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Better All the Time

Cabaret and musical legend Barbara Cook is still learning

By Robert Faires, 12:50PM, Thu. Sep. 19, 2013

Still glittering and being gay: Barbara Cook
Still glittering and being gay: Barbara Cook
Courtesy of Mike Martin

You may think Barbara Cook hit the heights musically on Broadway in the Golden Age of Musicals, but the original Cunegonde in Candide, Marian the librarian in The Music Man, and Amalia in She Loves Me begs to differ. This stage treasure, performing at Bass tonight, insists she's a better singer today than she was five years ago.

That's not to slight Cook's unparalleled achievements in musical theatre, especially once you add in her stand-out performances in several legendary City Center revivals of the day – Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, Carrie Pepperidge and Julie Jordan in Carousel, Anna in The King and I, Magnolia in Show Boat – and her masterful work with Stephen Sondheim in the Lincoln Center revival of Follies and two separate revues of his songs. But since she relaunched her career in the mid-Seventies as a cabaret performer, Cook has been on a quest to "go deeper emotionally into songs," to open herself to more truth. In a phone call with Ms. Cook, the 2011 Kennedy Center honoree explained show she does that and how she assembled the show she will perform in Austin, which draws heavily from her 2012 release, Loverman, a recording that's much jazzier and bluesier than her fans might expect.

Austin Chronicle: It was fascinating to me to learn that a lot of the songs on that CD you had not performed before.

Barbara Cook: I was nervous. I've been wanting to do a swing-jazzy-bluesy thing for a long time, but would people accept it from me? How about the song "Loverman"? My god, we're talking about Ella Fitzgerald. We're talking about Billie Holiday, who introduced it. The song was written for Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday and Barbara Cook – you see what I mean? I thought people will laugh at me or something. I was terribly afraid in that sense.

I chose "Loverman" because I just happened to hear a version of the song with Ella Fitzgerald singing it on Andy Williams' TV show. She was absolutely at her peak. So I sent this song from YouTube to absolutely everybody I know, and I just kept playing it again and again for my own pleasure. She's so wonderful. Then I started kind of humming along with it. Then I sang along with it. Then the light bulb went on, and I said, "Oh my god, Barbara, do you think maybe I could sing this song?" So that's how it happened. I got my courage together – well, I need my courage for a lot of these things, not because I thought I couldn't sing them well, but, well, let me see … I wasn't sure people would accept them from me.

AC: But even Ella sometimes was criticized for not being a bluesy enough singer, for not being able to get into that dark area …

BC: Really? I didn't know that anyone ever complained about Ella.

AC: I think it's people who want to pit Billie against Ella, as if one has to be better than the other.

BC: Huh.

AC: I've occasionally heard that criticism. I never feel it myself. Ella's top of the line as far as I'm concerned, but I think I understand what you're talking about.

BC: One of the things I like so much about Ella is purity. She sings so purely, and then she does all those incredible tricks with her voice. My god! Aw, please!. You should look that up on YouTube. "Loverman" by Ella Fitzgerald on The Andy Williams Show. It's a beaut. Boy. Mmm.

AC: So you talked about loving the song and sort of easing into it. When you're starting to sing something that you haven't sung before, is loving the song half the battle?

BC: Also, sometimes I need a particular type of song at a particular place in the act, you know what I mean? I think, "Okay, here I need something up because we've had these lugubrious moments, and I'd better break it up a little bit." So that happens, too. It's just plain out trying to please people and trying to please myself at the same time.

AC: Do you have to go down many dead ends before you find something that works the way you want?

BC: It varies. This is the first time that I've ever put an act together by myself. When it was time for to start putting an act together, I found that my usual accompanists, all of them, were busy. And because I was swinging for the first time, it took me a while to find somebody because I didn't really know what to ask for. I know that sounds crazy, but it just didn't occur to me. I don't usually think in those terms. And then time was getting so close to when I had to perform with a new show – and I had to have a new show – that finally I thought, "Barbara, you better start putting this together by yourself." And so I got out my list of songs – I have hundreds of songs that I keep forever – and I knew what I wanted to do, I knew the kind of act that I wanted to do.

Come to think of it, it wasn't so hard to put this together, even before I found a wonderful pianist. I have two great pianists who are with me now, but the one I put the show together with is not free, so I'm working with Tedd Firth. Normally, I work with Ted Rosenthal. This is Tedd Firth with two 'D's. Ted-duh-duh Firth. Yeah, I call him Ted-duh-duh. Anyway, I had very clear ideas that came to me pretty easily about how I wanted to do the songs, meaning by that the structure of the song – you know, do you want to go back, how you're gonna end it, and all that kind of stuff.

But it took me a long time to be comfortable with these songs. I feel fine about them now, but particularly in the beginning, opening in New York, I didn't know what the hell The New York Times would say. And Stephen [Holden] liked it, thank goodness. And little by little, … I've been doing it a while, so I've gotten more and more confident singing this kind of material.

AC: How so?

BC: I have trouble with my back, and I have trouble with two knees, so I can't stand for an hour and half and do the show anymore. That's been true for a couple of years now, that I can't stand and do the act. And I hated that in the beginning. But you know, you never know, you just never know what's going to work for you. I come on with my cane, and then I sit down, and I do the whole concert sitting down. And what has happened is, it's relaxed me so that I feel more comfortable with what I'm doing, and so many people tell me that they really like it because it feels like they're in my living room. I'm sitting down and singing for them. It becomes more intimate. You stand up, and it's more performance-y. And you know I'll be doing a master class, and very often I have the students sit down to get them out of the idea that they have to perform – I mean, perform perform, "Sing out, Louise" kind of stuff. So they concentrate less on getting the notes right and more about the content, what are they trying to say.

AC: There's a lovely singer from New York who was visiting Austin – her name is Liz Callaway

BC: Oh, Liz, I know her very well.

AC: Well, I was close enough to be able to really look into her eyes, and I was struck by this shift that took place in them when she started some songs, the kind of shift that I see in some actors when they take on a character. And I thought her background in musical theatre, all the roles that she's played, may have played a part in her approaching songs that way. You have a background like that. You did all those wonderful musical theatre roles before you started doing cabaret regularly. Did your career in musical theatre have any influence in the way you approached songs when you started doing cabaret?

BC: I don't think so. Singing for a few people in a smaller setting is something I've done all my life. I can't remember when I didn't sing. My family loved for me to sing for them all the time, so I grew up knowing that my singing gave people pleasure. Then, when I did theatre, boy, that's another thing and a half.

When I first did it, it made me so nervous, I thought, "Christ, is this really what I want to do?" Seriously. The first show I did was one called Flahooley, and when we were out of town, before the show came to New York, I remember being in Philadelphia thinking, "If this is what it takes to do musical comedy" – we used to call it musical comedy in those days – "I don't know if this is really what I want to do." I got all sorts of nervous ailments. I was just scared to death.

And oddly enough, throughout my career, somehow it's like I go down two streets at the same time. One the one hand, I think I'm gonna be fired any minute, that I'm terrible, that everyone else is better than me. And on the other hand, I constantly tell them, "No, I can't do it that way. You hired me for who I am. This is the way I do it. Change the orchestration to fit me. I don't fit into the orchestration." I did that with my first show. Can you believe that? Yeah. I remember I was doing the first orchestra rehearsal, and the conductor said, "Barbara, you have to phrase it this way because we have a sax line coming in, blahblahblahblahblah." And I said, "No. You've got to change the sax line. They hired me to do what I do, and this is it. Fix it." Isn't that weird? At the same time, I think I'm gonna be fired any minute. So you figure it out. I don't know. I've always thought that way. I have a very clear idea of how I want to do things. Very, very early on.

AC: So does that change at all when you're in front of an audience? You're out there to do what you have this idea of doing, but there's always that give and take with an audience, and you spoke about wondering whether audiences would accept you doing songs a certain way?

BC: Well, I'm not about to change in the middle of a performance. What happens is, a song to me has a musical pathway, and it has an emotional pathway, and I work along a kind of Actors Studio [approach] – that's the only kind of training I ever had. Not at the Studio, but my husband was the only acting teacher I ever had, and he had years of the Studio. So his whole approach was the Lee Strasberg-type approach. And basically, that's what I do in my singing: I call up memories, and I see photographs, and they make me inclined to do a certain thing. Now, what happens sometimes is I get the image or the memory, and it's stronger than I think it's going to be, and sometimes I cry. That doesn't happen very often, and I don't try to do it, but I've learned not to worry about it if it happens. Because if you stop that, you stop all sorts of other things, and you don't want to do that. You want to let these things come through.

AC: Are you still learning?

BC: Oh yeah! I'm glad you said that, because this is a work in progress. I sing better now than I did five years ago, and I think, if I'm still in good health, five years from now, I'll sing better than I do now. And I don't mean musically. I mean having the courage to go farther with intent, with emotional intent. The courage to go deeper emotionally into songs.

AC: Is that something you encourage in students when you do these master classes?

BC: Definitely. You know, the bottom line of what I try to teach people is a very simple thing – at least it sounds simple: You are enough. In other words, we always want you. We want your life in your work. We don't want to see you trying to be somebody other than who you are. People don't … how can I put it? If you see something or somebody that's absolutely authentic, you are totally drawn to that. We're drawn to truth – in life, too. You don't want to go around with a phony. So if somebody's being phony onstage – now, they might have a great voice, "Oh, God, what beautiful singing," people don't think about this stuff, but I think it's automatic. Somebody's a big bunch o' truth up there, and you fall right into them. So that's what I try to teach people to do, to really embrace who they are and let us in. Have the courage to take off your emotional clothes and let us in. When you do that, it's very powerful.

AC: Beautifully put. Are there any new songs that you're working on behind the scenes?

BC: Well, right now – Christ! You're a writer. I'm trying to write a book. trying to write my memoirs, and it's rough going, for two reasons. One, I'm not disciplined. I'm not a writer writer at all. I've never been one of those people to keep journals and all that kind of thing, and I don't have the discipline that a writer needs, so-o-o-o-o it's tough going.

The other thing is that there are places in my background and memories that I don't particularly want to retrace. I do as much crying as I do writing. But I'm trying to be really honest about all this, and I have quite a background. My God, my family story's like a soap opera or a film noir. No kidding. My mother's brother was murdered – accidentally. He was sitting in a police car, the policeman was his friend, and somebody got out of jail and wanted to kill the policeman who put him into jail, and he shot my uncle instead. I was about 3 years old, and my sister, who was younger than me, was ill at the same time with pneumonia, and you know we didn't have antibiotics in those days. So my mother went to the cemetery on Thursday to bury her brother, and the next day she buried her child, my sister. That's just part of my story. So I have all that stuff to deal with. And oh my God, my drinking years, darling. I was unemployable in those years.

But you see, that's all the stuff that goes into my work, and when I'm honored – I got one of the Kennedy Center honors two years ago, and I never thought that would happen to me, and I was so surprised and pleased and everything else – I feel like they're honoring my life as well as my work, because I put so much of my life into my work. So it sort of makes everything okay.

Barbara Cook performs Thursday, Sep. 19, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, call 512/477-6060 or visit www.texasperformingarts.org.

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