The Essential Barbara Cook

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday November 7, 2009

Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook  

Barbara Cook is a national treasure, a legend, a mentor, a master interpreter, a world-class artist, the eighth wonder of the world.

If you're reading this, you are most likely familiar with her career - which spans five decades and ranges from originating leading ingťnue roles in classic musicals such as The Music Man and Candide to full-blown concert diva. And, like any true wonder, her voice seems immune to the forces of age -- at 82 her voice only deepens in its expressiveness without losing any of the youthful joy that made her a composer's muse during the golden age of Broadway.

DRG has assembled a lovely boxed set celebrating her career from the early 1990s to current day. Specifically, it includes four CDs: "Close As Pages in a Book" (newly remixed and remastered), "Live from London," "All I Ask of You" and "Live From The Met." The set also includes the DVD of "Mostly Sondheim" and a four-track bonus CD titled "Give Me the Simple Life" from her latest studio album, due for release in early 2010.

Opera diva Renee Fleming provides a touching linear note, explaining the camaraderie these two master artists share as singers, neighbors, and friends. If at all possible, Fleming's words make Cook even more endearing than you even thought possible.

As wonderful as this collection is by DRG, it's a shame the Sony-labeled recording "Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall" isn't part of it, as it is the concert that launched her career as a concert artist and celebrates the forging of her relationship with Wally Harper - her longtime collaborator (who sadly passed away in 2004). Silly recording labels.

My personal favorite of the four discs in this set is "Live From the Met." There is such joy in her performance here, mixed with the ease that only comes from decades of experience. And when you add Audra McDonald to the mix as a "special guest" (Josh Groban is there, too, but I can do without him) the excitement is palpable. I think her live CD's fare better than her studio albums, particularly "Live from London," though the arrangements can at times be a little too "adult pop" for my tastes in her earlier albums.

If you want to see Ms. Cook in her element, the DVD "Mostly Sondheim" shows her performing a collection of Sondheim tunes, and tunes Mr. Sondheim had wished he'd written, as well as a bonus feature of her teaching a master class in song interpretation at the Kennedy Center in 2002. Watching her pass on her craft to these young kids is almost as entertaining and heartwarming as hearing her sing "Time Heals Everything."

As Ms. Fleming says of her friend in compilation's linear notes, "long may she reign."

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at