December 18, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
A Tribute to Barbara Cook took place earlier tonight at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at 5 p.m. She passed away at the age of eighty-nine last August, but it took awhile to pull this evening together. It was well worth the wait.
I have been fortunate to attend gatherings such as these in Broadway theatres over the years. I was present when Jessica Tandy memorably performed one of Blanche’s monologues at the memorial for Tennessee Williams at the Shubert in 1983. And it was only a year ago that I sat through speech after articulate speech at the August Wilson, when honor was paid to Edward Albee. Today’s tribute was different, as it was done mostly in music, as music was at the heart of Barbara Cook’s art. She was one of our most unique and gifted singers, and the love that shined through from her closest friends was extremely moving.
The evening was elegantly produced by Natalie Gershtein and directed by James Lapine, who had worked with Cook on Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010. It began with some wonderful footage from the early days of live television, with a very young Cook in rare form. The first speaker, Sheldon Harnick, told the story of presenting “Vanilla Ice Cream” to Cook in Philadelphia, where She Loves Me was in try outs. Falling in love with it quickly, Harnick recalled with astonishment that Cook then simply said, “See if Don Walker can orchestrate it in the next few hours and I’ll do it tonight.” Since the scene dealt with reading off a letter, she logically offered that the lyrics could be written on the piece of paper and would be available if she needed any help. It went in that night — and stopped the show.
Next up were her friends, Jessica Molasky and John Pizzarelli, who had performed with Cook on many occasions and offered a jazz favorite of hers, their rendition of “I Got Rhythm,” with Pizzarelli offering some extraordinary riffs on his electric guitar. They were followed by a lovely speech from Michael Kaiser, who had befriended Cook through his position at the Kennedy Center. He told of his lifelong crush on her that began when he saw her as a small boy in Plain and Fancy and The Music Man. He undoubtedly was greatly responsible for her receiving the Kennedy Center honor in 2011 (though he was too modest to say that). Then Kelli O’Hara took the stage and spoke warmly of not only what Cook meant to her as an artist, but what she meant to her as a friend. She then sang a beautiful rendition of “Make Someone Happy.”
The actress Jane Summerhays, a friend of Cook’s for almost forty years, spoke at length, concluding by reading an email that gave us a glimpse at Cook’s unique sense of humor and talent for friendship. Then it was Renée Fleming’s turn, not only to speak of Cook as a friend and neighbor, but as an inspiration to her as a fledgling singer. We had just watched a clip of Cook claiming that playing Anna in The King and I was her favorite role, one which she felt she had gotten closest to achieving, measured up against her exacting standards. As tribute, Fleming sang “Hello Young Lovers.”
The producer Roy Furman spoke of how much he had hoped that the one-person show he was readying for Cook, to be written by James Lapine and directed by Tommy Tune would have been doable. He told a story of one afternoon when they were discussing what should go into the show, when Cook talked about how much The King and I had meant to her (she had played Anna at City Center in 1960, as well as sang in a studio recording in 1964). Then, without any warning, while seated in her wheelchair, Cook launched into singing “Hello Young Lovers” from first to last note. Furman’s telling set the scene perfectly and it was one of the emotional high points of the night.
The evening was interspersed with carefully chosen television clips, and at this point, we were treated to the best of the best: Cook’s rendition of “In Buddy’s Eyes” from the 1985 Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center. Beginning with rehearsal footage of Cook in no makeup and with undone hair, it dissolved to her magnificently attired in a blue gown and with flowing locks on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall. It took me back to that night thirty-two years ago in a flash. Those were my first tears of the night.
Then it was time for Frank Langella to take the stage, and take the stage he did. All I can say is that whatever the ups and downs might be in having a friend in Frank Langella, I’m sure it would all be worth it if only to have him speak at your memorial. In eloquent and unadorned speech, he told one great story after another, the best one being about a night he brought Cook to a dinner at Barbara Walters (it’s too long for this report, but I promise I will write it up soon). Langella topped off his speech with insight and wisdom:
“Barbara Cook was a great artist. One of the few who truly deserved that word next to their name: artist. She believed that every decision you make as a performer should be a life or death one. Every note you sing, every song you choose to sing, should be filled with integrity, dedication and honesty. She was as imperfect as the rest of us: she was vain, she was egocentric, she was selfish, she was needy and insecure — like the rest of us … and to some extent, I think her very original, very unique talent was also her jailer. But her prison was, after all, filled with beauty, filled with magic. One that was dominated by the words and music of equally great artists. And all in all, that’s an incarceration that I think every one of us should envy.”
Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis, who had co-starred with Cook in Sondheim on Sondheim, sang a duet of “So Many People” that they had performed in that show. Their voices blended perfectly, creating a certain magic together. Then, finally, it was time for Audra McDonald.
There really shouldn’t be any contention that Audra McDonald has been bequeathed the mantle that was once Cook’s, particularly as it regards the power of acting a song as well as singing one. First speaking of her abiding affection for Cook, who she not only befriended, but sang with in concerts together, McDonald could not have been more heartfelt and charming. What she was going to sing, she told us, was at the request of James Lapine. And it was a stunner: John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys. To say you could have heard a pin drop is an understatement. I think I held my breath through the entire song.
The last words were from Adam LeGrant, Cook’s son and only child. He was gracious in his thank you’s and tender in his look back at his mother. He closed by saying “I love you mom,” exited the stage, and private photos of Cook filled the screen while we listened to a gorgeous recording of her singing “We’ll Be Together Again.” There were tears in the dark, I can tell you.
But even with all the talent that came together, it was Cook who remained centerstage in voice and spirit from start to finish. It was she who stole her own show. And that was more than just right: it was perfect.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.