There’s no better interpreter of the American Songbook than Tony and Grammy Award winner Barbara Cook. Lyricist Maury Yeston (”Phantom”) called Cook “a living national treasure” as she marked her 88th birthday on October 25 with a musical tribute at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. The evening, which also honored award-winning lyricist Lee Adams – “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause,” “Golden Boy” and TV’s “All in the Family” theme song, “Those Were The Days”– benefitted the Encompass New Opera Theatre.
Adams proved that “critics can be wrong” with his rock musical, “Bye Bye Birdie.” Despite negative reviews when it opened, it’s been a hit for 55 years. “That’s an example of critics not getting it,” Adams explained. Penny Fuller said “Lee created musical moments,” along with Charles Strouse, his collaborator for over 60 years. Adams, said that without Charles he would have remained a journalist. He explained, “A lyricist picks 60 or 80 words and makes a lyric out of them-it’s an exacting craft.”
At 88, Cook, who said “I was born to sing,” is ageless. Although arthritis confines her to a wheelchair, that doesn’t deter this onetime ingenue. Cook has an upcoming CD, “Celebrate My 88″ and has just sent a draft of her memoir to the publisher. For the gorgeous soprano, this evening was about sharing and reconnecting with old friends like Sheldon Harnick, with whom “I worked so long ago” on Broadway in “She Loves Me.” He wrote Cook’s signature song, “Ice Cream.” The evening was a reunion of extraordinary talent.
Cook, who believes in the power of music, has mentored many younger performers. Some were on hand to show their appreciation. “I had the opportunity to sit behind Barbara eight times a week and listen to her sing ‘Send in the Clowns,’” said the talented Erin Mackey, Cook’s co-star in “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Rebecca Luker said, “I adore and admire Barbara and her dedication to the encouragement of young artists in her master classes.” Luker, who stared in the revival of “The Music Man,” sang a powerful rendition of “My White Knight” from that show. Amanda McBroom penned “Errol Flynn” which Cook introduced to audiences. “It changed my life forever,” said McBroom.
Sheldon Harnick, 91, who currently has three shows including “Fiddler on The Roof” in revivals, praised Cook with an original parody of “She Loves Me.” He admitted he had to look up one word, “necromancy” for rhyming purposes. It means “magic.” “Your Ice Cream knocked my socks off” and “He Loves you and so do I.” Harnick said at the reception: “Barbara has warmth, wisdom, a sense of humor and seamless style. To Barbara, singing is communicating. She’s still doing that.”
“City of Angels” lyricist David Zippel said “There is no finer singer [than Barbara Cook] and very few equal her.” He added, “She’s gifted, gracious and kind.” He related how he met Barbara and Wally Harper in 1977 after their show in Boston. “It was life changing.” She was the first to sing his lyrics in 1980 at Carnegie Hall. “Barbara has never disappointed on or off stage,” he added. Jason Graae sang the self-mocking “The Ingenue,” music by Wally Harper with cleverly tweaked lyrics by Zippel. And Malcolm Gets summoned the memory of Cook’s longtime musical conductor, Harper, with “Another Hundred People” from “Company.”
Mabel Mercer had a great influence on Cook, who says she learned the use of words and consonants from Mabel. “She didn’t have much voice but it didn’t matter. You have to be connected to your emotional well,” explained Cook. It was fitting that Cabaret star and Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, KT Sullivan, sang “One Halloween But Alive” from “Applause.”
Cook was visibly impressed when Encompass soprano Samantha Britt sang “Glitter and Be Gay,” from “Candide,” a song Cook is known for. Cook said, “I have credibility with opera people because of “Glitter and Be Gay.” I deserve it,” she joked, “that damn song is hard.” She shared anecdotes about her “Candide” audition for Leonard Bernstein. She was handed a piece of music “about 12 feet long.” “I don’t read music,” she said. “Somehow Little Barbara Cook said to Leonard Bernstein, ‘I guess I could sing Madame Butterfly’s entrance music.’ I hit the hell out of the D flat ending. Man did he perk up. I couldn’t finish the aria the first time. It’s like putting heavy groceries down. I used to sing it through two times for stamina. It’s an amazing feat!”
There was so much love in the room directed toward Cook, not only on stage but at the pre and post receptions. People complimented her emotional insight as well as her suburb technique on stage that has inspired audiences around the world. Cook told me, “I had very clear ideas very early of how I wanted to present a song.” It’s about “authenticity.” She added, “I have to share my feelings. That’s why we respond. Art touches your core.” The amazing talent and positive energy in the venue proved it.
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