Institution" is too clinical a word to describe the singer and actress Barbara Cook, whose journey from Broadway ingenue in the 1950s and '60s to mellow cabaret singer in 2000 has earned her consistent praise from critics and fans. "Legend" suits her better. What's made her legendary over the years is not just the clarion voice — at 73, she still hits the B natural singing "Ice Cream" in her current cabaret evening at Feinstein's at the Regency in Manhattan — but her association with some of the great American theatre songwriters: Leonard Bernstein (Candide), Rodgers and Hammerstein (revivals of Oklahoma!, The King and I and Carousel), Dietz and Schwartz (The Gay Life), Bock and Harnick (She Loves Me), Sondheim (the 1980s concert staging of Follies) and, of course, Meredith Willson (The Music Man). For merely introducing such songs as "Glitter and Be Gay," "Till There Was You," "My White Knight," "Ice Cream" and "Dear Friend," she is known as one of the major talents of the 20th century. On the edge of the 21st century, her new Sondheim-themed act with longtime musical director Wally Harper continues to Nov. 25 at Feinstein's. She plays a New Year's Eve gig at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco, and she returns to Carnegie Hall in February 2001. She talked to Playbill On-Line about the magic moments then, and now.
Playbill On-Line: When fans come to see you, there is always a hope that you will sing "Ice Cream," from She Loves Me. It's a signature song. Do singers who have signature songs get tired of their songs?
Barbara Cook: I suppose it depends on the song. Rosemary Clooney has said that "Come On a My House" is not her favorite, but "Ice Cream" is such a wonderful song that every time I get into it, there is so much to act in it that I enjoy doing it.
PBOL: Tell me the process you and Wally Harper go through when creating a new show. This act at Feinstein's is specifically drawn from a list of songs Stephen Sondheim has said he wished he'd written (and you add some Sondheim songs into the mix). How much suggesting does Wally do and how much do you do?
BC: There's no way to quantify that. We do it together. In this case, we needed to find something, a show with a theme that would allow us to do songs that we felt we knew, because we didn't have very much time to work on this act. As it turns out [she laughs], I had 11 news songs! This is not at all what our original intent was — we needed something that would be kind of easy on us. I suggested we do songs from shows that I wished I had been in, or something like that. For some reason, suddenly Wally said, "Wait a minute, why don't we do a show along the lines of that list that Stephen had written and then do some Stephen Sondheim..." We were already kind of committed to it before we realized, my God, this is gonna take a lot of work!
PBOL: "Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp from Savannah)" is on the Sondheim list — it's not part of your repertoire.
BC: There is no way I would normally sing "Hard-Hearted Hannah" or "Waiting on the Robert E. Lee" or "San Francisco" or "The Trolley Song." [Laughs.] I hope people find that idea fun.
PBOL: Have you seen the new Broadway revival of The Music Man?
BC: I've got to see the second half! I saw the first act on opening night and had to run back to the Cafe Carlyle. I just haven't gotten back to see the second act, which I hear is wonderful. God, you can imagine the memories that flooded in on me. PBOL: You won a Tony Award playing Marian the Librarian. It was positive experience for you, back in 1957?
BC: Yes it was. I loved working with Robert [Preston]. He was so wonderful to work with. We had a great company. The one thing I noticed is that this production is so loud. We had a few microphones in the footlights, if I remember correctly. That was a time when you really had to be careful to look forward and sing forward and sing loud and sing out. I think it gave the show a kind of softness that a lot of Broadway shows don't have now because of the sound. When I started in 1951, there was no amplification. But I enjoyed this Music Man enormously, don't get me wrong.
PBOL: On your first Carnegie Hall album, there's an extended patter sequence that you sing, as Marian the Librarian, about all the men you don't want — depot telegrapher, Chatauqua advance man, etc. — and then it blossoms into "My White Knight." I wondered if it was cut from the show, or if Willson wrote it as specialty material for you when you played concerts. Was it part of the show?
BC: Absolutely. That was originally intended to be a counterpart to Bob's song, "Trouble." It just didn't work in the show, it was too long. I did about 12 different versions of that song out of town. It's a wonderful song, all put together.
PBOL: Are you still sent scripts? Do you get offers for shows?
PBOL: If the part and situation were right, would you do it?
BC: I think so, yeah. Nothing's been offered to me that seemed quite right.
PBOL: In your new cabaret show, you sing "The Eagle and Me," from Bloomer Girl, and you say in your act that you did a TV version of the show — you say it was not a great production.
BC. [Laughing.] Yes, I did. It was awful, I thought. You probably don't remember the actor, Keith Andes, he played opposite me. It's a delightful score. I love that song ["The Eagle and Me"], I sang that ages ago in cabaret when I played The Blue Angel.
PBOL: I'm curious what music you listen to at home.
BC: Mostly classical. I'm particularly fond of a new opera singer, Jose Cura. He's not that new anymore. I have been known to go to London and Paris to hear him.
PBOL: When you were a girl in Atlanta, what kind of music was in the house? What did your folks listen to?
BC: Radio, we had radio. I fell in love with opera when I was eight or nine years old and I used to listen to operas on Saturday afternoons on the radio. We were so poor we didn't have a record player of any kind whatsoever. The radio was my lifeline, that and films.
PBOL: At age 10, you liked Puccini? It just struck you?
BC: Absolutely. Very definitely. I've thought about that very often: I just don't know where that came from. I didn't even know anybody who liked opera or classical music. I don't even remember a friend who particularly liked classical music.
PBOL: Did you think, 30 years ago, that you'd be performing in your 70s? Did you think you'd be this good?
BC: [Laughs.] I think my work has gotten better, in the sense that I think I sing a song better than I used to. I never had any idea of quitting. When you're young you don't think about it very much. I certainly have no plans to stop whatsoever.
PBOL: Do you think you sing a song better because of life experience or because vocally you're mellower and richer?
BC: I think my voice was really right for what I did in those days because you had to be heard. You really had to be heard. I sang in a higher register, which was very good for that time — my voice really carried. I was singing exactly where I should be singing for my voice type. These songs [in the new act] were written to be sung with a microphone, or they are songs that are no where near where I ought to be singing. Obviously, it's clear that voices get darker and, we hope, richer as you get older and I think that's happened for me. But the other thing, which is more important, I think my ability to invest a song with my experience has grown. I think it's grown the last couple of years. I think of myself as a work in progress. I don't think this is it. I think two years from now I'll sing better than I do — or interpret better.
— By Kenneth Jones