The lyrical zinger from the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello stings today in a way it didn’t half a century ago when it was written: “And if he likes me, who cares how frequently he strikes me? ” The next line is even worse: “I’ll fetch you slippers with my arm in a sling/Just for the privilege of wearing his ring. ”
The golden age of musical comedy wasn’t always so golden. And it certainly isn’t always funny today. “Something like that really does show you how far we have come, ” said soprano Barbara Cook, after singing a revised version of the song “I’ll Marry the Very Next Man. ”
Cook played a leading part in that golden age of musical comedy, a time of Lerner and Lowe, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on and so on. Now 77, Cook is a leading living legend of the time, and she reflects on it bemusedly. “Hell, I didn’t know I was in a golden age, ” she said earlier this year at a concert devoted to her Broadway reminiscences. Recorded over two nights of that concert at Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, the recently released Barbara Cook’s Broadway! is a superb, engaging soundtrack, one that shows Cook, improbably, miraculously still at the top of her game.
It’s a must-have set for any serious Broadway musical fan — or even a wannabe Broadway musical fan, looking to ease into the sophisticated side of the genre. Cook pays attention to every lyrical detail such that you notice them too, even if you’re not paying close attention. If you don’t notice the actual lyric, you certainly understand the general sentiment, aided and abetted as it is by wonderful accompaniment from her longtime pianist Wally Harper.
Cook has perfected her art through decades of singing in cabarets and one-woman shows, at Carnegie Hall and our own Kennedy Center, among other prestigious venues. But decades before cabaret, Cook starred in many Broadway musicals, most memorably as the original Marian the librarian in The Music Man. She won a Tony for that role. Most of the musicals she appeared in were short-lived though, even outright flops. But she made success out of failure, largely by recording widely distributed soundtracks of those very flops. That includes Leonard Bernstein’s musical adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide — I first encountered Cook’s marvelous springy voice from that very soundtrack recording. Her assured vocal acrobatics through Bernstein’s masterful musical maze — “Glitter and Be Gay ” being the most famous — is pure operatic perfection.
On Broadway! Cook only sings the first few lines of “Till There Was You, ” and nothing else, from The Music Man, before launching into another of her many delightful anecdotes. Unfortunately, she doesn’t even touch Bernstein’s repertoire. She also avoids all but one Stephen Sondheim song even though Cook has become an eminent singer of the Sondheim repertoire. Instead, Cook focuses much of her time here on interpreting the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from offering an intelligent but no less exuberant “A Wonderful Guy ” (South Pacific) to drawing out the bitter longing that’s usually buried under the brazen attitude of “The Gentleman Is a Dope ” (Allegro).
And then there’s Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick. Such an honor it is to have Cook sing your songs that she convinced Harnick, Fiorello‘s lyricist, of the need to rewrite his award-winning, domestic abuse-tolerating lyrics to the otherwise delightful “I’ll Marry the Very Next Man. ” “I’m through with moping, moping from all this pointless hoping, ” the revised lyric begins. “Hoping he’ll notice me and open his heart. Time now to break away and make a new start. ” True, the song, as rewritten, has lost most of its evocative, visual power. Then again, as Cook proves every time she sings, a song’s power lies as much in the delivery as it does in its lyrics and its music.