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At 84, Barbara Cook not slowing down, with Kennedy Center Honor, a concert series and a memoir
NEW YORK (AP) ' When word came that Barbara Cook was to be saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors, one of the first people to send best wishes was Stephen Sondheim.
"He said, 'Nobody deserves this more than you. Except me,'" Cook says, laughing.
Cook, whose buttery soprano helped define show after show on Broadway, from "Candide" and "The Music Man" to various revivals of "Carousel," will be recognized for her contribution to American culture next month at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"To me it's a validation not only of all my work, but because I put so much of my life into what I do, I feel like it's a validation of my life," she says in her handsome Upper West Side apartment that she shares with two parakeets, Gilbert and Sullivan.
Cook will join a handful of other theater professionals for the honor, including Bill T. Jones, Andrew Lloyd Webber, James Earl Jones, Edward Albee, Harold Prince, Arthur Miller and Sondheim, who has written many of the songs she is famous for singing. CBS will broadcast the show Dec. 27.
Despite a slipped disc in her spine and an arthritic knee that force her to use a cane, Cook is hardly slowing down. She's doing a deegdmonthlong stand with Michael Feinstein at Feinstein's at Loews Regency and she is also working on a memoir. This summer, she released her latest CD, the swing-influenced "You Make Me Feel So Young."
"Of course, I think I've gotten better at it," she says about her performances. "I still think this is a work in progress. I do. Seriously. As the years go by, I have more and more courage to go deeper and deeper and deeper."
Though her Grammy Award-winning voice may have changed over the years, Cook is philosophical. "I'm 84," she says. "I'm lucky there's still enough there that I can make the songs happen. I'm very fortunate."
Feinstein says Cook's spirit remains eternally youthful and that she has an undiminished enthusiasm for music and art. Her pipes may have deepened, but so has her ability to tunnel into a lyric.
"She can't sing 'Glitter and Be Gay' any more, but she has supreme abilities as an interpreter and still is a damn good singer," he says. "I mean, what she may have lost off the high end most people didn't have to begin with."
With Feinstein, Cook plans to sing Irving Berlin ' a songbook of his work sits on her piano's music rack ' Duke Ellington, and Rodgers & Hart, as well as Broadway hits and holiday classics.
Cook is unfussy and warm, with a slight Southern accent and an appetite for popular culture. She calls Lady Gaga "terrific" and enjoyed listening to Amy Winehouse on Tony Bennett's new CD ("There's something about her work that's very appealing to me, even though I cannot understand a word hardly.") She enjoyed Hugh Jackman's new show on Broadway and wants to see "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" ("You know, just leave my brain at the door and enjoy it").
The idea of joining the Kennedy Center's august group of artistic giants makes her a little flustered. "Barbara Cook and Gregory Peck? Barbara Cook and James Cagney? Barbara Cook and Fred Astaire? Gee whiz. Wow," she says, noting past recipients.
Raised in Atlanta, Cook has always hated vocal exercises, never had a vocal coach and has an effortless skill of creating beauty by just opening her mouth. "I don't remember when I didn't sing. I just always sang," she says. "I think I breathed and I sang."
Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951 in the unsuccessful "Flahooley" but later was cast in Leonard Bernstein's musical version of Voltaire's "Candide," Arthur Schwartz's "The Gay Life" and Meredith Wilson's 1957 hit musical "The Music Man," for which she won a Tony Award. She has spent the last several years on her own concerts and solo albums, including "Mostly Sondheim," ''Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall" and "Barbara Cook's Broadway."
Early in her career, Cook battled nerves and self-doubt until she realized that pouring herself into a role was enough. She recalls one moment in particular when it became clear.
"I was auditioning for something, standing in the wings, waiting to go on, and thinking that everybody was prettier, everybody sang better, everybody had a better body ' all that stuff," she says. "Suddenly, I thought, 'You know? We are all so individual. And if I can find my individual take on this ' whatever that turns out to be ' then there's no competition.'"
Cook, who later in life battled alcoholism ' "I was a drunk" she says plainly at one point ' and is still haunted by the contentious relationship she had with her mother, sometimes teaches master classes and enjoys passing along her hard-fought wisdom.
When asked what her advice usually is to aspiring singers, she says it boils down to three words that she learned early on herself and have been her guide: You are enough.
"You are enough. You are always enough. You don't ever have to pretend to be anything other than what you are. All you have to do is deeply embrace who you are and you'll be fine," she says.
"In life, aren't you drawn to the more authentic people? Of course. You're not drawn to phonies."
Feinstein's at Loews Regency: http://feinsteinsattheregency.com/
Kennedy Center: http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/specialevents/honors
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits