Friday, October 25, 2013


So this friend of mine has a new buddy, and it looks like True Love--which, translated from the gay, means they have at least three weeks to go before the final breakup. There's one problem: the two have almost nothing in common. My friend cultivates the interests typical of a Manhattan nightboy, which includes a fascination with theatre, movies, and music. Prospective taxi drivers in London can't take  the wheel until they master the city's street plan, from quaint alleyways to thoroughfares. Hop in and ask for Fertile Crescent or something and they have to know how to get there. It's called "The Knowledge." Similarly, urban gays have our own Knowledge, running roughly from Katharine Hepburn to "Defying Gravity"--and my friend's new pal couldn't keep up.
As my friend put it, "He doesn't even know who Barbara Cook is."
And that says a lot, because Cook is one of the central figures in the gay Knowledge. This is not only because of her gifts as singer and actress, but because she became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s, when the incipient First Generation of Stonewall Culture was growing up and playing cast albums. The men who were to create gay style in the 1970s (and eventually become opinionmakers in the field of musical theatre, as professionals and civilians both) got their intellectual bearings on Candide, The Music Man, The Gay Life, and She Loves Me, in all of which Cook was the heroine. More important, most of Cook's shows were written under the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose first rule of composition demanded more from heroines--and heroes and even sidekicks--than had been traditional in musical comedy before Oklahoma!. Plotting now called for romances with bite against a background theme of some kind. Good News!, in 1927, did have a background theme, college football, but it was atmospheric rather than sociological; and the romance was just another wallflower meets Lochinvar. The Music Man, however, gives us a background with rich potential: the inborn resistance of Iowa townsfolk to anything from outside their very narrow culture, including the use of books as a source of pleasure rather than for a few useful facts. It is almost--merely almost, I say--as if book reading were meant as a metaphor for sex, as if the notion of "Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac," cited as dangerous in the town ladies' "Pickalittle," really stands for a defiance of social cautions that will end in erotic chaos. And Cook's role, that of town librarian (in other words, the devil's henchwoman) and piano teacher (another subversive line of work, as advocate for art, which poses riddles that make life unstable) is thus far advanced from the days of Good News!. Marian Paroo is a nonconformist, a genuinely dangerous identification in small-town society, and she's feisty, too, as when, trying to stall a traveling salesman who intends to unmask the music man as a con artist, Marian pretends to be her very opposite, an anything-for-kicks coquette:

          MARIAN: I never met a man who sells anvils. That's something...well...quite

          CHARLIE: What am I doin'? I miss that train I'll get fired! And I got to leave word
          about  that fellow Hill!
          MARIAN: Leave word with me.
          CHARLIE : Not on your tintype. How do I know you'd deliver these letters?
          MARIAN: Try me. (Grabbing his lapels, she plants her lips on his. It is a long kiss.
          The  train grows louder. She struggles free, wipes her mouth in disgust, and points.)
          MARIAN: There's your train! Now run for it!

Then, too, the songs that Cook's characters sang provided sturdy foundations for her plangent yet determined lyricism, a vocal style she really could call her own. She wasn't just a wonderful voice as such. She was a presence. Her Heroine's Wanting Songs wanted as the genre had never wanted before. The Music Man's "My White Knight," with its pensive arioso abutting ecstatic musicality, is a real character study, with eccentric details enlivening the resume of her ideal man. He, too, will have to be a nonconformist, "not ashamed of a few nice things" and at times wondering "what makes Shakespeare and Beethoven great." Further, The Gay Life gave Cook "Magic Moment," a boldly sensual piece echoing the surging chromaticism of Wagner's mythmaking Tristan und Isolde. And, for all that, Candide turned the format inside out in "Glitter and Be Gay," which renders Cunegonde as flighty and grandiose by using her as an engine of operatic spoof. In fact, the target is the very contrapositive of Tristan, Gounod's myth-diminishing Faust.

Thus, Cook arrived just in time to take command of the first generation of musical-theatre heroines who had a genuine story to tell. Had she been born a generation earlier, she might well have made her career in shows like Good News!, and would have been just as forgotten as its sweetheart lead, Mary Lawlor, is today. Yet Cook was not, at the time, the absolute headliner, because her ability to disappear into her characters was at odds with the star's practice of proclaiming oneself through one's characters--Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, Ethel Merman in Gypsy, or Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, say. (Though Cook starred in Funny Girl on the summer music-fair circuit in 1967, opposite George Hamilton and with Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Brice. This appearance can fairly be called "legendary," as apparently no one in the entire gay theatergoing community of the era claims to have seen it.) But then, stars are crazy people, and Cook wasn't. She naturalized everything she did, so that She Love's Me's "Where's My Shoe?" and "Ice Cream" scene, when she's taking a sick day in bed and receives  a visit from her  nemesis and (unknown to her) pen pal, Daniel Massey, seemed the most realistic ten minutes in the whole show. It has its farcical side, as Massey tries to wrestle her out of getting dressed for work. But then, alone, she confuses her letter writing with thoughts about Massey, rising to a brilliant high B natural. Somewhere in there, she gets in a crying scene, because she is both drawn to Massey and resentful of him. (It's a musical-comedy tradition, and, in the musical play, Oklahoma!'s Laurey and Curly offer a classic example.) A very touching moment, it anchors what till that point was simply an engaging cliché. Now, suddenly, they are involved, whether she likes it or not, and "Ice Cream" tells us that she likes it. Yet I remember Cook saying, somewhere or other, that the scene became so routine to her that after a while she had only to glance at the bedclothes to start weeping, Pavlov-style.

So Cook became restless. She tried straight plays, but that still wasn't what she needed--and Barbara Cook without singing is Anna Karyenina without Vronsky: the story is missing. Cook had to retain the music but lose Cunegonde and Marian Paroo and just be herself. So she returned to the first work she had found when she arrived in New York at the start of the 1950s, as a cabaret artist. From small rooms she was graduated to Carnegie Hall, and the recording of the event reveals how utterly relieved she is to be able at last to make her music in the character of Barbara Cook, and to range widely through the field of popular song. Subsequent albums bring her to Janis Ian, Carol Hall, Harry Nilsson, Judy Collins, Burt Bacharach, even a comic specialty, "The Ingenue," written by Cook's music director, Wally Harper, and David Zippel. One album is called It's Better With a Band, implying that her band is free of the fussy storytelling responsibilities of a Broadway pit; another disc, As Of Today, tells us that this is the now! Barbara Cook, liberated from having to pretend to be someone else, in the Broadway manner.

Ironically, the Carnegie Hall CD is mostly show tunes--but Cook sings them her way, emphasizing the unique tang of her delivery. In "Wait Till You See Him" (re-pronouned from the original Rodgers and Hart By Jupiter number), on the line "Wait till you feel the warmth of his glance," Cook shimmers intensely on warmth, getting inside both word and note to experience that heat, and in the second chorus she grabs hold of the Wait, making it a command. It's not Broadway singing any more--and in  She Love Me's "Will He Like Me?,  she is far more vivid than she was on the cast album. "He's  just got to!," she cries, and one senses the audience at one with her sentiment, for their cheering, preserved on the disc, is more than love: it's understanding.

We should note, too, that Cook's arrangements throughout the concert phase of her career are superb, imaginative and personalized as, of course, Broadway could never be. "Sweet Georgia Brown," on It's Better With a Band, jazzes up the joint with a freedom and an above all musical expertise that, again, would outrage the etiquette of a book musical, wherein songs must match each other in flavor and color lest the show mar its unity. Back at Carnegie Hall, the old Hollywood number "Glad Rag Doll" turns epic, as Cook opens with "Poor Little Hollywood Star" (from Little Me), then waits as the orchestra slithers into an eerie-carnival quotation of "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" to lead into the song proper, a lament enlivened by xylophone, wawa brass, and whorehouse piano. Yes, enlivened: it's radiantly sad, and Cook lets out a chuckle after she finishes, while the audience explodes. After all those cult musicals--the flops that thrill the gay heart because there is valor in making art of every kind and posing those riddles--Cook found her true calling by walking in her own shoes. Like one of those London cabbies, she knew how to get there.