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Simply Barbara

Barbara Cook discusses her upcoming shows at Avery Fisher Hall and Feinstein's at the Loews Regency -- and her love for American Idol.

Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook has thrilled audiences with her soaring soprano for over half a century, and New Yorkers are extremely lucky to have two different opportunities to hear her in the coming weeks. First, she returns to Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday, May 30 for a one-night-only concert with the New York Philharmonic, where her selections will include "It Might As Well Be Spring," "No One Is Alone" and a host of other standards. Then from June 18-20, she brings her celebrated new cabaret show Here's to Life back to Feinstein's at the Loews Regency. TheaterMania recently spoke with Cook about putting together these shows, singing Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, and spending time at home watching YouTube and American Idol.

THEATERMANIA: Do you approach a concert with the Philharmonic differently than one of your club acts?
BARBARA COOK: A lot of my approach is similar and a lot of the differences are automatic. It's like talking to people across a dinner table as opposed to talking to people across the street; the gestures are bigger. Of course, with the Philharmonic, you have the power of those instruments and those soaring strings, and when there are 1000 people in the audience and they are applauding, screaming, yelling, it's extremely exciting.

TM: Every time you do a show, you add some new songs. Why is that so important to you?
BC: I've been around a long time, so if people are going to come see me again, I want to do songs for them that they haven't heard before. I don't want people to think "well, I know what she's done, so why bother?"

TM: How is May 30 going to be different for you than any other day?
BC: It's going to be a long day, since my first rehearsal with the Philharmonic is at 3pm and we have to go through the whole program. I'm thinking that maybe I'll arrive with some of my makeup already on, which I don't usually do, so I can take a little nap. I've found that even a half-hour of closing my eyes works; I feel like I've waken up all over again.

TM: One of my favorite things about seeing your shows are the stories you tell. How much of your patter is planned before you go on stage?
BC: When I do a run at a club like Feinstein's, the patter evolves as it goes along. If someone laughs at a story one night, it stays in through the rest of the run. But I don't ever really write anything down; while there is some planning, I am much better speaking off the cuff. And there are some stories that occur to me on stage that I wouldn't think I'd ever say, but then they just come out. For example, during my last run at Feinstein's, I certainly didn't plan to talk about being in love with that male opera singer, it just happened.

TM: That story came out of you singing "I've Got You Under My Skin," which was the first Cole Porter song you'd ever done in a cabaret act. Why did it take so long and why was it that song?
BC: It wasn't a super-conscious decision on my part not to do Porter; it's just that his work hasn't always spoken to me. But after I heard someone else sing that song recently, I thought about the words more than I have in the past. "I'll sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near." That's heavy stuff. But I have to say I didn't totally trust the idea of doing it; I was afraid it was going to sound self-indulgent. But then I tried it out for some friends in my living room, which is what I always do, and their reaction was sensational. So I thought maybe it will work after all.

TM: It wouldn't be a Barbara Cook show without at least one Stephen Sondheim song. What speaks to you about his work?
BC: It's so rich that I can go back again and again and find new things to explore in his work. It's one reason I'm talking about doing another Sondheim show [the theatrical revue iSondheim], but I want to know more about how it's going to be put together before I agree. It sounds very interesting, though.

TM: You work so hard, and you do go out and see a lot of shows, but I know you also spend time at home. What do you when you're relaxing?
BC: By nature, I am a night person. I just love that period around 3am, when I know no one will bother me then. I sometimes watch a lot of YouTube. I think I've seen that clip of Susan Boyle 15 times, and I cried every time. It's just dynamite. And yes, I occasionally watch myself too.

TM: Did you watch this season of American Idol?
BC: I watched some of it, and I was surprised Adam Lambert didn't win. He's so talented, but I think he seemed too dangerous to all those teenybopper girls. I can't imagine that Kris Allen (who won) will have the same kind of career as Adam, who is already a star. You should go to YouTube and watch Adam sing "Come to Me, Bend to Me," live; it's so beautiful. Last year, I loved David Archuleta; I think he's a major talent. Not only does he have this gorgeous voice, but there's such soul in his work. And what about Fantasia? She's totally amazing. I saw her twice in The Color Purple and she made the show a hit. I'm thinking about seeing her in Washington, DC this summer; I'm trying to get some friends to go down on the train with me.

TM Speaking of DC, how involved are you personally with the Barbara Cook's Spotlight series of cabaret shows at the Kennedy Center?
BC: I do help them sometimes with selecting people to play there. For this season, I suggested Cheyenne Jackson, which was not a hard sell, and Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who will be there next spring. They've never done an act, but after I heard them at a private event last summer, I thought they'd be perfect so I asked them to do this. I loved them both in Sunday in the Park With George. Jenna was just sensational; I've never seen anyone do that part quite like that.

TM: You recently had another big event in your life, didn't you?
BC: I got my first doctorate -- from the Boston Conservatory of Music -- so I'm Dr. Cook now. You know, when I first auditioned for Candide, Leonard Bernstein asked me where I went to school, and I almost said Girls' High. So now I think if they had given me this earlier, I could have said I went to the Boston Conservatory.