Early in her new concert at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Barbara Cook reflects a little ruefully on her Broadway career, which hit its stride in the early 1950s. “I wish someone had told me it was the golden age of musical comedy,” she says. “I would have had more fun.” That wistful tone, nostalgic and slightly tinctured with regret, infuses several of the songs Cook performs here, but the effect is anything but dispiriting. The best years of the Broadway musical may be long past, but the magic of that era blooms again whenever this peerless performer takes to the stage: Barbara Cook is a golden age unto herself.
Cook is now 76. Her voice has ripened and matured with age, but it has lost very little of its purity and polish. Life and experience have buffed its edges, embossing its bright, golden tone with a dusky patina that only enhances her expressive abilities. As with the finest American pop singers — Billie Holiday and Judy Garland spring to mind — any diminution in the quality of the sound is more than made up for in the quality of the singing. The ingenue who once amazed Broadway with her extraordinary range may no longer be able to trill out a string of high C’s, but that youngster could never hit the wide range of emotional notes the mature Cook can, certainly not with the grace, generosity and ease that mark every moment of this spellbinding concert.
Cook’s previous appearance under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater was a tribute to Stephen Sondheim. Here the range is wider, as Cook moves through an eclectic selection of songs from a half-century of musical scores, from Irving Berlin to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Kander & Ebb. Favorites and rarities are treated with the same tender care: Cook never trots out a song as a personal showpiece or a generic standard to be tortured into a new form, as many singers do. She is not interested in putting her own interpretive stamp on a song — she respects them too much, loves them too ardently.
Love is indeed the theme of most of the songs she performs — it’s the theme, in one form or another, of most of the songs ever written. Cook sings of its pleasures and its agonies with equal authority and perceptiveness. She easily transforms herself into a young girl on the cusp of wedded bliss for “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” a giddy hymn to love anticipated from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” The comic side of an unrequited affection is analyzed with wit and a little pathos in “A Perfect Relationship,” from “Bells Are Ringing”; the ache of a similar dilemma is illumined with haunting economy in “His Face,” from Bob Merrill’s score for “Carnival.”
Performing a healthy four songs from “She Loves Me,” one of her starring vehicles, Cook presents us with virtually the whole of that charming, wry, music-box musical about the joy of discovering love in unexpected places. And while Cook never starred in a Sondheim musical, she is among the finest interpreters of his work. She makes his famously complicated songs seem models of simplicity: The complex weave of emotion that underlies “In Buddy’s Eyes,” from “Follies,” takes on crystalline clarity in her performance.
How does she do it? By focusing on the truth in a song and then taking the straightest path to get there. Cook draws out the emotional essence of a song just by singing the words and the notes with unadorned honesty and sincerity. (Wally Harper, her longtime accompanist and music director, helps out considerably with the notes, providing assured playing and extraordinary delicate arrangements.) The meaning comes through almost without a filter, although you couldn’t ask for a better filter than the uncommon beauty of Cook’s soprano.
It’s tempting to say that Cook “owns” some of the songs here — “In Buddy’s Eyes,” for example. But she’s not interested in ownership. The purity of her singing is an act of generosity. Performing these songs without fuss or unnecessary filigree is her way of giving each of them to each of us anew.
It has not been a spectacular season on Broadway. But as it happens, the Vivian Beaumont stage has been the site of two impressive Shakespeare productions. (Cook amusingly acknowledges the concurrent run of “King Lear” by opening with a snippet of “I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight,” from “Camelot,” with words tinkered to suit the occasion.) But I’m not sure either of those productions — or, for that matter, both combined — could hold a candle to this evening in terms of illuminating the pains and privileges of human experience. As interpreted by this unique artist, America’s musical theater canon becomes a gift to humanity to rival that given by the Bard himself.