Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall – 1975
When Barbara Cook stepped out on the stage of Carnegie Hall on the night of January 26, 1975, she had been a singing star for more than twenty years – but on that night, she started a new career. This was the Barbara Cook who had been the most celebrated ingenue in Broadway musicals all through the 1950s and 1960s She was Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. She was the eternally-beset but faithful Cunegonde in the original production of the musical Candide. She was the sweet, petite, apple-cheeked heroine of Flahooley, Plain and Fancy, The Gay Life, She Loves Me, and The Grass Harp. She was completely of the theater. She had even played non-singing roles in a pair of Broadway plays – Any Wednesday and Little Murders. But she had never given a concert until that night at Carnegie Hall. Which was strange, because her first professional job in New York after she arrived there from her home town, Atlanta, was at the Blue Angel, the celebrated supper club run by Max Gordon and Herbert Jacoby, in which the performers actually gave miniature concerts. At that first Blue Angel engagement, Barbara Cook sang much the same kind of songs that she would eventually sing when she found herself on the concert stage – “Little Girl Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” – i.e., Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin – and one that she remembers as “a wonderful, wonderful song,” “Clear Out of This World,” written by Al Dubin and Jimmy McHugh for Keep Off the Grass in 1940 and still a wonderful, wonderful song today. But then she became involved in the thing she had come to New York to find: the musical theater. Flahooley introduced her to Broadway, but it did not guarantee her success. After Flahooley, she went back to the Blue Angel for a second engagement. Then she toured in Oklahoma. She played Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel at the City Center in New York, a performance that got such glowing notices that she was hired for Plain and Fancy, which ran for a year on Broadway and garnered her more good notices. In 1957 came The Music Man and for the next decade Barbara Cook was the first choice for any show that required a glowing young ingenue with a glorious voice. But after ten years of these roles, Barbara began to wonder where she was going – in career terms, in personal satisfaction terms. So she tested the non-musical theater, with success and with some satisfaction. And in the summer of 1973, she tried something she had never done before – a show in which she did not play a character, but simply sang songs as herself, as Barbara Cook. It was called The Gershwin Years, and all the songs – hers and those of the other members of the cast –were by George Gershwin. She found that singing as herself, without the inhibiting element of playing a role, gave her a welcome and joyful sense of freedom, of individuality. To go further into the feeling, she began to plan a concert with her pianist, Wally Harper. The concert plan did not work out at that time, but Brothers and Sisters, a small, intimate club just west of the theater district in New York, asked her to appear there. This was her first supper club offer since the Blue Angel. So she and Harper bundled up some of the material they had prepared for the concert and went into the club. It was, she says, an exhilarating experience. “People reached out to touch me – not like the theater where you’re so removed from the audience.” One of those who reached out to her at Brothers and Sisters was Herbert H. Breslin, a concert impresario. He heard her there and immediately signed her for concerts and recitals – fields in which she had never performed. She made her concert debut at Carnegie Hall – starting at the top – following up with appearances at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, the Geary Theater in San Francisco, the Hollywood Bowl, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. But the crucial performance was the first one – the Carnegie Hall debut, the first concert this vastly experienced singer had ever given. The question, when she stepped out on the stage on the night of January 26, 1975, was simply: Could she make the transition from the musical theater to the concert stage? The answer came the moment she took her first step onto the stage – an answer that took the form of a standing ovation from an audience that all but filled the huge hall even before she had sung her first note. How do you build from an entrance like that? Glowing, hearty, clothed in a loose flowing gown whose jaggedly cut sleeves made her look like a sun goddess when she raised her arms, Barbara Cook did it. The enthusiasm and excitement of her audience increased with every song, and she responded to their pleasure with a pure delight all her own. And as this recording of highlights from that eventful evening testifies, Barbara Cook deserved every bit of the appreciation and affection she received. Broadway’s Barbara had never really been away, but her “return” was a triumph.
– John S. Wilson
Barbara Cook, vocal Wally Harper, music director and conductor Arrangements by Bill Brohn