Aisle Review: Cunegonde Farewell

“Jesus Christ, that was boring,” Broadway’s favorite soprano was known to say to her son after one of the many show biz memorial services they attended. “Don’t people know they want a show!”

And thus it was that Adam LeGrant assembled a team of his mother’s favorite buddies to put together a Tribute to Barbara Cook that was high entertainment indeed. The concert on December 18 at the Vivian Beaumont was all highlights, with a hand-selected group of stars praising the talent, generosity and spirit of their friend Barbara (who died August 8 at the age of 89).

Following a video compilation of Cook singing patches of song, Sheldon Harnick (at 93) opened the festivities to an ovation so enormous that he commented, “As much as I look like her, I’m not Barbara Cook.” He told how when he and composer Jerry Bock finished writing “Ice Cream,” during the Philadelphia tryout of She Loves Me, Cook insisted on putting the song into the show that night; since her character was “writing a letter” during the song, she said that they could cheat by having the lyric in her hands.

Jessica Molaskey recalled that when she and hubby John Pizzarelli made their Café Carlyle debut, she panicked because she saw Cook down front just as she was about to launch into “Will He Like Me.” Cook immediately embraced John & Jess, happily making music with them on tour and in concert. Molaskey told how they were imported to Washington for a Supreme Court dinner party, with Cook—in her Atlanta drawl—warning Clarence Thomas to behave. (Jess described it as Barbara “speaking and singing truth to power.”) They finished with their version of “I Got Rhythm”—which pretty much demonstrated why Cook loved Pizzarelli & Molaskey.

Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center and a longtime fan, spoke of Cook’s “unmatched artistry.” Then came Kelli O’Hara, who described herself as “a product of Barbara Cook.” She mentioned how she got a temp job answering phones at Café Carlyle—without knowing what that meant—and was immediately fired because Cook called and Kelli (naturally) ignored whatever else she was supposed to be doing. O’Hara finished her spot with a luscious “Make Someone Happy.”

Next came the most popular clip of the evening: Cook as a young singer looking for her break in the short-lived 1954 soap opera “Golden Windows,” culminating in a woefully off-key “Lover, Come Back to Me.” Also on hand was the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “A Little Sleep” starring Cook as a sexy flirt named “Barbie” who drinks, goes haywire, and winds up strangled. Later clips included numerous glimpses of Cook’s musical savior, Wally Harper.

Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in <em>The Music Man</em>
Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in The Music Man

Actress Jane Summerhays spoke of Cook’s passion for people, talent, and other people’s talent. For Cook, she explained, singing was not about voice; “it was about finding the impetus for why the song was written, exploring what the composer and lyricist were thinking when they wrote it.” She also read one of the numerous 3 A.M. emails she received from Cook, in this case describing how at that day’s rehearsal for Sondheim on Sondheim she had been assigned “I Read,” Fosca’s searing solo from Passion:

“Do you believe this? The first bar is in 3/2, the next bar is in 7/4, the next bar is 5/4, the next two bars 4/4” and on through all sixty-odd bars. “What the fuck was he on when he wrote this?” Barbara asked, going on to add that “on the other hand, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.”

Renée Fleming cited Cook’s watchcry for performers—"You are enough, we are all enough”—and sang “Hello, Young Lovers,” from one of Cook’s favorite roles. Producer Roy Furman discussed Barbara Cook: Then & Now, the aborted 2016 revue. He described Cook at a work session, just before she was forced to withdraw due to infirmity. She closed her eyes, sitting in her wheelchair, and delivered—a cappella—an unworldly “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Sondheim, on video, introduced a clip of Cook rehearsing “In Buddy’s Eyes” for the 1985 Follies in Concert. He points out how everyone in the room—Lee Remick, Mandy Patinkin et al—is spellbound; except, needless to say, Elaine Stritch. We then see the clip, with everyone rapt, including the composer (who seems to be mouthing the lyrics as Barbara sings). At which point Cook is literally upstaged by Stritch in a folding chair, looking in her oversized bag for a cigarette; looking for and not finding a match; removing her shoe; and on.

Frank Langella followed (“I’m Hugh Jackman,” he said), describing in an especially moving speech how his close friend was overwhelmed by alcoholism and neuroses at fifty-five. “But no one is ever finished, no one is ever done.” He discussed Barbara’s “indomitable will and timeless talent,” and how offstage she was “intensely personal and proudly profane,” adding that “her voice was her unique talent—but also her jailer.”

Norm Lewis and Vanessa Williams (of Sondheim on Sondheim) described their friendship with Cook and sang “So Many People,” followed by a taped message from Hugh Jackman. The next-to-last spot was taken by Audra McDonald, who mentioned that when in her Juilliard days she was ineligible to participate in a master class with Cook, she happily ushered. She relayed the lesson that Cook taught her: become friends with the audience and do your best—it is enough. She followed with a stunning rendition of Kander & Ebb’s “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys.

Barbara Cook as Cunegonde in <em>Candide</em>
Barbara Cook as Cunegonde in Candide

The memorial, directed by James Lapine, ended with LeGrant describing his mother. As a woman, not just a performer: “great passion, great power, great appetite,” with “a gift to reveal herself intimately before thousands of people.” How did she do this? “I don’t think she understood.” He ended by reiterating words that several other friends of Barbara had recalled: “You are always enough. We are all always enough.”

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