Friday, March 13, 2015
Douglas Messerli | "Getting to Know Her" (on Barbara Cook singing)
getting to know her
by Douglas Messerli
Barbara Cook at the Bram Goldsmith Theater in the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, California, March 10, 2015
As I wrote in My Year 2013 and elsewhere in my cultural memoirs, I have long been an admirer of singer Barbara Cook. And the other night Howard and I were delighted to be able to see her perform for the third and, surely, the last time in our lives. Now at age 87, wheel-chair bound after a recent fall and small fractures in her backbone (which the doctor has promised her will heal over time), Cook took to the stage for a one-night concert at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts which seemed more like an intimate chat with the artist than the more polished recitals we have previously witnessed.
Yes, Cook sang, occasionally forgetting her lyrics, with a voice—although far diminished from the full-bodied renditions of “Carolina in the Morning” at the decades-earlier Washington, D.C. gay club performance when we first saw her, or the spirited rendition of Frank Loesser’s cornucopia of lyrics for his beloved “Guys and Dolls” at what is now the Geffen Theatre in Westwood of several years back—that was, nonetheless, soulful (although the microphone rendered it far darker than it truly is) and, as always, brilliantly phrased. No one in popular music can better articulate a song’s lyrics, Cook even making note of this in her comments, explaining, for example, that she had never before performed “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” because she had never understood the words (she now claims the Blackbird is a whorehouse to whom the singer is saying goodbye, and cleverly paired that song with “The House of the Rising Sun”).
Gus Kahn’s “Makin’ Whoopee” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” which she performed early on, tied in perfectly with her comments of her Georgia birth. Yet the most sophisticated and well sung piece, this time ‘round, was her intelligent reading and musical director/pianist’s Lee Musiker’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Under My Skin.” Cook admitted that she had never truly been attracted to Porter’s songs—surely an oddity, since many of his sexual intimations would seem to suit her voice perfectly—but this classic, as she sang it, was absolutely memorable, which, she slightly bragged, had “blown” her friend Stephen Sondheim “away.”
Her rendition of Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods certainly made it clear that Cook remains one of the most noted of Sondheim interpreters (along with, obviously, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch). Soon after, a spunky rendition of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” showed off the musical talents of clarinetist Dave Rickenberg, drummer Warren Odze, and Bass player Jay Leonhart, as well as, again, the consummate artistry of Musiker, although the song, in its clipped declarations, is not really a comfortable one for Cook.
Yet one of the musical highlights of the evening came during the encore, where, moving up to the edge of the stage and laying aside her microphone, Cook gave an enlighteningly hushed rendition of George Harrison’s “ Just Imagine” that brought tears to my eyes.
One might argue that the in-between “talking sessions” were far too chatty and, a moments, perhaps, just a little bit too revealing; but that is precisely the kind of artist that Cook is, and her living room-like confessions to her audience, which might have played even better in a smaller room such as the one at the Carlyle, brought an intimacy to the evening that seemed appropriate for the theatrical good-bye, which we all know will soon be inevitable. Cook reached back to her youth in Georgia, recounting her love of her salesman (first of hats and later of meat) father and the mental difficulties suffered by her mother, with whom she was forced into a rather unhealthily intimate relationship (Cook previously has noted that the two shared a bed long after Cook was a young teenager). The singer lovingly dished the other Barbra (Streisand), with whom she shared an agent, and joked about “Dick” Rodgers’ philandering ways: although he was noted for chasing young ingénues like Cook around his desk, “when he called me into his office, he fortunately was suffering from gout,” she joked.
At other moments, Cook wryly commented of her love of Yiddish phrases, perhaps in an attempt to chat up her highly Jewish Beverly Hills audience, and downplay her Georgia past, declaring herself a born New Yorker: “The lovely thing about New York is when you go out the door, you’re there!.”
At other moments she recalled her love for and admiration of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who together penned Fiddler on the Roof (which she had just watched again on TMC television, leading her to hum a few lines of “Sunrise Sunset,” with audience members offering up the lyrics) and the songs for her own renowned character, Amalia, in She Loves Me.
When an overenthusiastic audience member shouted out that she should sing “Glitter and Be Gay” from her long-ago Candide, she quickly quipped, “Now we know that someone in this audience is truly crazy!” No old favorites for this wise old bird!
Her story about Sondheim was one of the most revealing. After declaring her love for the composer and going so far as to compare him with Shakespeare, Cook added, as she had regarding Streisand, that he was also “quite odd.” At one celebration, she confided, he invited her to sit down at his table, whereupon she rhetorically began, “we’ve been acquainted now for so many years, I think I know you very well.” Sondheim replayed, “Barbara, you don’t know me at all.” Cook suggested that it was one of the ways that he kept people “off balance,” but the remark reminded me of the deep cynicism, despite the incredible passion of his compositions, that runs through his work. It appears to me that Sondheim would hate even the concept of being really understood; his art relies too heavily on a sense of dissemblance, betrayal, and isolation for him to grant open admission to his inner being.
Cook, on the other hand, appears to be ready to share everything with her friends, even if she might, on a more personal level, consider you a jerk, as she joked about the individual sitting on the airplane to California who asked her was she going to Los Angeles to see her grandchildren. “No you jerk, I’m going to sing!” I’m still here, working, she somewhat exasperatedly repeated, pointing to her now frailer self, sitting trapped in the wheel-controlled device.
When we got home, I immediately pulled out our DVD of the documentary performance of Follies in Concert in 1985 at Lincoln Center and listened, spellbound, to hear her sing “Losing My Mind.”
Los Angeles, March 12, 2015