Let's take a moment to honor the late, great Barbara Cook, a Broadway legend who passed away earlier this week. Cook was one of the great sopranos of the Golden Age of Broadway. She was perhaps best known for originating the role of Marian Paroo in The Music Man, but that really only scratches the surface of what she accomplished in her long and varied career. In fact, as I was thinking about this article and what I wanted to say about this Broadway great, it occurred to me that in the few months that I've had this blog up and running, I've covered THREE shows with original, unforgettable performances by Cook: Candide, The Music Man, and She Loves Me. She was Broadway's favorite ingenue in the 50's and a mainstay of the cabaret scene in the 70's and 80's, a Tony Award winner and a Kennedy Center honoree. In short, she was a legend.
But what makes someone a legend? Those who know and love Barbara Cook have always admired her crystal-clear soprano voice, but Cook was more than a pretty voice. She was one of those singers that could convey the most complex of emotions through song. She took characters like Cunegonde and Marian Paroo, characters that might have easily become two-dimensional, and infused them with great humor, sorrow, strength, and compassion. She was an impressive actress as well as a phenomenal singer, and her great strength lay in her ability to convey the text.
What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, Cook had a great gift for diction. I have never heard a Barbara Cook song where every single word wasn't perfectly articulated and therefore 100% understandable. It takes skill to make the text clear when you're singing up in the stratosphere, as Cook often did. Just listen to "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide if you doubt me. A lot of sopranos tend to modify their vowels when they start singing high in their range. Not Barbara. Every word is clear, every vowel distinct. I also love how she approaches words like "forced" and "harsh" - so elegant and yet so expressive.
The B section of "Glitter and Be Gay" - this is where Cunegonde changes course so abruptly - reveals a different side of the character. "And yet of course, I rather like to revel. Ha ha!" sings Cunegonde, and Cook, ever the consummate interpreter of text, makes a new vocal choice to match the new tone of the piece. Listen to how much brighter Cook makes her voice. And while you're at it, please appreciate how she articulates EVERY SINGLE "H" in the laughing sections of the piece. Do you know how exhausting that is?
Over the years, many opera singers have done their own versions of "Glitter and Be Gay." All the greats - Renee Fleming, Natalie Dessay, and Diana Damrau to name a few - have versions of the piece, and yet, for me, the best performance will always be the original. Cook's Cunegonde is somehow both elegant and lowbrow, sorrowful and hilarious (that sense of humor, by the way, is what many of the opera performances lack) and the combination of all these elements is what made Cook a star.
The Music Man followed very quickly on the heels of Candide, giving Cook yet another opportunity to showcase her incredible skills as a singer and actress. Cook won a Tony award for this performance and listening to "My White Knight" it's not hard to understand why.
Cook's voice is easily recognizable, and yet do you hear the minuscule differences between this performance and her portrayal of Cunegonde? The vowels she uses here in Music Man are just slightly distinct from those of Candide. Here, the vowels are a little broader, not as aristocratic. For instance, listen to how the "r" creeps into words like "dear" and "forward." In contrast, Cunegonde's "r's" are practically non-existent - they disappear almost entirely from words like "part." (By the way, in terms of diction, r's in American English are often thought of as part of the vowel even though they themselves are consonants. So "or" and "ar" are variations on the "o" and "a" vowels. Singers with classical training, like Cook, are taught to remove the ugly "r" sound from vowels as often as possible.) This distinction between vowel sounds may seem unimportant, but consider how a choice like this can affect our perception of the character! Doesn't Marian sound more approachable, more down-to-earth than Cunegonde? And that's as it should be. Marian is a Midwestern girl while Cunegonde is a European aristocrat. Cook knew what she was doing when she modified her diction for Music Man.
Let's move from Marian Paroo to Amalia Balash, another of Cook's great Broadway roles. Perhaps my favorite number of the show is the Act I closer, the incredibly emotional "Dear Friend." Cook's interpretation is raw, powerful, hauntingly beautiful, and again, I think it's her approach to the text that elevates this moment. I never knew it was possible to convey sorrow through a consonant until I started to pay attention to Cook's vocal choices. Somehow she gives length to the final consonants on words like "romantic" and "perfect" and that one choice makes all the difference.
I want to leave you with one of Cook's later performances, lest you think I'm biased in favor of her earlier career. Here Cook sings "Losing My Mind" from the 1985 concert version of Sondheim's "Follies."
Listen to that final "you said you loved me" to hear a true genius at work. This isn't the sweet ingenue of the 1950's - this is a seasoned pro, a mature woman with something even greater to bring to the table. That final "loved" has all the clarity of a soprano's upper register and yet somehow also possesses all the power and brightness of a belt. It's a legendary performance from a legendary actress. Rest in peace, Ms. Cook. You will be sorely missed.