Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook
One of the most wonderful things about Barbara Cook is that she has no problem in adapting her gorgeous, wide-ranging, technically perfect singing voice to suit the music and words of all sorts of composers and lyricists, from Richard Rodgers to Stephen Sondheim to Lorenz Hart to Laura Nyro to Joe Raposo. Her concert at Carnegie Hall on Friday, February 2, was a "Mostly Sondheim" affair. But since the program included not only songs written by Sondheim, but also several he has gone on record as saying he wishes he'd written, Cook was able to fully display her fabled stylistic versatility.

At the top of the concert, Cook was led on stage by her longtime music director-accompanist Wally Harper on one side and bassist John Beal on the other. Then she began to make use of a cane, complaining of a knee problem. "I'd rather have my knee shot than the cords shot," she proclaimed just before she launched into her opening number--Sondheim's cheerfully defiant "Everybody Says Don't," from Anyone Can Whistle--and brought the house down, her temporary handicap giving special resonance to the song's can-do philosophy. Cook followed with three Harold Arlen songs, two with lyrics by Johnny Mercer ("I Wonder What Became of Me" and "I Had Myself a True Love," the latter from St. Louis Woman) and one with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg ("The Eagle and Me," from Bloomer Girl, a semi-obscure Broadway show due to be revived in concert form by the City Center Encores! series later this season).

Cook then introduced musical theater and television star Malcolm Gets, who handed a plum to the die-hard Sondheim enthusiasts in the audience by singing an earlier version of "Giants in the Sky" from Into the Woods before launching into the number in its final form. Gets gave us an appropriate pairing of two of Sondheim's best songs about connection/lack of connection, "Another Hundred People" (from Company) and "So Many People" (from Saturday Night), then was joined by Cook for "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (Irving Berlin) into "The Song is You" (Kern/Hammerstein). Though Gets failed to nail the repeated low note in "Giants in the Sky," and though he sometimes missed the mark in terms of pitch and played with note values throughout his performance, the audience responded well to his charm and to the strong, appealing sound of his voice in its tenor register.

The first half of the concert ended with Cook's moving renditions of two songs from Sondheim's Passion, "Happiness" and "Loving You." The mood brightened momentarily as she sang "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company, but then Cook blew us away with "Not a Day Goes By" (from Merrily We Roll Along) and "Losing My Mind" (from Follies).

After intermission, Cook delighted with Arlen and Harburg's "Buds Won't Bud," then offered her famous take on "I Got Lost In His Arms" (from Annie Get Your Gun). There followed a fascinating sequence in which Gets sang "Something's Coming" and "Tonight" from West Side Story (lyrics by Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein) interspersed with sections of Romeo's monologues from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This may sound precious, but it worked--big time. Gets and Cook sang "Move On" from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, then Gets again left the stage to Cook, who presented three surprising Sondheim favorites written by others: "Hard-Hearted Hannah," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," and "San Francisco." Declining to attempt the difficult "Glitter and Be Gay," her signature aria from Bernstein's Candide ("I ain't gonna sing that!"), Cook compensated with the beloved "Vanilla Ice Cream" number from She Loves Me. The result was audience pandemonium, but then a hush fell over the great hall as Cook offered Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," complete with a flubbed lyric--"Isn't it rare?" instead of "Are we a pair?"--that only slightly marred her near-definitive rendition.

The concert's finale was "The Trolley Song," with a nod to Judy Garland. Encores were "Nothing's Gonna Harm You" from Sweeney Todd (Gets and Cook) and the plaintive title song from Anyone Can Whistle (Cook alone).

Intermission and post-performance chatter centered on two subjects: (1) how unbelievably well preserved is the voice of Cook, now in her early seventies; and (2) how big the lady looks. Now, it's always dicey to call attention to a performer's weight. Barbara Cook does not play roles that require her to appear thin, so one is tempted to say that it doesn't matter how obese she is, as long as she still sounds great. But this degree of obesity can cause major health problems, especially when the person affected is rather advanced in age. Cook didn't indicate that her knee problem had anything to do with her weight but, when I saw her make that first entrance, I couldn't help thinking of Pavarotti hobbling about the Met stage. Here's hoping that Barbara Cook can lose some of those pounds--not because we need her to look like a super-model, but because we want to her to stay well and ambulatory and singing beautifully for as many more years as she possibly can.