Barbara Cook, Music and Lyrics

Silvery tones for a golden age of Broadway singing—past, pleasant, and future

Granted, in some ways, we definitely aren't. Decades of amplification—the very decades in which Cook shifted her base of operations from the Broadway stage to the concert platform—have taken their toll on the overall quality of musical-theater performance. Bring a pair of sensitive, classically trained ears to a Broadway musical today and you're likely to feel, if not assaulted, at least sonically offended much of the time. And yet somehow that's not the whole story. An age in which Audra McDonald—who made a memorable guest appearance at Cook's Metropolitan Opera concert in 2006—rises almost overnight to become one of Broadway's most beloved stars must surely be an age that prizes fine singing. McDonald, who can travel from opera to sitcom and back, pausing in theaters along the way to brighten both straight plays and musicals, sings as well as or better than most of the leading ladies of that golden age Cook mentioned.

A definitive interpreter: Barbara Cook with the New York Philharmonic
Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic
A definitive interpreter: Barbara Cook with the New York Philharmonic

Nor is McDonald alone. As Scott Siegel's annual "Broadway Unplugged" concerts at Town Hall regularly demonstrate, our musical theater's full to bursting with well-trained singers, old and young, who, if they haven't all got Audra's stunning combination of good looks, acting skills, charisma, and vocal power, could easily, with a little cultivation, hold their own standing next to her on an unmiked stage. If you don't believe me, just flip to the letter "K" in your Broadway alphabet books and imagine McDonald pitching into a quartet with Judy Kaye, Eddie Korbich, and Marc Kudisch. These three stalwarts of our present-day musicals aren't anomalies either. Their generation has come into a theater rich with the memory of great voices, ready to uphold that tradition. Audible evidence of the kind Cook embodies—that good training and careful husbanding can help such voices stay fresh for an astonishing length of time—is unlikely to be lost on them. Even if today's Broadway, busy with mass taste and tourist marketing, seems only dimly aware of possessing such vocal treasures, when an 80-year-old artist sells out Avery Fisher Hall—and finishes the show by singing her encores unplugged—people take notice.

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