Monday, December 03, 2007

Tonight Owen and I went to the London Coliseum to see a World AIDS Day benefit concert by the magnificent Barbara Cook which also celebrated her recent 80th birthday. The show was billed BARBARA COOK AND FRIENDS and I worried the guest stars would be attempting songs from Barbara's extensive back catalogue but luckily they didn't. But by and large they mostly made me realise how much I was missing our star.

Out of a mixed bunch the three who stood out as worthy of sharing the stage with her were Daniel Evans - and who would have thought I would ever say that back in the day? - who sang an impassioned and effortless interpretation of Sondheim's "Being Alive" and the delicious Sian Phillips had great fun with Coward's "Bar On The Piccola Marina" and later duetted with John Standing on GIGI's "I Remember It Well" to delightful effect. I had been looking forward to seeing Barbara share the stage with Julia McKenzie but the latter was a no-show.

The others were ok and didn't disgrace themselves. And then there was Elaine Paige.
Now I have never been a fan of ol' Slide-For-The-Note Paige but she was startlingly off. She sang a solo version of "I Know Him So Well" in a short-breathed way which made her not so much slide for notes as do a triple jump at it and still manage to fall short occasionally. I kinda told myself that maybe it was nerves but she then launched into a rendition of "Cry Me A River" which, seen against the effortless artistry of Cook, was frankly laughable. I must admit I admired her in the revival of Pam Gem's PIAF and maybe she was channeling
La Mome during this, only Piaf's histrionics would have come from the heart and not from some actorly "shtick" of singing the last verse/chorus in... a... fake... voice. Miss Paige is 59.

Barbara Cook is 80 and has no such need for such artifice. I first saw her in concert at the Donmar Warehouse in the summer of 1986 and over the years have seen her quite a few times in both large and small venues, both theatres and concert halls. She is never less than magnificent but tonight she really seemed to
hit some new highs. Although her gloriously warm soprano seems naturally given to uptempo and happy songs, she is actually never better than singing sad songs.

The emotional highpoint of her set is usually when she sings a medley of two songs that inform each other, my favourite being "He Was Too Good To Me" and Sondheim's "Losing My Mind". We had two such medleys tonight, both sung to a totally silent and rapt Coliseum audience. The first was a simple, sombre version of "I'm Through With Love" which was complemented by Chaplin's "Smile", not once did she fall for the inherent easy sentiment of the song. Her taste and reading of a lyric are impeccable.

To close the show she paired Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill's "Lost In The Stars" (which I had never heard her sing before) with Sondheim's "No More" from INTO THE WOODS. It was an inspired choice, 2 songs of quiet despair sung by characters at their lowest ebb - the first full of doubt, the second retreating from the misery of the world - which could be read as a response to the world we live in now or to a seemingly-unconquerable virus.

A revealing interview 2 years ago with the NY Times revealed a woman who had a troubled childhood and whose successful Broadway career tailed off into alcoholism and depression. It's into these areas she admits she goes to make these songs so painfully intimate.

The night ended however on a marvellous note (literally), perfectly fitting the mood engendered by "Lost In The Clouds"/"No More". Barbara sang with a massed choir "Make Our Garden Grow", the final song in the Leonard Bernstein/Richard Wilbur musical CANDIDE, the show in which she played her first Broadway leading role 51 years ago. The song's lyrics of quiet perseverance were the perfect end to the show.

Among Barbara's many awards is a citation as a Living New York Landmark. How lucky for us that this is one landmark that also has a passport.

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