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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Barbara Cook--An appreciation

Christine Lavin's video for Barbara Cook's version of Janis Ian's "Stars"

Janis Ian was hardly alone in assessing the death last Tuesday of Barbara Cook as "a huge loss to the community—and the cabaret world in particular," being that Cook had "come to define cabaret" in the mid-1970s following a Tony-winning (The Music Man, 1958) Broadway musical career.

But Ian had a special insight into what made Cook, who was 89, so special as a cabaret singer.

"She made the first seminal recording of my song 'Stars'—after mine, of course!" says Ian, whose "Stars" was her poignant 1974 album titletrack reflecting the loneliness of stardom.

"She did a beautiful job on it with a full orchestra—totally opposite of everything I did with it. And then she said she wanted to do a cabaret show around it, and I was going to come up with new material."

Sadly, Cook took ill and the show never happened. But Cook was such a fan of Ian that she used her as an opening act, and "also did a brilliant job on another song of mine, 'Candlelight.'" But her recording of "Stars," according to contemporary folk singer-songwriter Christine Lavin, was one of the "all-time great pairings of a phenomenal song with a magnificent singer and musical arrangement."

"It's one of those music events that crosses all boundaries," continues Lavin. "No matter what kind of music you love, I've never met anyone who doesn't love how she sings it. It's even more heartbreakingly beautiful listening to her sing it now that she is gone."

In fact, Lavin was so moved by Cook's interpretation of "Stars" that she put together a retrospective career slideshow YouTube video for it.

"It's photos of her stage and concert career, just looking back over her life--like an 'in memoriam' tribute, though I posted it a couple months ago on the day she retired. The song is so moving, and combined with the photos I ended up crying--and I made the thing! I didn't know her personally—I almost met her in a grocery store on the Upper West Side but I had a bad cold so I waved to her and told her I loved her work and quickly ran out of the store!—but she was incomparable. Just hearing her voice and looking at the photos of her onstage is the best contribution I can make to her legacy."

That legacy includes teaching, notes Ian.

"She was one of the great teachers—though nobody realized this outside o her students," says Ian, herself a student of famed late acting coach Stella Adler, "so I recognize a good teacher—and I saw her give one of the best master classes in singing that I've ever seen."

New York dramatic soprano Jenny Lynn Stewart, whose reporetoire includes opera, musicals and cabaret, has been likened to a cross between a very young Barbara Cook and late opera great Eileen Farrell, and worked with Cook in a coaching session ahead of a Lincoln Center performance by Stewart a year ago last April.

"It was like a dream come true," says Stewart. "I responded to a post on Facebook that Barbara Cook was interested in coaching singers, though it seemed as though it just wasn't going to happen because she was working on her book [her memoir Then & Now] and a new show. Then I was told she had finished her book and the show was postponed and she was available to coach me."

Working with Cook, adds Stewart, was on her bucket list for at least 12 years.

"It was very exciting to finally work with someone who had inspired me for so many years," she says. "It was great: She greeted me at the door with a big smile. She was wheelchair bound, but that didn't seem to have any bearing on her spirits for she was incredibly positive with me, and we worked together for two hours."

Stewart recalls working with Cook on "Somebody, Somewhere" from The Most Happy Fella and "What's the use of Wond'rin" from Carousel.

"We talked a lot about the keys of various songs--since both of us were classically trained singers--and about making the music accessible to the listener," says Stewart. "She told me that I didn't have to do anything and to just be myself while singing. I think Barbara was always herself on stage and openly showed her own vulnerability."

And "her mind was sharp as a tack and she remembered every word and every note of those two songs," adds Stewart.

"It was thrilling working with her," she concludes.

Incidentally, Cook's versions of Ian's "Stars" and "Candlelight" both appear on her 1977 album As of Today.


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