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Cook has learned to accept Broadway, cabaret, concerts as all part of the singing game


Barbara Cook is going through what she calls her "middlescence."

Although no longer the svelte Broadway ingenue who created the roles of Marian the librarian in "The Music Man" and Cunegonde in "Candide," at age 64 she's come to terms with the fact that she'll never grow up. And judging from her amused tone of voice, that's just fine with her.

"I'm learning more and more to accept who I am and where I am at the moment," she says. And where she is at the moment is not at all bad.

Having launched her cabaret career in 1974, the lyric soprano made her Carnegie Hall debut the following year; she has subsequently appeared with such orchestras as the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Symphony. In 1987 she returned to Broadway with her "Concert for the Theatre." And she's also shed some of the excessive weight she gained during the years between her Broadway and cabaret careers.

These days her repertoire ranges from Jerome Kern to Disney (yes, Disney), and she'll demonstrate that range at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday night when she and her musical director, Wally Harper, share the bill with Donald O'Connor in a benefit for the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Although Miss Cook has no connection with the college, she acknowledged in a phone interview from her New York apartment that she does have a distant connection with the man who will introduce her on Saturday -- ABC sports commentator Jim McKay. Forty-one years ago, Mr. McKay hosted a daytime variety show called "The Real McKay" for CBS in New York. His very first guests were two newcomers who had spent the summer entertaining tourists in the Poconos -- Miss Cook and another aspiring Broadway actor, Jack Cassidy. "She had such a lovely voice," Mr. McKay recalls. "I just always followed her career."

And sure enough, less than a year later, the Atlanta native made her Broadway debut in a short-lived musical called "Flahooley." Although the show was a failure, Miss Cook attracted favorable notices -- the beginning of an unusual Broadway career in which hits were outnumbered by flops, albeit with well-received performances in both. Even several of the shows for which she is best known, such as the original "Candide" and Bock and Harnick's "She Loves Me," failed to turn a profit.

Most of these are chronicled in "Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops," a new book by New York critic Ken Mandelbaum. Miss Cook hasn't read it, but she is grateful not to have been part of the disastrous title show -- though she came perilously close.

In fact, this 1988 adaptation of Stephen King's horror novel, "Carrie," was to have marked her return to the Broadway musical. But, cast as the title character's mother, she left the production after its three-week tryout in Stratford upon Avon, England. "I felt it was in deep trouble and that the powers that be didn't know how to fix it," she recalls.

In retrospect, perhaps it was an omen when, on opening night in Stratford, she suffered a thump on the head described in the book as a near decapitation. Miss Cook insists it wasn't that serious, but she says, "There were so many problems with that show, what's a decapitation? Even when [the show] worked, it must have looked a little strange."

When "Carrie" arrived in New York, Miss Cook did attend two performances, and she concluded, "For once I think I was right." Audiences and critics agreed; "Carrie" closed after four days.

Going from ridiculous horror to sublime fantasy, 1988 was also the year Miss Cook recorded "The Disney Album." She admits that when she was first approached to record these songs, she thought, "What are they going to want me to do now -- Mickey Mouse and Goofy? . . . This is nuts!" But, she continues, "When I looked at the material I realized, God, there are wonderful songs there."

Her willingness to experiment dates back to her association with Mr. Harper, a Broadway conductor and composer. Describing himself as "always a big fan of hers," Mr. Harper recalls that in 1974, when they began collaborating, "Barbara had decided not to work for a few years." However, he convinced her to try "some different kind of music rather than just show music."

Attempting to create a more contemporary, rhythmic sound than traditional show tunes, they rehearsed "all day long for about three months," he says. At the end of that time, they were booked into a small New York club called Brothers and Sisters for a few nights. A few nights stretched into the whole summer, and from then on, Mr. Harper says, "it's kind of snowballed."

More recently, Miss Cook's penchant for trying something new has spread to her personal life. "I really see myself as constantly changing, evolving," she says. Six months ago she began experimenting with artwork. At first, she concedes, "I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to get anything down on paper that pleased me at all that I was afraid to begin." Her paints and paper stayed on the shelf for months until "finally, one night I just did it. And I am totally hooked."

She has even managed to conquer the hypoglycemia that plunged her into acute depression when her weight was, as she puts it, "way way up." That was in the days when "middlescence" seemed like a dark period that would never end.

Now she's enjoying her middle-aged adolescence.

Miss Cook admits she'd still like to lose a few pounds, but she's learned to accept herself as she is. "If you don't," she says, "you make yourself totally crazy. . . . I'm happy now."

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