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Glitter and Be Essential

By Charles Isherwood
November 18, 2009
Barbara Cook Essential Collection photo
A WARNING to sticklers for strict narrative: this column is a blatant mashup.

Contemporary pop fans will understand the terminology, but for others — say, those more likely to attend to the musings of theater critics — some explanation might be required. In pop parlance a mashup is a smooth blending together, or a violent cramming together, of two or more different songs in diverse styles. In the case of this column, the mashup involves the new Fox television series “Glee,” about high school misfits finding solidarity in song, and the aesthetic achievement and recorded legacy of Barbara Cook, probably the greatest living interpreter of the musical theater songbook.

Among the pleasures of the sweet, funny and seriously addictive “Glee” is its jovially catholic taste in music, its own affection for weird mashups. My favorite episode featured a memorable funny appearance by the special guest diva Kristin Chenoweth. Matthew Morrison, who plays the glee club adviser, and Ms. Chenoweth, playing a sozzled flop actress who’s crawled back to town to lick her wounds, performed a duet to the trashy-brilliant ’80s Heart power ballad “Alone.” It was bizarre and, well, trashy and brilliant.

Other episodes have featured musical numbers set to songs originally made famous by Queen and Neil Diamond, Billy Idol and Dionne Warwick, and a bunch of contemporary artists I’ve barely heard of. But blended into the mix are musical theater songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Defying Gravity” (the big anthem from Wicked) and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret.

To see show tunes gain a marginal foothold in today’s pop culture can only be heartening to those who hope the musical theater will stagger into the future. The animating joke in “Glee” is the horrid uncoolness of the kids drawn to singing in public. But the show is unabashedly on the side of the angels, which is to say the budding show queens skulking through the halls blasting Next to Normal on their iPods in hamlets across America.

The polyglot musical language of “Glee” also inspires the mournful observation that in the middle years of the last century show music and popular music were synonymous. Broadway music was reasonably cool. Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald regularly hit the charts with songs by Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter. Original cast albums of shows like My Fair Lady were huge best sellers. The arrival of rock reordered the pop charts permanently, of course, and today most cast albums are not even recorded by major labels. The task has fallen to smaller companies often spearheaded by musical theater players themselves, like Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, founded by Kurt Deutsch and the musical theater star Sherie Rene Scott, and PS Classics, run by the producer Tommy Krasker.

DRG Records, which also records jazz and world music, recently brought out a boxed set called The Essential Barbara Cook Collection. It arrived just as I was catching up on episodes of “Glee.” Uploading the set on my iPod and immersing myself in Ms. Cook’s artistry reminded me of what is missing from the campy production numbers in “Glee”: the human touch. When the kids in the club break into song, their voices become oddly disembodied, just one element among many to be manipulated by technicians in a thick layer of sound. Serious suspension of disbelief is required to believe that the songs are being performed live in a high school classroom — or by actual human beings at all — rather than manufactured and polished in a plush digital sound studio.

“Glee” trades in soapy fantasy, of course, and the souped-up production makes the show’s retro pop mimic the slick sounds of contemporary charts. But when you hear Ms. Cook rendering selections from the theater songbook in concert performances from the past decade or two, you realize how meaningful and rich in emotional power the art of popular singing can be. It doesn’t have to be pure sugar candy, forgotten as soon as it’s dissolved.

Essential is precisely the word for Ms. Cook’s contributions to the art of song in America and to the preservation — in however select a niche of our Brobdingnagian culture — of a true estimation of the legacy of the great Broadway composers and lyricists. Ms. Cook gives master classes to singers at Juilliard and other music schools. If she could get her hands on the kids (and the producers) of “Glee,” that small subset of Americans self-identifying as musical theater lovers might slowly begin to widen.

You could easily create your own master class in singing standards by settling in with Ms. Cook’s recordings. Digging through my now dust-gathering CD collection to try to put together a personalized list of favorites, I found it hard to determine just what was inessential. The original cast albums of The Music Man, She Loves Me and Candide — the shows in which Ms. Cook created her three greatest roles — are obvious necessities. “Glitter and Be Gay,” from the Candide, Leonard Bernstein musical of Voltaire’s satire, has become a fixture in the recordings and repertory of innumerable operatic sopranos over the years, but nobody has bettered Ms. Cook’s dazzling but warmly funny performance of this fearsome showpiece.

The purity, range and richness of tone in these early recordings combine to create a melting beauty that is irresistible. But in listening to another early recording, of Rodgers and Hart songs made while Ms. Cook was performing in The Music Man, I was reminded just how phenomenally she has matured as an interpreter.

The ballads on “From the Heart: The Best of Rodgers and Hart” are sung with keen musical intelligence. The intonation is impeccable, the phrasing natural and heartfelt. But there is also a dainty quality to Ms. Cook’s singing, a poise and reserve that makes most of the songs lovely artifacts but not quite artistic successes. In the liner notes to the DRG reissue in 2004, she admits as much herself, writing, “I believe I delve into the text of a song more deeply now than I did in 1959.”

The process by which a gifted singer evolves into a real artist is probably impossible to delineate clearly. It may well be a mystery even to the artists themselves and probably has much to do with age and endurance and learning not to escape into music or stand outside it, judging the performance as they give it, but to live more fully in it. Great singers fold into their songs the scars that life’s inevitable setbacks leave upon everyone (and the satisfactions too) without turning singing into raw, formless confessional.

By 1975, when Ms. Cook made her celebrated Carnegie Hall concert debut, the process had unmistakably begun. The evening, organized with her longtime musical director and pianist, Wally Harper (who died in 2004), was designed to make a personal statement. Beginning with the embracing “Sing a Song With Me,” a signature song written for the occasion by Mr. Harper and Paul Zakrzewski, and ending with Leon Russell’s “Song For You,” the concert was both an informal autobiography in song and an act of commitment to the passionate audience before her.

There is a clarion excitement in her singing that raises goose bumps even at this distant date, and no musical instrument is better capable of expressing spontaneous joy than Ms. Cook’s crystalline soprano. More revelatory is the willingness to be known through her songs — to be emotionally present, even exposed — that feels brave, touching and (to the singer at the time) perhaps new. (Dismayingly, the indispensable concert of this concert rereleased by Sony more than a decade ago, does not appear to be available on iTunes.)

The opera star Renée Fleming provides a thoughtful consideration of her friendship with and appreciation of Ms. Cook as an epigraph to the new collection. She cites Ms. Cook’s “natural warmth and charm, not to mention honesty.” Adding a personal note, she writes of the isolation of the singer, “There is no relief for those of us who choose to bare our souls through that most uncontrollable of instruments, the voice.” In baring their souls, of course, great singers are really revealing us to ourselves.

After listening to the reissued albums and poring over old ones, I had to shake myself from a sentimental, almost wistful reverie. Ms. Cook’s achievement has begun to loom so powerfully in my aesthetic experience that I had to remind myself that she is hardly ready for the archives. She is still very much here. At 82 she will be returning to Broadway this spring in Sondheim on Sondheim, a new concert musical comprising selections from Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre from the Roundabout Theater Company. (The other headliner in this show is Vanessa Williams. Love that mashup!)

The songs of Mr. Sondheim have figured with increasing prominence in her repertory in the past couple of decades. They are sprinkled throughout many of her recordings, and she devoted one of her most successful recent concerts to songs he’s either written or wished he’d written. If I had to point someone toward a single album, it might be the record of this concert, released on DRG (included in its DVD version in the new collection).

And if I had to choose a favorite track, it would have to be the last one. “Anyone Can Whistle,” the title selection from one of Mr. Sondheim’s odder and lesser-known musicals, is a brief, beautifully distilled song about the yearning to connect, to “let go” of inhibition. It is a simple song, and Ms. Cook sings it simply. There are no vocal flourishes, few sustained notes, but the sound is gorgeous, the feeling true. Like so many of Ms. Cook’s interpretations , it feels like a small but invaluable gift, offering to each listener that most desired and elusive reward — understanding.