August 12, 2017

As the musical theatre community grieves the loss, at 89, of the finest soprano ever, Barbara Cook, much is said about the beauty of her voice, the clarity of her tone, the warmth of her sound. Yes, all of that is so, but I feel every bit of praise for her vocal gifts somehow misses the point. You can possess fantastic vocal cords, you can train your ass off, as opera singers do, in quest of perfection, you still wouldn’t come close to her accomplishments. She wasn’t merely the Voice; she was the Actress, the Personality.

Barbara Cook, it is said, had two careers: leading lady in Broadway musicals, and then the doyenne of the cabaret world. That’s a natural progression for someone whose specialty was acting lyrics with meaning and intent. In musicals, roles are more plentiful for the young and the thin. Once she was neither – and most mark The Grass Harp (1971) as the end of the beginning – she took her gifts to the venue where audiences give the most concentration to lyrics. Rooms with fewer than 100 seats get listeners to prick up their ears. (Of course, Cook was so successful, the rooms included Carnegie Hall.) There aren’t those musical theatre distractions like sets, dancers, book scenes, a story to tell. I’m among the lucky ones, who got to sit in rapt attention at the Carlyle one night, her warmth delivering happiness to everyone in the room.

Mostly, though, like most of you, my understanding of Barbara Cook is based on cast recordings. Since I’m often talking about how those twelve inches of vinyl make misleading impressions, I’m going to have to ask: “What am I missing here?” The most obvious omission is the acting, and Cook was a good enough actress to appear in two of Broadway’s more notable comedies in the 1960s, Little Murders and Any Wednesday. I find this remarkable, aware of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between performers in musicals and thespians in plays. Records and videos give glimpses of what the lady can do with lines. Take that most popular of American arias, butchered by many an opera diva, Glitter and Be Gay. The original Broadway cast album of Candide – which has to be the most glorious capture of a flop musical, ever – has her speaking

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

I’ve heard too many sopranos with no idea how to put the right spin on those words to make them funny. Cunegonde has been forced into whoredom – that’s the “awful cost” – but she’s so tickled by endearing trinkets, she’s not certain she got the bad end of the bargain. Nobody would write such a concept today, in our increased-sensitivity-to-sexual-slavery times. But 61 years ago (and ever since), Cook’s interpretive gifts made this hysterically funny and fun.

When considering what we love about her signature song, Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me, is it the gloriousness of the penultimate high B, or is it that we’re reacting to a grounded-in-reality character sorting through a bunch of emotions and discoveries in a recognizably human way? Amalia’s numbers in She Loves Me inspire love in all but the coldest-hearted listener. Since I’m always thinking about songwriters, I usually marvel about Sheldon Harnick’s humorous, charming text and Jerry Bock’s delightful near-classical setting. Collaborator Cook got the whole thing to fly; it could never have worked without her fully-formed character. In a little gem called No More Candy, her would-be shop clerk is forced to improvise a defense of how a small box with a lock on it is “functional” and delicately mentions a “slight tendency to overweight.” Now, there are plenty of observers who believe that Cook’s life story is that she went from thin leading lady to plus-size cabaret star due to a notable change in girth. But this ignores something (I’m clearly straining to avoid saying “the elephant in the room.” Sorry.):

Barbara Cook – the young and thin edition – was not astoundingly pretty. This separates her from many, if not all, of the ingénues who burst on the scene in the mid-fifties. Here was a new kind of star. Not dazzling in appearance, she got us to focus on her characters’ hearts, what they were feeling in every breath. This, to me, is the musical theatre ideal: At its best, we’re living the emotional life of the people we’re watching. And, as they fall in love “Vanilla ice cream: imagine that!” we do the same. So, a classical beauty finding love, by 1955, was old news. Of course hot stuff succeeds in getting male attention. It’s harder for us mere mortals. And I think this is key to why I find Something You’ve Never Had Before the most moving of her numbers. She offers a heart that’s true, not a face that could launch a thousand ships, and I tear up at the idea that the man’s too dense to notice her inner beauty.

All of this reminds me of a Sondheim song I never much cared for until I heard Barbara Cook’s rendition. In Buddy’s Eyes had always struck me as a rather plain and extended wifely paean, not quite dramatic enough to justify its length. But when Cook sings “I’m young; I’m beautiful” or “I don’t get older” you hear the heartbreak in the self-delusion. Ambivalence simmers underneath; the lady is kept alive by the lies she tells herself. You don’t think Sally is crazy, hearing the Follies In Concert album; you revel in a beautiful coping mechanism; you care.

Finally, let’s pivot back from the complex to the simplistic, and take in how she infused what’s essentially a plain (not fancy) lullaby with true longing. In The Music Man, it’s established that every night she sings a plaintive waltz to a little girl. We’re set up for something meaningless and dismissible. Cook colors her tones in a way that illuminates the touching reality that Marian the librarian truly depends on a wish and a star to bring her love.

Sweet dreams be yours, dear, if dreams there be
Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.
I wish they may and I wish they might.
Now goodnight, my someone, goodnight.



The French wheel

December 12, 2015

Today, a tale of two Franks: Sinatra, who’s being written about a lot, due to his being born a century ago today; and then there’s Loesser, whom I need no excuse to write about, as he’s my favorite songwriter. And when the two Franks met…kaboom!

But first, a digression related to “two franks.” “Two franks” is usually what I have for lunch on Thursdays. (As a child, I often made it a Three Dog Night, and the eponymous rock group was indeed an influence. A vinyl disc of theirs, and one by the Beatles, were the only rock albums I had as a kid. When called upon to write rock, as sometimes happens, I go to that well.) Such is my love of the tubular meatstuff, recently announced to be a carcinogen. In fact, when my doctor pronounces me healthy at the conclusion of my annual physical, I’m always in shock: “Wait: I DON’T have cancer? How could that be?” Seems like I’m the beneficiary of some cruel cosmic joke: younger friends of mine, proponents and exemplars of healthy eating and exercise, are now fighting the disease.

And Frank Loesser died of cancer at 59. (Gee, when will he stop talking about cancer?) His wonderfully personable widow, Jo Sullivan, has extended some effort to removing positive references to cigarettes in his lyrics. The other night I felt conflicted singing Two Sleepy People to my daughter – “Here we are, out of cigarettes” – and went subito pianissimo on the word.

Frank Sinatra loved cigarettes, too, and you’d think, the two men having that in common, they’d be good friends. Or: Sinatra certainly loved good songwriters, a more obvious reason to bond. But the two Franks hated each other. And this had much to do with the thing everyone mentions as Sinatra’s greatest strength: his phrasing. Now, here I’m going to tell you what anybody would tell you: If you’re interested in knowing how to sing, get to know Ol’ Blue Eyes and pay particular attention to what he emphasizes, where he puts pauses, which notes get a heap of gorgeousness and how silence is used. There’s your master class. Sure, it’s a delicious sound he produces, but I’m more impressed by how he acts the lyric, the emotional truth, how words get played for meaning.

When it came time to film Loesser’s career-making hit, Guys and Dolls, Sinatra should have been a dream come true as Nathan Detroit. After all, he had a good sense of humor, and something of a smart aleck persona. My uncle, who just turned 89 (and Guys and Dolls is his favorite show) told me that the Damon Runyon stories on which the show is based were thinly (or thickly) disguised portraits of actual gangsters Runyon observed in organized crime syndicates like Murder, Incorporated. Runyon cleaned up their actions – they’re just gamblers, even if Big Jule’s kind of scary – and added a lot of humor and style. And the Broadway musical is a further, entirely successful, effort to make gamblers-based-on-killers palatable to a Broadway audience. Sinatra’s storied connection makes him perfect casting.

But shouldn’t he have been Sky Masterson? Sky has the soaring ballads, I’ll Know, I’ve Never Been In Love Before and My Time of Day. That role was given to a bigger star, the biggest, then, Marlon Brando. Loesser had to scrap two of the songs and replace them with one, easier-to-sing, and decidedly Brandoesque (“crazily gaze”) ballad, A Woman In Love. My father tells me Sinatra was thought to have less sex appeal at the time, but film historians – a group given to exaggeration – tell us that Sinatra was very upset he’d been given the smaller role. He was in a foul mood during filming.

Now let’s look at the history of Nathan Detroit through Loesser eyes. In the design of the musical, both male leads are equal parts, and Nathan was given a wonderful introductory number called Traveling Light.

I love the line at the end of the bridge, “Guess I left my heart in my other suit.” The world doesn’t know this song because the stage show, directed by George S. Kaufman, cast Sam Levene as Nathan and he couldn’t sing the song. The film reversed the problem – a Sky who couldn’t sing, a Nathan who could – and I’m sure Loesser looked forward to Sinatra at last giving voice to his Nathan Detroit.

But Frank Loesser was rather particular about how he liked his songs to be sung. He was so frustrated in his efforts to get soprano Isabel Bigley, the original Broadway Sarah Brown, to sing the way he wanted, he slapped her in the face. Realizing he’d done something awful, he apologized and soon presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Neither party spoke of it again. Now, on the film, he was dealing with a bigger singing star with a bigger ego who may have had mafia connections. And he didn’t like Sinatra’s phrasing! There could be no slapping, to be Frank, but there were so many heated arguments that Loesser never bothered to see the film and Sinatra vowed never to sing a Loesser song again.

As you may already know, there is no one on earth who has sung the film’s new song for Nathan, Adelaide, more than I. When I listen to Sinatra do it, I hear the little mistakes that would drive a Loesser man crazy. But don’t forget he already had a chip on his shoulder for being cast in the smaller part. (This, too, is an ego-fed misconception: the parts are equal.)

Eventually, though, Sinatra lifted his Loesser ban and recorded Sky’s number, as if to stick it to the movie-makers, as if to say “Here’s what you missed out on by not casting me as Sky.” The recording, Luck, Be a Lady, is so associated with Sinatra that music fans are stunned to find he doesn’t sing it in the film. But it’s gotten a lot of airplay, making a fortune for both Franks.

It isn’t fair; it isn’t nice


April 14, 2014

Something that’s always true in opera is sometimes true in musicals: certain roles are written for certain voice types. The director of a revival that ignores this risks ruining something built into the show. Of course I’m thinking about Shuler Hensely’s distinctly un-operatic sound in The Most Happy Fella the other week at Encores. But so much else was wonderful about that evening, I realize I’m picking a nit. As I said the night it opened, there could be no better example of How To Write a Musical than seeing that glorious show. Hensely’s acting was excellent; he’s great in other things. I once rode a city bus with him, and that was a great ride. But Encores has now miscast him twice. Last year’s Fiorello used him as the ultimate New York pol. Hensely’s many things on many occasions: a New Yorker he’s not.

Frank Loesser spent five years writing The Most Happy Fella, a period which included a stop in Hollywood to write the songs for Hans Christian Andersen. He learned Italian in order to make the Italian and bilingual characters sound authentic. (Two numbers are in Italian, but one gets translated, and even the act of translation carries a great deal of subtext and smoldering attraction.) Loesser never called it an opera, even though he utilizes leitmotifs, but he thought long and hard about what type of voice he wanted in each role. The Italian characters, hailing from the land of opera, are supposed to have an operatic sound. Siblings Tony and Marie were originally cast with stars from the Met. In contrast, Loesser got Art Lund, a crooner with Big Band experience, for the role of Joe. Some have noted that, at Encores, Cheyenne Jackson’s honeyed tones seemed to occupy a different musical world. Exactly as Loesser intended. (He also has to be so handsome you’d sleep with him within minutes of meeting him – I hear no arguments there.)

Another thing that got me thinking about all this was finding out that Giorgio Tozzi – the first Tony I experienced – had been in the cast of A Doll’s Life but was replaced before it opened. I imagine that was quite an upheaval: was a role designed for an operatic baritone suddenly switched to a Broadway bari? How must have the composer felt? When Tozzi essayed Tony, the passion he expressed through his powerful dynamics was a major component in making The Most Happy Fella a stirring emotional experience. “And I feel so young; and I feel such joy!” Tears poured out of me like a fire hydrant in summer.

I recently talked with Stephen Schwartz, who’s always open to new and different ideas about staging his old shows. So I’m reminded of the York mounting of The Baker’s Wife with comedic character actor Jack Weston. One of my favorite Schwartz songs, Any Day Now Day fell a little flat because Weston lacked the vocal power to convey the inherent desperation and false bravado. Speaking of The Baker’s Wife, did you ever notice how it ha very similar characters and story arc to The Most Happy Fella? Can you imagine Rosabella getting a six-minute fairy tale allegory to justify her straying at the act break? Now you know why The Baker’s Wife never made it to Broadway while The Most Happy Fella has been to the Main Stem three times.

Knowing the voice teachers I know, the more I speak of singing, the more I feel I’m out of my league (and into theirs). But you know we’re not talking vocal ranges per se here: it’s more about vocal quality. Alfred Drake, everyone seems to agree, was the greatest baritone Broadway’s ever known. A revival some years ago of one of Drake’s great vehicles, Kiss Me Kate, had Brian Stokes Mitchell filling his shoes. And I thought, Yes, of contemporary musical theatre stars, Mitchell’s good casting. He has the right type of voice, a tough guy’s power, with deep sonorities that boom and bellow. A year or so after I saw it, the same director mounted a revival in London starring Brent Barrett. And I thought, I love Brent Barrett but he’s abundantly wrong for this. He’s more of a light tenor, with admirable prettiness in contemporary roles. But that’s completely inappropriate for Kiss Me Kate.

Must admit an original cast album, played over and over again, can leave quite an impression. And there’s a problem with that. If what was caught that one day in a recording studio is so splendid, it can be hard to accept a different vocal take, no matter how valid. People I know who thought Shuler Hensley was wonderful in The Most Happy Fella, nine times out of ten, were wholly unfamiliar with Robert Weede’s sound on the original cast recording. And sometimes I’ve experienced an odd reversal: I saw My Fair Lady with a leading man sang way too well compared with the original Rex Harrison. What was the poor guy to do?