Needless to say, this subject is of great concern even to those who are primarily fans of live theater in that some of history's greatest stage stars have appeared with varying degrees of frequency on film and television, sometimes recreating their legit roles in whole or in part. All of which brings us to VAI's new DVD compilation of appearances by the great singing actress Barbara Cook on TV's Bell Telephone Hour in the 1960s. Though the later material on the disc (circa 1965) is in near-pristine condition, the excerpts from two earlier broadcasts are marred somewhat by video noise and occasional drop-outs. If this stuff hadn't been digitally transferred when it was, there would have been little left for us all to enjoy. So praise be to whomever was in charge of the rescue.
In a stellar example of wise programming, the DVD begins with a sequence from the Bell telecast of February 16, 1960 in which Cook sings songs from Meredith Willson's The Music Man with The Buffalo Bills, who appeared in both the stage and film versions of the musical. (You may have heard that Cook, who created the role of Marian the Librarian on Broadway, yielded to Shirley Jones for the movie.) The good news about the video quality here is that the program was taped in full color and its hues haven't faded at all, since videotapes don't deteriorate in that way. Cook offers a sweet, pretty, unaffected rendition of "Till There Was You" in a slightly lower key than on the original cast album, then she and the Bills glide through "Lida Rose" / "Will I Ever Tell You?" in the original key. The orchestrations are not those heard on Broadway, but they're tasteful and unobtrusive. (An amusing aspect of this sequence is that no one is around to perform any of Harold Hill's numbers, so Cook musically expresses her affections to some poor dancer who never opens his mouth to say or sing anything.)
The only black and white segment of the eight included on the DVD is the second one, a moving "Civil War Medley" (originally telecast on November 11, 1960) in which Cook sings the haunting Appalachian folk song "He's Gone Away" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Musical theater buffs will really be blown away by the subsequent "Salute to Vienna" (March 16, 1962) because it features the great Alfred Drake soloing on "I'm Off to Chez Maxim's" from The Merry Widow and "Blue Eyes" from White Horse Inn, then duetting with Cook on "Vienna, My City of Dreams." Similarly, they'll be astounded by the golden voice and dashing good looks of the young Robert Goulet, who joins with Cook for a "Salute to the 1962 Broadway Season" (October 22, 1962) and a "Salute to the American Girl" (March 2, 1965). The compilation's low point is an arch, forced, not always politically correct medley titled "Milestones in American Love Songs" (January 5, 1965); but one of its high points comes when Cook teams up with another Broadway musical leading lady, Anita Gillette, in "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" as part of an oddly titled Tribute to World War II (November 7, 1965).
Aside from her gorgeous voice and charming, straightforward stage presence, Cook looks so movie-star beautiful in all of these excerpts that one has to wonder if she was ever seriously considered to repeat her Music Man role on film or to star in any of the countless other big-screen musicals that Hollywood was still turning out in the 1950s and '60s. But this brings up an interesting point: Clearly, almost all of the singing on the DVD was done live in the studio; only one or two sequences (such as the counterpoint section of "Lida Rose" / "Will I Ever Tell You?") seem to have been lip-synched to pre-recordings, probably to assure proper vocal balance. Thus, the disc gives us a far more accurate idea of what it was like to experience Cook on stage in her prime than would any big-screen musical, given that pre-recordings are the rule in that medium.
Ironically, this column was most recently devoted to a review of a compilation CD showcasing Sarah Brightman, a latter-day pretender to the crown of musical theater royalty. Apparently, Brightman has a public, but I maintain that when singers of her ilk attain great popularity, it's partly because those who enjoy them have not had sufficient exposure to far greater artists. Anyone looking for the real deal should purchase this DVD and then make definite plans to catch the still magnificent Barbara Cook in one of her frequent live performances.