Theater archives

Barbara Cook, Music and Lyrics


Here are some comments on an 80-year-old singer:

“The runs are lithe and supple, the movements spanning broad intervals still assured and precise. The tone remains firm and well-placed. The value of this singing lies in its elegance: The florid work has an aristocratic command; the cadenza is graceful, the mezza voce charming. Moreover, the technical ease with which the singer passes over the well-tempered instrument is complemented by a genuine stage trouper’s command of changing moods—an astonishing procession of them. These nimbly sung performances are lessons for every actor-singer: They have the grace of thorough professionalism and the energy and forthrightness which guard elegance from becoming merely precision.”

I’m tempted to pretend that these words constitute a description of Barbara Cook, who turned 80 last October 25, but the lofty diction and classical-music terminology give the game away. The passage actually comes, with a few trims and paraphrases for which I apologize, from J.B. Steane’s study of classical singing, The Grand Tradition. Their actual subject is the great French baritone, Lucien Fugère, born in 1848, who did not record until 1928, when he had reached exactly the age range in which Cook now finds herself. Fugère, who had sung steadily at Paris’s Opéra-Comique from the late 1870s until the early years of World War I, cut back on performing considerably when he reached his 70s. Cook, in contrast, is going stronger than ever. She had a brief career lull in the late 1960s, when she approached middle life just as the Broadway musical was moving toward a rock idiom, but she quickly reinvented herself as a definitive interpreter of what we now call the American songbook, and set out on the road that has taken her from the firetrap cabarets of the mid-1970s to today’s giant concert halls. On January 8, she re-celebrated her new octogenarian status with a reprise—by popular demand, no less—of the 80th-birthday concerts she gave last November in Avery Fisher Hall, backed by a little combo called the New York Philharmonic.

The nimble French baritone and the warmhearted Broadway gal share more than mere longevity. Like Cook, Fugère created major roles in keystone works of his country’s musical culture, the most famous being the father in Charpentier’s Louise. Like her, he began in the less sedate realm of popular-music theater: His first major gig was with the rowdy Bouffes-Parisiens, where his credits included a role in the world premiere of Offenbach’s 1875 work, La Créole, which he lived to see revived half a century later as a vehicle for Josephine Baker. The three-year span of Fugère’s improbable late flowering as an over-80 recording artist left us with a matchless trove of rare repertoire, a French classical equivalent for Cook’s delvings into our native songbook: arias by Gluck and Mozart; high spots from works by Fugère’s contemporaries Chabrier, Charpentier, and Massenet; enchanting trifles by nearly forgotten figures like Ferdinando Paër, Cécile Chaminade, and Charles-Marie Widor.

Fugère’s recordings, long a source of amazement to classical-music buffs, stand as a role model for anyone who sings in French, just as Cook’s CDs of the last few decades, several preserving live concerts, will rank as object lessons for American musical-theater singers to come. Both embody the qualities Steane praises in the passage that began this article: the elegant phrasing, the firm and well-placed tone, the assured moves over broad intervals, the astonishing variety of moods, the grace, the professionalism, the energy and forthrightness. The delight these musical virtues bring when we listen to Cook, as Steane asserts elsewhere about Fugère, isn’t merely a matter of “Wow, she can still hit a B flat at 80?” The great qualities in Cook’s singing incarnate a spirit that does things well, trained up to the standards of a tradition that demanded things be well done.

Steane describes Fugère’s assured elegance as “a relic of earlier times,” but “relic” is surely the wrong word for a sound so fresh; “harbinger” or “lodestar” might be more apt. The mid-19th-century training that enabled Fugère to sing so vivaciously in his 80s continued to hold sway in the 1920s, when French theater music was still close kin to light opera, and figures like Yvonne Printemps and André Baugé stood as worthy successors to him. And again, what’s true of Fugère turns out to be true of Cook. We live in a time when standards of musical execution, in the theater, are thought of as having sunk to a new low. This would indeed seem to make Cook’s elegant phrasing and assured, silvery tone appear as relics of some magical past when things were better. But what if they’re not? What if we’re living in an age every bit as magical as that past and simply don’t realize it? It was Cook herself who started this question revolving in my brain, during her 2004 concerts in the Vivian Beaumont Theater, when she said of the 1950s: “They tell me now I was part of a golden age. I didn’t know I was in a golden age.” And then, cocking her head quizzically, she asked, “Do you think we’re in one now?”

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.

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.