If you are going to look back on what was most likely Broadway's Golden Age, you couldn't have a better tour guide than Barbara Cook, Broadway's quintessential ingenue in the 1950s.
Cook transformed herself into a cabaret artist of the first rank more than two decades later, but her heart and soul remain in musical theater, something that comes through with astonishing clarity in "Barbara Cook's Broadway," her glorious new one-woman show at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. In fact, its subtitle could be called "Among My Yesterdays," a Kander and Ebb song she sings early in the 90-minute evening.
Cook's retrospective is not so much about her long career, although she talks a bit about her life, sings a few numbers from "She Loves Me" and does a very funny lip-sync to her original recording of "Glitter and Be Gay," that Mount Everest of arias from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide."
The show is a collection of songs from Broadway right after World War II and into the early 1970s, when Cook stopped working regularly on the New York stage.
These days, at age 76, Cook is a musical-theater phenomenon. Sure, she can't hit those impossible high notes in "Glitter and Be Gay" like she did eight times a week nearly 50 years ago, but her voice remains a remarkable instrument. Not only that, it's more expressive than ever.
The woman turns each song into a mini-musical all its own. Cook finds the emotional truth in a number, mixed it with her impeccable phrasing and enunciation and transforms the moment into high art.
Consider her rendition of "The Gentleman Is a Dope." Cook mines the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard for some surprising bitterness. Yet she can find the comic wistfulness of "A Perfect Relationship" from "Bells Are Ringing" and the exuberance of "Wonderful Guy," that forthright declaration of love in "South Pacific," too.
But Cook is at her best with songs of heartache, whether the composer is Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin or Jerry Herman. She reveals the deep longing in such numbers as "This Nearly Was Mine," "What'll I Do?" and "Time Heals Everything."
As usual, Cook is accompanied by the invaluable Wally Harper on piano, and Richard Sarpola is on bass. She performs on the simple, regal set used for Lincoln Center Theater's production of "King Lear," which plays five times a week in the same space.
"Barbara Cook's Broadway" is on view at Lincoln Center through April 18 on a weekend performance schedule. Do not miss it.
Artful simplicity has never seemed more eloquent than in the era of the pop gymnast, when ambitious singers compete to execute triple somersaults of empty, strained vocal melisma. As an exemplar of a traditional, more generous value system in which the performer serves the song rather than vice versa, there are few singers as compelling as the lyric soprano Barbara Cook, whose new show, ''Barbara Cook's Broadway,'' opened a limited engagement (through April 18) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater last night.
Ms. Cook, who is 77 but possesses the voice (when it is rested) of a woman less than half her age, embodies the term late bloomer. Her soprano may have darkened and her operatic coloratura faded, but it is only in the last decade that this onetime Broadway ingénue (of ''The Music Man,'' ''Candide'' and ''She Loves Me'') has hit her autumnal peak as a cabaret and concert performer. In her previous show, devoted mostly to Stephen Sondheim, she found a special compatibility with that ranking intellectual of theater composers. Applying her sunny soprano and perfect enunciation to Mr. Sondheim's ambivalent, fiercely verbal lyrics, she refreshed the songs and warmed them up.
Her approach to a song is to take one step back and then open her arms. As she embraces a lyric, she comforts it as she listens to it. Even when the ending is sad, a kind of calm descends. With her overarching faithfulness to a song's melody, the voice soothes a song's anxiety and pain in a way that's maternal but also hardheaded. Ms. Cook never fawns, dotes or offers weepy empathy. She understands that tough love, combined with a farsighted understanding, makes for the best therapy.
Her singing remains technically impeccable. The sweeping lines of a Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad pour out with scarcely an extra breath taken. Near the very end of ''This Nearly Was Mine,'' from ''South Pacific,'' Ms. Cook lingers over the word ''paradise,'' drawing it out in a soft, sweet, humming vibrato that goes on longer than seems humanly possible. It's not a gimmick but a distillation of a lyric that's all about paradise lost and the acceptance of dreams not coming true.
With her longtime musical director, Wally Harper, on piano (his playing is sparer and more focused than in the past), and the bassist Richard Sarpola, the intermissionless, 90-minute performance maintains an easy balance between pathos and playfulness. Blending autobiography and Broadway musical history (in backstage anecdotes that involve everyone from Robert Preston to Leonard Bernstein to George Hamilton), it is a homey, intimate show for Broadway connoisseurs that might mystify a theater audience expecting an East Coast answer to Las Vegas.
In 1987 Ms. Cook brought a similar program to Broadway at the Ambassador Theater, in her one-woman show, ''Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theater.'' This sequel is far more confident and sharply focused, with the songs thematically connected in subtle ways. She plays an amusing joke on ''Glitter and Be Gay,'' her coloratura aria from ''Candide,'' and reprises several songs from her signature show ''She Loves Me.'' ''A Wonderful Guy,'' from ''South Pacific,'' is pure joy without syrup, and ''Mister Snow,'' from ''Carousel,'' a warm and witty revelation.
Throughout the concert runs a thread of yearning, a feeling that for Ms. Cook seems synonymous with the life force. It's inspiring to observe how a mingling of desire, memory and a hard-won joy with a voice that won't quit can coalesce into the equivalent of musical wisdom.
How do you follow on the heels of your own hit? That's the happy dilemma that Barbara Cook, the celebrated singer of theater songs, faced when she first mulled putting together a new concert at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
It was just two seasons ago, after all, that Cook did her Tony-nominated show "Mostly Sondheim" at the Beaumont. "I was concerned because the Sondheim show was very successful," Cook said recently. "You know how you feel about trying to follow a success."
Actually, not everyone does, but Cook, who started succeeding 50 years ago, came up with "Barbara Cook's Broadway!," which opens tonight at the Beaumont (on the set of "King Lear") for weekend performances through April 18.
The concert focuses mostly on music from 1951 to 1971, during the so-called "golden age" of musical theater. That's when Cook -- blond, slim and possessed of a silvery, pure soprano -- wowed 'em in such shows as "The Music Man" (she won a Tony as "Marian the Librarian") and "She Loves Me."
"I was so lucky," the Atlanta-born performer told a preview audience last weekend. "When I came here, I was in the right package at the right time."
If the package is no longer as svelte, the voice still rings remarkably true and clear at the age of 76.
Cook even made her Metropolitan Opera debut with a guest appearance in "The Merry Widow" last New Year's Eve. How does she do it?
"I don't do anything in particular," Cook said. "I don't vocalize every day and all that stuff. I've never worried about scarves in the night and drinking hot tea," strategems often employed by singers to preserve their voices.
"There's some stuff I can't sing anymore," she acknowledged. Which is why these days her hilarious coloratura flights in "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" are lip- synched to a recording of her own voice from the original 1956 production.
Even when Cook momentarily lost her way in the verbal patter at her second performance last weekend, the earthy performer quickly had the audience laughing at the lapse. "I learned a long time ago that if you make a mistake," she said a few days later, "the thing to do is to acknowledge it and accept it and go on."
Cook did go on to her second career in cabaret and concerts, after a professional and emotional trough in the early 1970s. She had started gaining weight, there was a "slump in Broadway shows," and she had "slipped into alcoholism without realizing it."
With few Broadway roles coming her way, she teamed up in 1974 with conductor-pianist Wally Harper, who has remained her musical director and arranger ever since. A couple of years later, she got sober. "It was a gift," she said. "I got scared, because my body started falling apart."
If her weight -- "I was, and am, fat" -- denied Cook some opportunities, so be it. She continues to glitter and be gay. "I have prevailed in another way," she said, "no matter what."
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.