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Guest Blog: No second acts in American lives? Take that

Guest Blog: No second acts in American lives? Take that, Scott Fitzgerald!

By David Foil

Call it a tipping point. Call it a watershed. Call it, by all means, a “magic moment.” However you characterize it, Barbara Cook’s concert at Carnegie Hall on January 29, 1975, was a kind of joyous pivotal event in our love affair with classic American songs. Columbia Masterworks’ live recording of the evening, Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, carried an inspiring message of buoyant good will and hope – for Cook’s astonishingly reborn career, of course, but also for a legacy of songs that American culture was, at that moment, taking for granted. No second acts in American lives? Take that, Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s fitting that we are inaugurating with the news that Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall is now available on iTunes. A little thing, maybe, since the physical CD (featuring songs from the concert that had not been included on the LP) has been continuously available since it first appeared in 1996. But let’s say the iTunes release signals a new round of buoyant good will and hope. That would be true if for nothing more than the fact that Cook – still radiant, essential and amazing at the age of 82 – is about to make a long-overdue return to the Broadway stage in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

Columbia Masterworks released Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall at a time when the album was apropos of … well, not much. With the spectacular exception of Stephen Sondheim’s golden run of shows that spans the decade, the Broadway musical was playing in the wilderness in the 1970s. There were non-Sondheim blockbusters (Pippin, The Wiz, A Chorus Line, Annie), but by and large Broadway was struggling with the reality that it was no longer the dream factory for American popular music. Popular music had become defined by rock, rhythm-and-blues and country, as well as (for the moment) punk and disco. Broadway and its songs struck a younger generation as geriatric, musty, passé. Could there have been a crazier time for a 47-year-old Broadway veteran soprano, out of the picture for a decade and transformed by life experience, to take to the stage of Carnegie Hall to reinvent herself?

Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall celebrates golden-age Broadway song (Rodgers with both Hart and Hammerstein, Donaldson and Kahn, Dietz and Schwartz), as well as favorites from Cook’s own stage resumé (songs from The Music Man, The Gay Life and She Loves Me). There is something evergreen in Cook’s approach to this material, and in her warm and convincing embrace of contemporary favorites by Bacharach and David, Judy Collins and Leon Russell.

Guided by her music director Wally Harper, she never seems to be singing for effect, though her voice and legendary technique deliver plenty of that. The result is different, in a less-is-more way, than a bravura nightclub entertainer or a singer/songwriter. Somehow, Cook finds a way to inhabit completely the emotional world of the songs, to make them new, with a method actor’s skill, a sovereign control any opera diva would envy, and a gently disarming humility. Who knew Rodgers and Hart’s “He Was Too Good to Me” was the perfect, rueful recitative for Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything”? As many great performances as there are of Herman’s mighty torch song from Mack and Mabel, Cook’s is uniquely full of heartbreak, fear, blues, grit, hope and – in that last, glorious vaulting phrase – the cost of love. All that, as if time were standing still, in two minutes and twenty seconds.

Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall made it clear that there were new signs of life in The Great American Songbook, as well as in Barbara Cook’s career. In the 35 years since the concert and the original LP release of the recording, bigger and broader audiences have rediscovered the enduring richness and appeal of these songs – and the Broadway musicals that produced most of them. That turned out to be good for everyone. Within a decade, rock stars were recording cover versions of these songs, and revivals of classic musicals showed that Broadway had gained a healthy respect for its own past. Best of all, new voices and new sounds began to be heard on Broadway, redefining the possibilities … always, of course, in the shadow of the peerless Sondheim. Barbara Cook herself made the acquaintance of the Sondheim phenomenon in 1985, when she unforgettably took the role of Sally Plummer in the concert performance of Follies. She has since become one of the most eloquent and definitive interpreters of his songs, even now, some 59 years after her Broadway debut.

Broadway was the Main Street of American popular song back then, in 1951, when Barbara Cook took her first bows in Flahooley. We live in a different world today, but it’s one that allows us to appreciate and share every aspect of this uniquely American form of entertainment that – who knew? – turned out to be art. She showed us how in Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall. The pleasure is all ours.

David Foil is Senior Director, Product Development, for Sony Masterworks. In that role, he supervises A&R for the Masterworks Broadway catalogue and produces the Masterworks Broadway podcast series. Foil began his career in print and on TV as a film and performing arts critic. In the last two decades, he has compiled and annotated well over 100 Broadway and classical recordings, and has written twelve introductory books on classical music and opera.