DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Sondheim on Sondheim Star Barbara Cook

By Andrew Gans
March 19, 2010

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

This month we celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by speaking with several of the women most associated with the work of the award-winning composer-lyricist. This week we chat with Tony Award winner Barbara Cook, who received a Tony nomination for her theatrical concert Mostly Sondheim, and who is currently back on Broadway in the new musical production Sondheim on Sondheim.

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No one can deny that Tony-winning Music Man star Barbara Cook has enjoyed an extraordinary career, which began on Broadway in 1951 with the original Sammy Fain-E.Y. Harburg musical Flahooley. What is truly remarkable about Cook's career, however, is that this former ingénue — who, in the first half of her career, was mostly associated with the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Harnick and Bock and Meredith Willson — would become one of the foremost interpreters of the work of Stephen Sondheim, a composer whose songs she had rarely performed until the mid-80s.

It is producer Thomas Z. Shepard who musical theatre fans can thank for kicking off Cook's stellar Sondheim journey, one which has led to her latest outing, the Roundabout Theatre Company's new Broadway revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, now in previews at Studio 54.

"I believe what happened," Cook recently told me, "is Tom Shepard, who produced the record, called my manager [to see if I would play Sally in the 1985 Follies in Concert] . . and I said, 'Well, why not?' I had no idea it would turn out to be such an exciting event. No one did.

"Finally, you know, when we got into it," Cook continues, "we put that together in a week — about two days into rehearsal, I thought, 'You know something? I think this is going to be really good!' And I don't think any of us had any idea at the time [how good it would be]." In fact, the concert, which also boasted the likes of Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, George Hearn, Elaine Stritch and the late Lee Remick, provided Cook with two of her signature tunes, "Losing My Mind" and "In Buddy's Eyes." About the latter Cook says in Craig Zadan's "Sondheim & Company," "In a way this song is a lie. The character is trying to convince herself that all this idyllic stuff that she's singing about is really true, though she doesn't really believe it. But I decided to perform the song as if she meant every word of it… from the bottom of her heart."

Barbara Cook
photo by Mike Martin
It would be another concert, however, that would solidify her place as a master Sondheim interpreter, the 2001 Mostly Sondheim, which debuted at Carnegie Hall prior to a 2002 Sunday and Monday-night Broadway engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, an outing that would earn Cook a Tony nomination for Best Special Theatrical Event.

"Well, that was the idea of [my late musical director] Wally Harper," Cook explains. "We were always looking for a theme or an idea, so I said, 'Let's do a show based on songs that are in shows that I wish I had done.' You know, I wish that I had been in this show and would sing this song. We worked on that for about 20 minutes, and suddenly Wally said, 'You know, what about that article that I think Frank Rich did with Stephen for the Times Magazine section in which [Sondheim] listed 50 songs that he wishes he had written. Why don't we do a show that's half Sondheim songs and half songs that he wishes he had written?' So, I think it was a brilliant idea and I think a very good show, and Wally and I put that together." Writer-critic Rich also thought it was a wonderful outing. In the liner notes for the live Carnegie Hall recording, he writes, "So long typed as the sunniest of Broadway ingénues, Cook finds in Sondheim's songs a whole octave of rue and heartbreak without forsaking any of her ineffable Southern warmth. So long typed as the headiest of Broadway songwriters, Sondheim finds in Cook an interpreter of pure soul as well as the requisite urban wit."

Cook says she can't remember when she and Sondheim first met, but she believes their friendship dates back to the late '50s. When asked what the composer-lyricist is like as a person, Cook laughs, "Oh, God! He's a complex guy. I mean, I think people are complex, but he's complex-er than most! But he's an extraordinary guy and great wit and loves jokes . . . . I feel really so happy to know him, be around him and get to work with him."

Barbara Cook
photo by Mike Martin
Comparing Sondheim's songs to other composers, Cook says with a laugh, "Well, they're just very difficult . . . Many of them are quite difficult, but they pay off. The work pays off. Steve just has an insight into life in general, and he's able to translate those ideas, you know, with his extreme gift, not only musically of course, but with the text. It is very rich material." Among her very favorite Sondheim tunes are "So Many People" (Saturday Night), "Loving You" (Passion) and "Send in the Clowns" (A Little Night Music). And, her favorite Sondheim shows? "Well, I love the score for Follies. I love Passion. I think Passion is his second masterpiece after Sweeney," she says.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, which also features Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott — Cook gets the chance to sing several Sondheim tunes she has previously brought to full life: "In Buddy's Eyes," "Loving You" and "Send in the Clowns." She says her interpretations "change as I change, and I hope I'm better at what I used to do in a lot of ways. But there is a constant need to simplify [the work, and] by simplifying it makes it stronger."

The new production, which officially opens April 22, was conceived by James Lapine, who directs. Cook says this production is different from previous Sondheim revues because of the show's use of video, "the interviews that they've done with Stephen. The songs really do come out of these interviews. He talks about his work methods, and he talks about his father and his mother and working out problems with his sexuality, all of that. And all of the music, the things we do with the songs that were chosen come right out of those interviews. So it's totally different in that sense. Nobody's ever done that as far as I know."

Both Sondheim and director Lapine asked Cook to be part of the new production, and Cook jokes her decision to return to an eight-performance-a-week schedule was "madness, total madness." "Well, I love Stephen's work," she says, "and I had worked a little bit with James before, and I just thought, 'You know, why not?' . . . We're all very excited. It looks like we're gonna have a good show."

Cook is particularly enjoying the rehearsal process and working with a cast of actors. "You know, I've worked alone so much over the years," she admits, "and it's wonderful to be with a group of [people] in the trenches together. . . . And, everybody sings very well. My God, wait'll you hear how they sound!" Cook also has nothing but praise for her director. "He's calm and unflappable, I think, and also [makes the performers] feel a great deal of freedom."

Sondheim, Cook says, has written one new song for the show and recently played the tune for the cast. "He has very specific ideas about how he wants it to sound," Cook says.

And, what does Cook think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Well, you know, already you see more younger writers [write in his style] — sometimes, not in a good way. I think they try to do what he does without having the skills [but] that's not true of everybody. . . . I think his work will really last, partially because it's complex. He finds ways to say things that are universal that, I think, everybody can come to and understand."

[Studio 54 is located at 254 West 54th Street. For tickets call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.]

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