Belfast Festival: Barbara Cook

Philip Hammond on the living legend of musical theatre as she heads to Ireland for the first time, a day before her 82nd birthday

As my generation speeds past middle age and heads for, at best, old age, it’s remarkable how we have tended to look at past generations and, in comparison, think mistakenly or otherwise that we are exceptional. Somehow we’ve managed to cheat time and remain younger for longer. Look at all the things we baby-boomers have done and still continue to do despite being in our fifth and even sixth decades. Isn’t 60 the new 40?

Whether that is a delusion or not, we are the first generation to believe that we can live better, for longer. On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, my best friend’s mother, Roz Levine, was coming up to her 93rd birthday, still driving her car, still totally conscious of her political and social environment, still participating fully in the life of her community, still fiercely independent and doing all those things people half her age do. And Roz is probably doing them better, too.

A young Barbara CookRoz would say that Barbara Cook , at a mere 81 years of age, is something of a youngster. Like Roz, however, Cook lives her life to the full and, as a living legend, she has still plenty of scope for that.

'A transcendent American voice sharing the wisdom she has gained in 81 well-lived years with a tenderness and honesty that could break your heart and mend it all at once. To hear Miss Cook sing is to hear a performer spreading the gospel of simplicity, self-reliance and truth.'

That was a quote from Stephen Holden, a leading theatre and film critic of the New York Times, after Cook’s birthday celebration concert with the New York Philharmonic last November. It was just before that event that she was to have made her Belfast debut as part of the 2008 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s - that was, perforce, delayed until this year’s festival when she will grace the stage of the Grand Opera House with her regular instrumental trio.

Aficionados of cabaret and musical theatre will have cleared their diaries for Saturday, October 24. Why? Because to hear Barbara Cook live in Belfast is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Conor Mitchell is particularly looking forward to Ms Cook’s Belfast visit. He’s a young Northern Irish musical dramatist and composer who has received much support and encouragement from no less a person than Stephen Sondheim, and whose own work will be performed during this year’s festival.

'Barbara Cook was the first singer to pioneer the actor’s interpretation of lyric song,' remarks Mitchell. 'After her, American musical theatre changed entirely and what’s so great is that she is still around singing a repertoire that has evolved with her almost over her entire lifetime. Seeing and hearing her perform throws a different light on the lyric – music that was often written for a young lyric soprano and is now being transformed by an 81-year-old. It’s fantastic!'

In 1951, when most of us baby boomers were still in diapers, and three decades before Mitchell was born, Cook was making her Broadway debut as the ingénue lead in the musical Flahooley. During the next few years she starred as the lead in hit shows like Oklahoma, Carousel, Plain and Fancy, The Music Man, and She Loves Me

During Broadway’s heyday, she helped create many of the most memorable roles of musical theatre, such as Cunegonde in the original cast of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. She took part in revivals like City Center’s King and I and in memorable stagings like New York State Theatre’s production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s fabled Showboat.

From the 1950s to the 70s, her career was acclaimed in a catalogue of hyperboles. The infamous American columnist Liz Smyth wrote, for example, that she was 'spellbinding and satisfying, her humor, her grace, her ultimate musicianship and respect for her art is nonpareil. You will not want this intermission-less show to end. But when it does you’ll remember Barbara’s beautiful face shining in a luminescent halo and you will be tempted to murmur 'Saint Barbara'.'

That of course was well after Cook had moved into the field of what we might term 'concert performances' and recording. Her fame had become international and she was regarded as the voice of Broadway’s golden era and the archetypal New York showgirl singer - even though she was born in Atlanta.

But her transformation to solo concert/cabaret artist was no less successful than her stage career. Her ability to engage with her audiences was as natural as the quality of her voice. Reading her critiques, you are struck by the genuine warmth, the emotional sincerity that must have emanated from her singing. And it still does, if you listen to her records or watch the several video clips on the web.

Barbara Cook - Mostly SondheimCook’s repertoire includes all the greats from Gershwin, Kern, and Hammerstein through to the songs which came out of her particularly close and productive musical relationship with Stephen Sondheim. 

She captures the very essence of a song and colours it with her own unique vocal blend, certainly with the ambiance of the Broadway singer but with a tone and timbre going way beyond that. Her sound, her presence, her performance is totally infectious, unavoidably intoxicating.

The operatic world may sometimes look askance at the musical theatre singer, so when the New York Metropolitan Opera House recognised her with a solo concert in its hallowed sanctuary, everyone knew it was an honour that was unparalleled.

After the performance in January 2006, Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times:

'Last night, to her utter delight, Barbara Cook was on the stage of the MET as part of its official season, the first female singer from the pop and cabaret worlds ever to be honored with a solo concert there. If the MET is consecrated to great vocal artistry, then Barbara Cook belongs there. 

'At 78 she is singing, if anything, better than ever, with more elegance and vulnerability. The way she reaches to her high range and spins a phrase, melting pianissimos is an object lesson for opera singers. The basic lightness and rosy bloom of her voice remain miraculously fresh. But through that youthful-sounding voice, she conveys a lifetime of feeling – joy, pain and hard-won wisdom.'

Cook’s 82nd birthday falls on Sunday, October 25, the day after her Grand Opera House concert in Belfast. Can she still produce the goods? I asked a comparatively youthful Graeme Farrow, festival director, what he thought.

'Yes, Barbara Cook is 'ageless' and she’s still in great voice despite the years,' he remarked. 'We are absolutely delighted to have been able to reschedule her Grand Opera House appearance this October after last year’s last minute cancellation. She is looking forward to coming to Belfast. She is Broadway royalty and we’re really pleased to provide the platform for her first appearance in Ireland. It’s just the sort of thing which the festival can do like nobody else and a must-see for fans of musical theatre.'

Book your tickets to see Barbara Cook via the Belfast Festival website, and check out Culture Live! listings for all Belfast Festival events.