Barbara Cook’s gift is to illuminate a song’s words as a great actress would, while somehow having a beautiful voice at an age at which no opera singer could possibly imagine performing.
By Susan Miron
Boisterous applause greeted the legendary Barbara Cook as she walked, assisted by guitarist John Pizzarelli and a silver-topped cane, onto the stage of Symphony Hall in Boston on Saturday night. This was Cook’s fourth appearance for the Celebrity Series of Boston, yet somehow I had never gotten around to seeing her. But in my childhood, I loved listening to her sing “My White Knight” (with Robert Preston) from the original cast album of The Music Man. Considered “Broadway’s favorite ingénue” during the heyday of the Broadway musical, Cook starred in Flahooley, a failed musical she still defends, She Loves Me, and in 1957 The Music Man. She was blonde, beautiful, had a lovely voice and winning personality.
The same can be said about her at age 84. She’s had a long and interesting (a decade of too much drinking) life, and all of it shows up in her approach to the songs that are lucky enough to be sung by her. Hollywood never called, but plenty of her fans called out cheers or requested songs they wanted her to sing. What was once a light soprano is now darkened and lowered, which suits the repertoire she performed on Saturday. A Kennedy Center honoree in 2011 (along with Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma), she returned to Broadway after a 23-year hiatus to perform in the musical Sondheim on Sondheim. She was nominated for a Tony Award, but she had already won all of the awards that matter.
After Broadway roles dried out, Cook took a breather to dry out, then launched into a major second act as a concert and cabaret singer (see YouTube 1987 Tony Awards “Til There was You” or her “Salute to Broadway” or “When You Wish Upon a Star”) performing regularly at NYC’s elegant, best cabaret venues.
Cook’s concert featured jazz guitarist/vocals John Pizzarelli (and his excellent trio), who had appeared on this series before with Maureen McGovern. It was, he unabashedly announced, his 53rd birthday, and the evening took on a especially festive mood when we heard this, although just seeing Cook was plenty festive for most of us. They opened with a lovely duet “I’ve Got the World on a String,” (“What a world, what a life, I’m in love”) with spot on intonation. Throughout the concert, they were perfect partners and foils for each other, and it was clear he idolized her. “I’m working with Barbara Cook,” he marveled. “I’d better be on my game.” He was.
“I realized I had never sung any Hoagy Carmichael,” Cook announced, much to her surprise. A superb version of “The Nearness of You” followed, with a romantically tinged solo from the excellent pianist Ted Rosenthal. Cook seemed to be having a grand old time, sitting throughout the concert but smiling continuously. I find it hard to imagine her taking a decade off. She loves singing solos, duets, being part of an ensemble, making words and music fit together to create something bigger than either of them were separately. Pizzarelli had several solos with his band, performing with his guitar for several minutes, then singing. Several people yelled out songs they wanted to hear before he played. “Oh! Those are my four fans!” he exclaimed. He knew whose night it was.
The haunting “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble had Cook crooning to Pizzarelli, “The very thought of you, And I forget to do The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do”. Cook’s gift (besides looking 20 years younger than she is) is to illuminate a song’s words as a great actress would, while somehow having a beautiful voice at an age at which no opera singer could possibly imagine performing. Cook’s next star turn was “Makin Whoopie,” which gave her a chance to show off a sassy sense of humor that has endeared her to generations of cabaret audiences.
A particular highlight was the duo “Cheek to Cheek” (“Heaven, I’m in heaven. I seem to find the happiness I seek when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek”). Pizzarelli and Cook genuinely seem to relish each other’s company and musicianship, which made this wonderful song especially touching. Pizzarelli sang “We Three (My Echo. My Shadow and Me)” after which Cook sang the bittersweet “If I Love Again” from the 1975 Funny Lady. A memorable “Here’s to Life” with Cook and piano was so beguiling that Pizzarelli admitted, “I’m supposed to sing but I don’t want to (follow her),” but he went on to deliver a moving “As Time Goes By.” He mused, “We’re lucky to live in a world with Barbara Cook.”
Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” was followed by a beautifully harmonized “Shine on Harvest Moon” with the audience joining in. For an encore, Cook, standing with her cane, quietly sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” with a guitar accompaniment. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” I imagine most of the audience dreamed that somehow this concert would just go on and on.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.