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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 1999 /28 Tishrei, 5760

Cal Thomas

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Beauty and the beast --
NEW YORK CITY -- Perhaps it was a harmonic convergence. I was in New York City during the opening of the Sensation exhibit of "art'' at the Brooklyn Museum and I experienced one of the loveliest moments of my life -- hearing one of the greatest singers of what was once called Broadway music. That would be Barbara Cook, the original Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man,'' who sprinkles grace like Tinkerbell tosses pixie dust, enchanting all within her reach.

The juxtaposition of an event featuring an alleged "artist's'' depiction of the Virgin Mary profaned with elephant dung and the enchanted loveliness of Barbara Cook singing songs from shows associated with the late director-choreographer Gower Champion was surely one moment in time, but an important one.

Here was a clear case of light dispelling darkness, of something truly beautiful washing away ugliness and loneliness, despair and doubt, if only for an hour. But it only takes a moment to feel clean. It made me wonder why some people fixate on the dark and ugly beast when we could more profitably and wonderfully be engaged in the creation and encouragement of beauty.

All of this energy and free publicity for things evil is time wasted by people who claim a desire to see good things. Why don't they take some of that intensity and invest it in the promotion of something noble? CBS Vice President Marty Franks told me recently that if just a small percentage of those complaining about bad television had watched the family-and virtue-oriented series, "Promised Land,'' it would still be on the air. But too many have been conditioned to accentuate the negative. As a result, they eliminate much of the positive.

The power of Barbara Cook's performance, enhanced by the keyboard caresses of her longtime accompanist, Wally Harper, transformed an ordinary night into one that sparkled like Fourth of July. As my wife and I watched and listened in the company of the former top drama critic (now a columnist) for the New York Times, Frank Rich, and his wife, Alex Witchel, herself a gifted Times writer, tears came to our eyes, as they did to Cook's. Perhaps we cried not only for the power of the words and music in this lovely salute to Gower Champion, but for the loss of what we can no longer come along and listen to. The lullaby of Broadway has itself been put to sleep. In its place is a lot of hack work and mostly bad revivals that resurrect like unresuscitated corpses.

Perhaps without realizing it, Barbara Cook's tribute to Champion at the delightfully cozy Carlyle Hotel is really a tribute to herself and to a Broadway that we dearly wish would come back, where ticket prices once cost less than parking fees and where creativity was much bigger than any avenue.

Now, look what's happened to it. One time they said it was wonderful, but that was before the parade passed by and we all got lost in the smarmy. Still, maybe time will heal everything. Even while we know that love makes the world go 'round, we wonder what, if anything, can revive the old Broadway. If you recognize some of these phrases -- from shows Champion worked on -- you loved the old Broadway, too, and wish it were no longer among our yesterdays.

The night that Champion died -- Aug. 26, 1980 -- his final show opened. It was "42nd Street.'' Upon hearing the news of Champion's death that night, Frank Rich would later write: "I broke unexpectedly into tears, partly, perhaps, out of psychic release, now that the (review deadline) pressure had been lifted, but also out of some sense of mourning for Champion. I had never met him, but I took the loss personally anyway, out of an inchoate sense that some of my old childhood fantasies about the theater had died with him that night.''

Perhaps that's why the tears flowed again as we listened to Barbara Cook. Would someone, could someone, please bring Broadway back and give it life and light and shine? But that will take two other hands, not mine.

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