Electric performances have been turned in by others so far. Now, however, the Cabaret Jazz room at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts fulfills the promise of its name by inviting a cabaret singer of legendary proportions—they don’t, after all, make Kennedy Center honorees out of average artists—named Barbara Cook.
Once known as Broadway’s favorite ingénue—she originated the role of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man in 1957—Cook’s career took a terrific left turn later as she became one of the premier interpreters of Broadway classics and the American songbook in nightclubs and cabarets, earning her the Kennedy medal last year.
With the arrival of our performing arts center, the 84-year-old chanteuse at last brings her talents—in a program created for a run at Michael Feinstein’s New York club and called Let’s Fall in Love—to Vegas. Riffing on a movie line: If you build it, she will sing. We did. She will.
What must a song have for you to perform it?
It has to say something I want to say. Sometimes when I hear songs I’m intrigued by the melody, then when I hear the words, I think, Well, I just don’t want to say that. You know the song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” [by Don McLean]? It’s a very beautiful melody, but the song is about how awful the world is and that’s why Vincent couldn’t live. It doesn’t all have to be flowers popping up, but I can’t say the world is a terrible place. I don’t want to put that out there.
You’re renowned for singing Stephen Sondheim’s repertoire. Why does his music speak to you?
If Stephen reads this, he’ll roll his eyes like crazy. But he’s kind of like Shakespeare in that the material is so rich. It’s often difficult because he finds unusual intervals and sometimes it’s difficult to learn. But my God, it’s so worth it. The songs are so strong that they can hold our lives.
Why do you seem so emotionally immersed in songs you sing?
People often say they feel like they’ve never heard it before [when she sings standards]. My former husband used to say, “You have an emotional memory in your head, but the path from your brain to your mouth is extremely long.” In The Music Man I was shocked when I heard the show recording and thought, “Oh my God, I’m feeling so much but it’s not there.” It has to do with courage. As I’ve gotten older, I just have more courage to go further, hopefully honestly.
During your film bio in the Kennedy Center Honors you were coaching a young singer. When you asked what he thought the song, “The Nearness of You,” was about, he gave a flowery explanation. You said, “It’s about sex.” Do some singers misunderstand a song’s intent?
Many of these songs often are about sex. “The Nearness of You,” how far can you take that, you know what I mean?
Have you ever questioned veering away from Broadway musicals in your career?
The only thing that really disturbs me is I had a 10-year period when I was a drunk. That was the period when I should have been most productive in the theater. I was unemployable. But I quit drinking 30 years ago.
What do you think of TV talent shows that make instant stars of amateur performers?
I really enjoy America Idol. Fantasia [the Season 3 winner], she did The Color Purple. This girl had never stepped in a Broadway theater before she went for rehearsals. She was spectacular—spectacular! She stepped in for the leading lady who had won the Tony, and just blew me away.
One critic said your singing is so emotionally true that attending your concert “is like consulting an oracle. She’ll advise you on how to proceed.” Is that a heavy expectation to always meet?
Oh Lord. People talking about the emotional part of my singing doesn’t surprise me. I think it’s gotten better and better. I’m as astonished as anybody else that I still sing well at my age. Nobody yet has told me to fold up my tent and steal away.