Master Cook

Let me heap some unabashed praise on one of the great performing artists of our time. Barbara Cook, whose evening of songs is being performed at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, continues to be one of the pre-eminent interpreters of American song.

This evening of tribute to Stephen Sondheim — in songs written by him and songs, she informs us, that he wishes he had written — is about as pure and simple a performance as one could hope for. Her characteristic clarity, coupled with her willingness to be vulnerable, is a perfect match for her song choices. Cook has the bravery to stand on a stage with simply a piano and a bass and she has the wisdom to know that no more than that is needed to fill a theatre.

There are several songs that we identify with Ms. Cook — ‘Losing My Mind’ and ‘Ice Cream’ among them — and she comes through with flying colors, as we have come to expect. But where she surprises us is with her ability to take a song which, at first glance, is sort of a throwaway (‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’) and make us laugh out loud with its comedy as well as reveal the Irving Berlin’s clever lyrical structure, all without beating us over the head with any of it. She also surprises with her ability to help us find new meaning with songs we have heard a thousand times, as in her forthright rendition of ‘Send In the Clowns.’

None of her songs is looked at with reverence from without. Instead, she lives deeply inside of each one, and lets us share that experience with her.

Her encore is a ‘down-in-one’ heart-wrenching microphone-free version of ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’ from Sondheim’s musical of the same name. That song alone is worth the price of admission.

Is there anything this woman can’t do?

Last week, it was Joan Baez (age 62). Last night, it was Barbara Cook (age 75). In a couple more weeks, it’s Elaine Stritch (age 78). If this progression continues, our next night out after that will have to be a visit to the morgue.

Big Al

When I was but a wee sprout, I spent a few years working at a daily newspaper. One of the editors once said to me that if I really wanted to learn about history, I should read the obituaries in the New York Times every day.

Today’s New York Times obituaries contain plenty of history – of the New York Times itself, and of the New York theatre scene – in the form of the obituary of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who died at 99.

His passing marks what seems to be the end of an era. His career spanned most of the last century and the beginning of this one. I can only pray that a retrospective of his work will remind producers, performers and audiences alike that there is so much more to theatre than Disney and Andrew Lloyd Webber.