies. And it's just something I've done for a long time.

Q: What do you think you've learned from the students?
Cook: It helps me to remind myself to constantly go back to the emotional source. To do what I preach!

Q: Would you ever consider doing a Broadway musical again?
Cook: I don't know. Maybe. It would depend certainly on the role. I'd hate to give up all my nights. [Laughs.] I'm going into the Carlyle, but it's five weeks. And I really enjoy having people over to dinner and going to theatre, going to opera. It really cuts into your social life when you're doing a Broadway show.

[Barbara Cook, accompanied by a quartet led by Eric Stern, will play the Café Carlyle through April 1. Show times are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:45 PM with a late show Saturdays at 10:45 PM. There is a $100 music charge plus dinner required at 8:45 PM shows. The Carlyle is located at Madison Avenue at 76th Street; call (212) 744-1600 for reservations.]

ANNE RUNOLFSSON at the Duplex
I can think of no one on Broadway right now who has a more versatile voice than Anne Runolfsson, the current Carlotta Giudicelli of The Phantom of the Opera who made a rare cabaret appearance this past Monday night at the Duplex. As the resident diva of Phantom, Runolfsson impresses with a lovely, textured soprano that soars to the stratosphere, yet she also boasts one of the most extraordinary belts in the business, which she employed to thrilling effect during her recent solo Duplex evening, which began with a lovely version of Adam Guettel's "Lucky" from Floyd Collins.

As Runolfsson began her hour-long program, I was struck with the realization that she is the closest the cabaret world now has to someone who reaches the purity of delivery that was the trademark of the late Nancy LaMott. Yet, Runolfsson is her own — to borrow a phrase from Jerry Herman — special creation, a no-frills, down-to-earth diva who somehow manages to imbue each song with neither too little nor too much emotion. There is an utter simplicity in her approach to interpreting a song that makes the listener feel that she is living, rather than acting the lyric. Add a voice that can be poetically sweet or overwhelmingly powerful, and the result is cabaret at its finest.

Runolfsson also knows how to craft a musical evening, combining little-heard gems with better-known pieces, while also mixing upbeat tunes with more dramatic fare. She impressed with a wonderful arrangement of Guys and Dolls' "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" before offering a great tune by Jane Eyre composer Matthew Wilder, which was entitled "Beautiful Disaster." I've yet to hear a finer version of Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon," and she dazzled with a dramatic pairing of "Lucy in the Sky (With Diamonds)" and "Rocket Man." Runolfsson also scored with Bergman and Loggins' "I Believe in Love," and brought a gentle ache to Randy Newman's "When He Loved Me." The terrific Violet anthem "Let it Sing" concluded the evening, and Runolfsson built the song to a stunning climax, fiercely belting a "G" on "Let it siiiiiing!" To the audience's amazement, Runolfsson said she wasn't happy with the final note and proceeded to offer an even more exciting sound as she resang the song's final line.

Runolfsson brought her evening to a close with an encore of Lewis and Coots' "For All We Know." All I know is this multi-talented artist needs to perform this show again — and record it.

DIVA TIDBITS
Caroline O'Connor, who made her Broadway debut in Kander and Ebb's Chicago, pays tribute to the late Judy Garland on her newest solo recording. Entitled "Caroline O'Connor: A Tribute to Garland," the recording was produced after O'Connor's critically acclaimed work in the Peter Quilter play End of the Rainbow. That play, which featured O'Connor as the late show-business legend, debuted at the Sydney Opera House in July 2005 and subsequently played Melbourne's The Arts Centre Playhouse. The complete track listing for "A Tribute to Garland" includes "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," "Almost Like Being in Love"/"This Can't Be Love," "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," "After You've Gone," "You Made Me Love You"/"Me and My Gal"/"Trolley Song," "Stormy Weather," "When You're Smiling the Whole World Smiles With You," "San Francisco," "For Once in My Life," "Chicago," "The Man That Got Away," "Swanee," "Just in Time," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Over the Rainbow" and "Get Happy."

A screening of "Liza with a 'Z'" will be held March 13 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. The 7:30 PM screening will benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and will boast an appearance by Liza Minnelli as well as the film's executive producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. "Liza with a 'Z'" — originally broadcast on NBC-TV Sept. 10, 1972 — features Minnelli's interpretations of such songs as "Yes," "God Bless the Child," "Say Liza," "It Was a Good Time," "I Gotcha," "Son of a Preacher Man," "Ring Them Bells," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "You've Let Yourself Go," "My Mammy" and a Cabaret medley. Tickets for the screening range from $100 (reserved seating plus "Liza with a 'Z'" DVD) to $500 (reserved seating, post-screening party at The Supper Club, "Liza with a 'Z'" DVD autographed by Minnelli) and are available by calling (212) 840-0770, ext. 268. The Ziegfeld Theatre is located in Manhattan at 141 West 54th Street. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.