Byline: Sari Botton

NEW YORK--Some singers fret when their voices change over the years, but not Barbara Cook. The musical theater veteran and cabaret singer--who opens a four-week run at the Cafe Carlyle tonight--knows that some things improve with age.
"I can sing a song a helluva lot better now than I could 20 years ago," says Cook, as she wraps a rehearsal for her Carlyle act.
"You lose some top stuff over the years," she says, referring to the upper end of her impressively broad register, "but even though I could do a lot more fancy stuff, technically, when I was younger, there are other compensations that make my act richer."
One of them, she says, is confidence--something she developed through more than 50 years of performing.
"Next weekend, I'm going to my 50th high school reunion, in Atlanta," says the Georgia-born Cook, "and so I've been looking through my high school yearbook lately. I look at my picture and I remember that I was this little, scared chicken back then, with no confidence. I knew I had this little sweet voice, but no idea what I could do with it."
That voice--along with natural acting talent and a set of brilliant, sparkling blue eyes--was her ticket to New York, more specifically Broadway, where she starred in the original casts of shows like "Flahooley," "She Loves Me," "The Music Man" and "Candide." Cook's voice continued to echo on the Broadway stage until Sunday night: She contributed a new recording of "Shine On Harvest Moon," to Terrence McNally's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" as a favor to her friend, John Glover, who starred in the show, which just closed. Otherwise, though, Cook has pretty much left musical theater for the cabaret circuit, a move she describes as bold.
"A lot of film and stage people are scared to death to do an act, because you're signing your name to it," Cook observes. "You're out there, saying, 'These are the songs I chose, and I'm singing them as myself,' rather than hiding behind a character, like you can on the stage or in opera."
After more than five decades in the business, Cook still has plenty of energy. The piece she and Harper are tinkering with this afternoon is the one she calls "the monster," a moving medley of numbers from George Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess" that requires Cook to belt out her powerful soprano for nearly 15 minutes straight. Yet she's only barely winded. From song to song, Cook switches roles seamlessly, one instant embodying the pained, yearning Bess, the next portraying the devilish Sportin' Life. And she's convincing.
"I like to sing songs that are actable," she explains. "If it's just a pretty song with pretty notes, I get bored."Cook is so famous for engaging her audiences with personal interpretations of songs that she's often hired by universities and opera companies to teach younger singers how to make songs their own.
"I teach them how to be in the moment," she says. "When I go to see a performer, I want to be moved, or touched in some way. I want to know who they are."

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