DIVA TALK: Chatting with 2011 Kennedy Center Honoree Barbara Cook

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Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook Photo by Mike Martin

BARBARA COOK
Earlier this week, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced the selection of individuals who will receive the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. One of the artists whose lifetime of work will be recognized is Tony Award winner Barbara Cook, who was most recently on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim revue, Sondheim on Sondheim. On Dec. 4, in a star-studded celebration on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, the 2011 Honorees — who also include singer and songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins and Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep — will be saluted by great performers from New York, Hollywood and the arts capitals of the world. The Honors Gala will be recorded for broadcast on CBS for the 34th consecutive year as a two-hour primetime special on Dec. 27 at 9 PM ET.

It's a busy time for singer-actress Cook, who is in the midst of writing her autobiography with New York Times theatre reviewer Charles Isherwood. The celebrated soprano will also return to Feinstein's at Loews Regency Nov. 29-Dec. 30 in a new concert act with cabaret veteran Michael Feinstein. And, her newest album, "You Make Me Feel So Young," recorded live at Feinstein's, will be released Sept. 23. On the new disc Cook sings 13 songs new to her repertoire as well as two rarely performed tunes.

On the day the Kennedy Center announcement was made, I had a chance for a very quick chat with the 2011 honoree; that brief interview follows.

Question: How are you?
Barbara Cook: Well, I'm just wonderful, thank you! What a great, great honor. I'm so excited and pleased and thrilled and all of those words. They don't have words for how I feel, to tell you the truth.

Cover art for "You Make Me Feel So Young"

Question: How did you find out about the news?
Cook: Well, you know, when you're asked to accept the honor, they send you a letter, and I got a letter from Michael Kaiser, the president of Kennedy Center, about four weeks ago, and of course, you have to sit on the news. You're not supposed to tell a soul, and that's been very hard. Question: Did you hear from a lot of people today?
Cook: Yes I have, indeed.

Question: What was your initial reaction when you received the letter from the Kennedy Center?
Cook: Well, I cried. I simply cried. I had heard a rumor that maybe it would happen, but I didn't believe it, you know. And, I still don't believe it, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.] I've been there for those weekends two or three times because I'm one of the nominators, and they're wonderful weekends. I enjoy them tremendously. I'm trying to picture myself inside those moments. I still can't quite do it.

Question: What does it mean to you, at this point in your career, to get such an award?
Cook: Well, I feel that it's a kind of validation of my whole life because that's what I do when I sing: I put my life into my work, so I feel that it's a validation of not only of my work, but this whole career — this whole life — that I've had singing for people.

Question: Do you know the other people who are also being honored? Have you ever worked with them?
Cook: No, I don't. I very briefly met Meryl Streep once a long time ago, but I certainly don't know her at all, and I've never met the others.

Barbara Cook

Question: What do you think would have been [late, longtime musical director] Wally Harper's reaction to this news?
Cook: Not only Wally Harper, but my manager of 28 years who worked so hard to get this for me, Jerry Kravat, who died a few years ago — about three years ago. I'm so sorry they're not here to appreciate all this. They would have just been thrilled for me. Thrilled. Jerry was one of the people who had been working to get this for me for a number of years now.

Question: I know you've been working with Lee Musiker the past few years as your musical director. What's it been like working with him?
Cook: Well, it's been wonderful. Actually, he's the first person since Wally that we really, really hit it off. We really work well together. He's given me a lot of confidence in my ability to swing, and I've sort of opened up his musical knowledge of Stephen Sondheim and that kind of stuff. So, it's been a wonderful collaboration in many, many ways. We really like each other, too. We're nice companions. It's a marvelous coming together.

Question: I would think that must be important to genuinely like the person who you're sharing the stage with.
Cook: My only problem is that he works mostly with Tony Bennett, so if Tony calls he has to go. So, I can't always depend on having him, unfortunately.

Question: You mentioned Sondheim before. What was it like for you returning to Broadway in the Sondheim revue?
Cook: Well, it was wonderful. I'm sorry that the show didn't run longer and didn't get a better review from [Ben] Brantley, who, of course, is important for us. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what we think it deserved.

Cook and Vanessa Williams in Sondheim on Sondheim.
photo by Richard Termine

Question: Any chance we might get you back to Broadway? How would you feel about doing eight shows a week?
Cook: Eight is hard! [Laughs.] Doing eight is hard, so I don't know. We'll see. I never say no.

Question: I know it was announced that you're working on your autobiography.
Cook: Yes, I am trying to.

Question: How is that going?
Cook: It's hard-going. It's very hard. When I think about writing a whole book… of course, Charles [Isherwood] is helping me, but still, I have to write a lot of it, you know. It's not easy.

Question: Have you been a person who's kept diaries or scrapbooks?
Cook: No. I'm not a writer. I'm not one of those people who feels this great need to write things down, so now this is hard for me.

Question: Is there a projected release date?
Cook: Not yet, no. Question: Have you gotten the chance to see the Follies revival yet?
Cook: No, I'm going to the opening this week. I'm anxious to see it.

Question: What are your memories of doing the Lincoln Center Follies concert?
Cook: Oh, God. When I first heard about it, I thought, "Well, that's nice." [Laughs.] Then, when we were in rehearsals — about two days into the rehearsals — I thought, "Oh, wait a minute, Barbara. This is looking really, really good." I thought, "This is going to be mighty good." And, of course, it was an extraordinary event, those two concerts.

Question: I remember reading that you said that in "In Buddy's Eyes" everything Sally says in the song is a lie. I thought that was such an interesting…
Cook: It is! Of course, it's a total lie. But, you can't sing it like it's a lie because when we're lying, we try to be more truthful than usual, you know.

Question: What's next for you?
Cook: Well, I'm going into Feinstein's. Michael and I are sharing a show five weeks, all of December and the very end of November, so we'll be there for five weeks. That's the next thing. I've kept a lot of that sort of stuff free to be able to write, so I don't have anything coming up until then.

Michael Feinstein

Question: What's it like working with Michael Feinstein?
Cook: Oh, we get along really well. I think we do well together. We did, I think, a month when we played before... And, we recorded the show, and the record's doing well, so I like working with him very much.

Question: What type of material will you be doing this year?
Cook: It will be Christmastime, so I guess we'll do a couple of Christmas songs, but we both love the Old American Songbook, so that's what we'll be doing.

Question: When you look back on your career as a whole, what are you most proud of?
Cook: Enduring, I suppose. That and also, I think more and more, I try to sing more and more purely and simply, although now I think I have more courage to go deeper into a song than I did maybe 20 years ago.

Question: Where do you think that courage comes from?
Cook: I think partly from age and experience, and I love opera. I've always loved opera, but I didn't go to opera very much for a long while, but when Cecilia Bartoli hit and I became interested in her career, that opened up opera to me again. They have to go so far in opera because the stories — terrible things happening to people all the time. The courage with which some of them approach these roles is good. It's rare, I think, but when it works, it's the best thing, and it's the kind of courage that people have I think that impressed me, and I think it helped my work.

Question: How does it compare for you — singing in a room like Feinstein's with singing in a concert hall?
Cook: Well, the work is the same, it's just very often a gesture for instance. If you're talking to a friend across a table, the gesture would be different than if you were talking to a person across the street, and it's an automatic adjustment. But, basically, the work is the same, and, of course, the microphone makes all the difference… because if you didn't have the microphone you'd have to really be "singin' out, Louise" and there are certain songs you couldn't do. You couldn't do them because it would not be appropriate to sing them in that fashion. The microphones changed all of that.

[Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For ticket reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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