ON THE RECORD: Barbara Cook's "Loverman," and the Original Soundtrack of "Bye Bye Birdie"

By Steven Suskin
January 20, 2013

This week's column discusses Barbara Cook's new album, "Loverman," and the remastered soundtrack recording of "Bye Bye Birdie," the movie starring Ann-Margret.



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Barbara Cook: Loverman [DRG]
I have been an ardent admirer of the work of Barbara Cook since way back, and I'm mighty proud to say I'm always mighty proud to say it. It isn't just the way she sings the notes, or the sound she gives when she hits them; it's the truth that leaps out at us when she does so. Truth, honesty, and heart.

(Since we're talking about the singer and her heart, this seems a perfect place to plug one of her earliest albums, "Barbara Cook Sings From the Heart." This independent label recording from 1959 was rescued from the abandoned vinyl pile when CDs came along and is currently available from DRG. Ms. Cook has in the past dismissed this recording — something about her not knowing how to really sing back then — but I strongly disagree. This is one of the finest collections you will find of Rodgers, or Hart, or even Cook. But I digress.)

As much as I admire the singer, I at the same time confess that I am not thoroughly enraptured by everything she sings, every time I hear it. Cook is always impeccable — even at the occasional concert or cabaret when she has been in less than perfect health. But there are recordings among her three dozen-plus titles that you want to listen to again and again, and others that stay on the shelf where you can find 'em when you want 'em. In my case, the former group includes Candide, She Loves Me, the Cook tracks of The Gay Life and Plain and Fancy, some of her Sondheim songs, and the aforementioned "Barbara Cook Sings from the Heart."

This morning I am happy to report that I now have another disc on my personal "best of Barbara" list. "Loverman" it's called, as in the Billie Holiday classic "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)." It is an album of songs of love; not love songs, mind you, but songs that circle their way around the subject. Seventeen songs, most of which come from fields far removed from Broadway. This is not the sort of CD about which you can list the high points; all the tracks, just about, are high points.

Most astounding, or at least my favorites presently, are Cook's take on two Hoagy Carmichael classics, "The Nearness of You" and "Georgia on My Mind"; a mournful combination of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bye Bye Blackbird"; "If I Love Again," a lost song from the 1933 Joe Cook musical Hold Your Horses (and when was the last time you heard a song from Hold Your Horses)?; and an excessively wry take on Eddie Cantor's old hit, "Makin' Whoopee." And, I guess, "Lover Man". . . and "More Than You Know." Oh, hell, let's just say them all! But especially "The Nearness of You."

Cook has been singing professionally since the Truman Administration, but I hereby declare a moratorium on labeling her as "the x-year-old singer." Age has nothing to do with it, one way or the other. The voice has lowered and thickened over the years, sure, but not detrimentally; it is simply rich, now, in a different manner. But it's the truth, the honesty, and Barbara's heart that continue to thrill us.

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Cover art
Bye Bye Birdie [Masterworks Broadway]
The motion picture version of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' Bye Bye Birdie opened 49 years ago, and I find that I have never been compelled to listen to the original soundtrack recording. It now arrives on CD, expanded and newly remastered, and I suppose this will make a perfect addition to the collections of fans of the film. I, myself, am less than enthused. The Birdie score, as heard on the original Broadway and London cast albums, is witty, sly and delicious. The film seems to slam its way through the songs, removing all subtlety and nuance.

You have only to compare the handling of "Put On a Happy Face" to get an idea of how far afield they went. What was the most charming of charm songs for Dick Van Dyke on stage is drastically diminished on screen. Leading players Albert and Rosie are given relatively little to sing, altogether. Oh, well; at least Hollywood gives us Ann-Margret, and a new title song. But me, I'll take Susan Watson.

Bonus tracks include pop singles of "How Lovely to Be a Woman" and "Bye Bye Birdie," both sung by Ms. Margret. They also give us almost four minutes-worth of "The Sultan's Ballet," for those who want four minutes-worth of "The Sultan's Ballet."

And what about these new lyrics we hear? They don't replace censorable words, they don't reflect plot changes, and some of them sound mighty awkward. I would have to guess that the original lyricist Lee Adams was called in to do them, but I can't imagine Lee — one of the most facile lyricists of the time — voluntarily rhyming "ring-a-ding drummer" with "beg for my number."

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.