Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

My wife, Jean, took me to the Barbara Cook-Audra McDonald concert at the Kennedy Center last Saturday for my birthday, along with my son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Courtney, who was celebrating her birthday too.

It was spectacular!

A word about the stars – for those of you who are culturally deprived. They come from two completely separate generations, but were so complementary to each other in their artistry that you would never know it. Both of them spanned the spectrum of American popular music and musical theater with remarkable ease and confidence.

Barbara Cook is almost eighty years old, but you would never know it. She established her career in the 1950’s with starring roles in several great musical theater standards, including Hilda in Plain and Fancy, Amalia in She Loves Me, and Marion the Librarian in The Music Man, for which she won a Tony. In the 1970’s she embarked on a concert career, which almost every critic has called unparalleled in its excellence.

Audra McDonald is a mere child at thirty-seven, yet she has already won four Tony Awards, three by the time she was twenty-eight! This is an achievement accomplished by only four others in the history of the awards: Gwen Verdon, Angela Lansbury, Mary Martin, and Julie Harris.

Read Monday’s Washington Post for an excellent review of the concert. Suffice it to say here that the audience of some two thousand in the Concert Hall was enraptured by both of them. All of the numbers were greeted with great applause, many with loud cheers and leaping to feet, the most enthusiastic being a raucous standing ovation for Barbara Cook’s exquisite “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific.

One of the main products of the concert for me, however, was a serious wave of nostalgia, for I had actually seen both of them in their landmark Tony performances!

The first was Barbara Cook as Marion the Librarian in The Music Man. I was on the second of three extended trips I made to New York during my college days, all the way from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, no less. I was staying at my fraternity town house in the East Fifties. I lucked into a ticket to a sold out house, and I have never forgotten it. On another memorable evening, a friend and I sat at the bar of a great New York jazz venue listening to George Shearing for four hours – nursing a single drink! The whole evening cost us a dollar seventy-five, plus tip.

It is a little sobering to realize that this was almost fifty years ago, yet remains as fresh in my mind as yesterday.

In 1994, Jean and I were on one of our several trips to New York. We were walking by the Lincoln Center and saw a sign advertising a new production of Carousel, with the entire cast consisting of brand new Julliard School graduates. It turned out to be probably the best musical theater production we had ever seen, made even better by the fact that all of the players, including the stars, were very close to the ages of the youths they were portraying. Audra McDonald went from that production to become a uniquely prolific and versatile Broadway star, and we were there at the beginning!

All in all, it was a great birthday present.