Legendary Broadway ( "Candide," "The Music Man," "She Loves Me" ) and cabaret performer Barbra Cook has beguiled audiences for over half a century. Her crystalline soprano continues to astound and shows little sign of wear and tear and at 80, the dynamic singer shows no sign of slowing down. A longtime favorite of gay audiences, Cook returns to Ravinia Sun., July 6, and Mon., July 7, for a program focusing on love songs. Cook had just returned from performance dates in London when she spoke with Windy City Times.
Windy City Times: It's probably hard to believe, but is there a standard or a showtune that you haven't gotten around to?
Barbara Cook: [ Laughs ] Yes! In the show that I just did with the ballet company in London. It was an all Gershwin show called "Strictly Gershwin" and I had never sung "I've Got a Crush On You," for instance, and that was my opening song with them.
BC: Yes, and I just might do it at Ravinia. It seemed to work very well.
WCT: I'm very surprised. That seems particularly suited to your voice.
BC: I just had never sung it and the other songs in "Strictly Gershwin" I haven't sung in a long time and never in the act.
WCT: I suspect a new Gershwin CD on the horizon.
BC: [ Laughs ] Well I did a show at the Carlyle this past spring and a lot of those things I'll be doing in Chicago and that program's going to be recorded.
WCT: So there will be a new CD.
BC: That's the plan.
WCT: Any idea when it will appear?
BC: Well I hope will later in the year—maybe October or November. I don't know for sure.
WCT: The gay community has a longstanding connection to you that dates back decades. Your recording of "Love Don't Need a Reason" never fails to bring me to tears. ( The song was by gay performer/songwriters Michael Callen and Peter Allen along with Marsha Malamet. )
BC: Thank you. It's a wonderful song.
WCT: Can you talk about the importance of your gay fan base?
BC: Well, the "importance"... Hmm, that's an interesting word. Usually what people ask me is "Why do you think gays are attracted to your work?" and they've been asking me that since day one and, frankly, I don't really know.
WCT: Well, I can answer that for you.
BC: You can?
WCT: Oh, yes—because we have such discerning taste!
BC: Well, that's what I should say—"they know I'm wonderful." Maybe the same was true for Judy Garland and for Liza and, I guess, Barbra Streisand, too, huh?
WCT: Yes, I think there's an identity with the individual; with the perception of a performer cutting their own path; remaining true to their own destiny. For me personally, it had to do with your leaving the Broadway stage, overcoming some personal troubles and then all those concert triumphs.
BC: Well, I think the personal-troubles thing is part of it. They know that we've been through our wars. "They—you know what I'm trying to say. You can't lump people together like that.
WCT: Of course. Now like many parents, I know that when your own son came out that was different; that was tough and you had a hard time with it.
BC: Yes, I did for a few days"and only for a few days, thank goodness.
WCT: Can you talk about your relationship with your son Adam LeGrant?
BC: Well I've always had a very easy, warm, good relationship with my son, thank goodness and we love each other very much and I also like him which is not bad. I thought he was kidding when he told me he was gay because I had no idea. It was on Thanksgiving Day in 1990something—I don't remember exactly. As he was leaving I said, "God, Adam, what do I do when you bring somebody home to meet mother?" and he got in his most gay mode and with a very limp wrist said, "Oh, don't worry" he'll just say, "Oh Barbara, I just loooooove your singing." [ Laughs ] But I did have a few days there of really, really grieving. Then it occurred to me that it was all about me and not about him. I cried for five days and then on the fifth day I said, "What the hell is going on here? What is this about? Why are you so upset?" I thought, "This is ridiculous. I'm here as his mother to help him be the most full person he can be" and that was it. Honest to God, it lifted just like that. After that, of course, his whole life has just blossomed. It was the healthiest thing on earth for him to do.
WCT: That's wonderful to hear, and thank you for sharing that.
WCT: You've been called "the singer's singer" myriad times. But I'm wondering who you like?
BC: Well, Josh Groban, for one. Josh and I have become good friends and it's just the most beautiful, natural voice and you know this most recent "American Idol" singer"David Archuleta? He's sensational. He's got gorgeous, gorgeous natural talent. He's only 17. Have you heard him?
WCT: I haven't. I have to be honest; I don't have much use for the show.
BC: Well, I think that's a mistake and I'll tell you why: I understand that it's all very kitschy and what's-his-name is yelling at people. I get that but there have been some very, very talented people on that show. I understand they have to do all that stupid melisma, but that's the style now and they have to do it if they want to win. That's the way the game is played right now. It's possible for me to dismiss that and to see past that and see a person's innate talent if they have any.
WCT: So when you teach one of your master classes with these young students now, is that the approach that they expect"for you to come in and be like Simon Cowell?
BC: I hope not. I don't do that at all. I try to be honest but I also try to be kind and I certainly would never want to"for lack of a better word"destroy somebody. What I try to do is make a safe place so that they will be willing to set aside their safety blankets which practically always get in the way of who they are. What we want is them, I try to explain. That's what we always want as an audience and if you can figure out who you are as a performer and if you can find out how to let us in to that; let us in to your experience; then you can't be wrong.
WCT: And that's exactly what you do.
BC: Well, it's certainly what I try to do.
See www.ravinia.org . For more about Barbara Cook, see www.barbaracook.com .