Monday, July 04, 2016

Deep Diva: Barbara Cook's Memoir
Then and Now

Barbara Cook's 2007 album No One is Alone ended with "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide, the show that put her front and center among Broadway ingenues of the 1950s.  But she was not merely reprising an old hit.  At 78, she couldn't be sure that ten more years of concerts and even a Broadway show lay ahead. Her trademark silvery voice had grown a bit husky, her range a bit lower than it used to be.  She sang Leonard Bernstein's setting of these words by poet Richard Wilbur:
You've been a fool, and so have I;
But, come, I'll be your wife.
And let us try
Before we die
To make some sense of life.
The music for this anthem is stately, with wide yearning intervals, glancing dissonances, and a rising bass line, all expressing the calm resignation and hope articulated in the lyrics.
We're neither pure nor wise nor good;
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.
After one verse, we hear Cook no more.  Kelli O'Hara takes the soprano solo, a young actress who exudes warmth and intelligence - a new generation's Barbara Cook.   Has any diva ever ceded the finale to someone else?  Cook's generous passing of the torch hit me so hard that I waited ten years to hear the album again this week.  The occasion is the release of her memoir Barbara Cook: Then and Now, written with Tom Santopietro (Harper Collins Books; Kindle edition), in which she makes some sense of her own life.

"I've Been a Fool..."
She could be a fool indeed, but she had the wisdom to stop in her tracks, reassess her life, and change on the instant.  During a visit to New York at age 20, Cook decided not to return to Atlanta with her grasping, possessive mother.  In the fifteen years or so that followed, she built her reputation on Broadway in Flahooley, Candide, the smash hit Music Man, a superior revival of The King and I, and the beloved She Loves Me. She married an actor who coached her for years and was father to her son Adam.

By the time of Hair, opportunities for ingenues had dried up on Broadway.  Disappointments in marriage and the end of her affair with a married man deepened an alcohol-fueled depression, with food addiction.  Despite a load of self-doubt and about 150 extra pounds, Cook took the offer from music director Wally Harper to produce a one-woman show at Carnegie Hall in 1975 that launched a new career as cabaret artist. Within the next year, she awoke in a panic from a night of drinking, grasped the connection between alcohol and her frequent anxiety attacks, and never took another drink.

Cook bitterly regrets that she never convinced Harper to recognize his own drinking problem.  He died in 2004.  (Personal note: I joined Harper and Cook for a reception onstage following their concert at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center, November 1, 2003.  Harper and I talked Sondheim.)  Another theme in her memoir is the fact that Harper never expressed love or even appreciation directly to Cook, though he fulfilled her dream of seeing her name on an old-fashioned marquee with flickering bulbs: he arranged for the sign to lower during a song at Carnegie Hall in 2001.   "He couldn't say 'I love you' to me, but he expressed that love through the gift of that wonderful sign." (2941)

When her adult son came out to her as gay, she cried a week, sorry for herself because she'd thought he'd "plug" her into a normal family life at last, until she sat up and realized, "Adam wasn't here to plug me into anything.  I was here to help him be Adam -- as fully as possible." (2731)  She caught herself thinking of her son as a part of herself, the same thing her mother had done to her; and she stopped.

Singing the Story
Reviewing Barbara Cook's program of songs at Feinstein's in 2012, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, "In each [ballad] she located its universal sweet spot and extended herself as if she were telling her own personal stories of happiness and loss."

In her memoir, Cook tells how she learned to convey her personal story in performances of songs.  She learned from watching masters of song.  In the early 1950s, a friend brought Cook to the Gold Key Club after hours, when Judy Garland sometimes stopped by to sing for friends. "[L]istening to Judy taught me how a song must contain a beginning, a middle, and an end -- that it should possess an unbroken line both musically and lyrically, while taking the listener on an emotional journey." (818).  Without much of a singing voice, Mabel Mercer "communicated the richness of good lyrics, the subtext lying beneath the surface" and would "lay into" consonants as other singers wouldn't do. (827)  From listening to Sinatra, she learned to "sing like you talk."

Aside from some TV work, Cook didn't make it on screen. About the film version of  The Music Man, she thinks Shirley Jones was good, but the whole thing was "too clean": "the horses never s--- in those streets," she writes (1790).    She tells of auditioning for a movie role alongside the unknown actress Joanne Woodward.  "She was terrible," Cook thought.  "She wasn't doing anything."  But the director called Woodward a real film actress.  There's a lesson about acting on screen.

She's still learning.  Commenting on her performance of the Rodgers and Hart song "He Was Too Good to Me" in the 1975 concert, she writes, "I sing the song much better, with greater depth of feeling.... I can't sing like I sang ten years ago, or even five years ago, but ... I probe more deeply into the lyric now and have a lot more courage to keep going, deeper and deeper." (2417)  She tells of leading master classes for aspiring singers. She hears people who "want you to know right away that they can SING, in capital letters.  They come on singing like machines." She humanizes them.  "You are enough," she assures them. "You don't need to [look or sound] like anybody else." (3176) I've read, not in this memoir, that she listens to the song once, then seats the singer across from her, knee to knee, takes the singer's hands, and says to sing to her as if telling a personal story.

Of course, in a showbiz memoir, we expect to get some dishing on celebrities.  Generally, though, Cook doesn't speak ill of others, even the dead ones.  She writes of good relationships with her ex-husband, right on up to his death, and with both her ex-lover, and his wife.  She regrets never completing a letter of gratitude for his helping her to recognize her own intellect and curiosity; he died with Alzheimer's.  Sometimes you gain and lose at the same time, she comments.

She does give us the spectacle of Leonard Bernstein's "sweeping in" to Candide auditions wearing a "long, green, loden cape lined in red satin" and black patent-leather loafers. Cook's comment? "Wow!" (1197).

While she does complain that actress Elaine Stritch had to be the center of attention, she lauds Stritch's skills and kindness.  Cook and co-stars figured Stritch had some reason of her own to be wearing a shower cap one day, until Stritch interrupted rehearsal to say, "This is what I love about show business. I walked in here forty-five minutes ago with a shower cap on my head and nobody said a goddamned thing!"  Cook substituted for Stritch at the Cafe Carlyle, explaining that Stritch had joined the cast of A Little Night Music.  "But you're not missing much," Cook told the audience.  "This is the point of the show where she drops the names of all the famous people she's f----d." Cook assured the crowd that she'd f----d a lot of people herself, only they weren't famous (2845).

Cook accepted a role in the musical adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie under development at the Royal Shakespeare Company before she discovered that none of the people involved had any idea what they were doing.  It's hard to believe her story how the designer, told that the show was to resemble Grease, understood that it was to be set in Greece, complete with drapery and helmets.  The director Terry Hands, taking the mistake for serendipity, staged the show as a Greek Tragedy (2866).  The show is a byword for musical calamity, but Cook still singles out the girl in the title role for superb ability, professionalism, and unselfish effort.

Cook and Sondheim
Cook mentions Stephen Sondheim frequently in her memoir, although she had no professional contact with him until very late in her career.  Early in the book, telling how her mother explicitly blamed three-year-old Barbara for "giving" the pneumonia that killed her infant sister, Cook comments, after Sondheim, that "children will listen" and internalize the careless messages of their parents.  She relays Sondheim's judgement that Meredith Wilson's "Rock Island" for The Music Man was one of the best opening numbers of any musical, ever.

A few years into her second career, Sondheim met her in the street and asked, "Why don't you ever sing my stuff?"   She had come close, in 1971, auditioning for the role of "Sally" in Follies, but she was deemed "too good looking" for the role of a woman on the edge of breakdown.  One reason she never sang Sondheim, she admits, is that she didn't care about the characters in Sondheim's breakthrough musicals Company and Follies, and she was repelled by Sweeney Todd.   She tells us that her opinions have been revised.  She also speculates that Wally Harper, whose hopes of seeing a musical of his own on Broadway never panned out, envied Sondheim's success (3007).

But that all changed with Sondheim's invitation to her to play "Sally" for a two-night staged reading of Follies in Avery Fischer Hall in 1985, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic.  Sondheim himself has written of hearing her perform "In Buddy's Eyes" for the first time, turning it from a "throwaway" bit of exposition into a showstopper.  Heart-stopper is more like it:  The moment is captured on the video documentary about the show.  Her own explanation?  Cook has said that she took the character at her word.  That's going against the grain, for the lyric and orchestration give numerous clues that "Sally" is trying to believe a lie.  That's why it's so effective when Cook sings, without irony, "In Buddy's eyes, / I'm young, I'm beautiful" and "All I ever dreamed I'd be / The best I ever thought of me / Is every minute there to see / In Buddy's eyes."

After that, Cook and Harper worked songs from Follies into her act.  Around the time that others had celebrated Sondheim's 70th birthday in 2000, Harper had the idea for a program of songs that Sondheim had written, alongside songs that Sondheim listed in an article for The New York Review of Books, "Songs I Wish I'd Written."  The show and its recording, Mostly Sondheim, solidified Cook's reputation as a premier interpreter of the master's works. 

Ten years later, she performed on Broadway again in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, finding, as Holden wrote, "the sweet spot" in each song to make it feel real, and personal to her. 

"We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good; / We'll do the best we know." Barbara Cook cares about integrity, learning, and generosity: The best she knows is as good as it gets.

Of related interest:
I've blogged recently about She Loves Me, the musical that starred Barbara Cook in 1963. 
See my Stephen Sondheim page for articles about his musicals mentioned here.

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