DRG Records' box set The Essential Barbara contains six discs, including two of Cook's studio albums (Close as Pages in a Book  and All I Ask of You ); two of her live albums (Live from London  and Barbara Cook at the Met ); her home video Mostly Sondheim (2003); and an EP, Give Me the Simple Life, containing four newly recorded songs intended for a future album. Cook's tenure with DRG began with Close as Pages in a Book, a tribute album to Broadway lyricist Dorothy Fields, when the singer was already in her mid-sixties and had behind her an extensive career as a star of musical theater, plus a couple of decades of concert work. It has continued for more than 15 years, producing, as of 2009, 12 albums. The four included here make for a reasonable sampling of that catalog, in which Cook, usually accompanied by arranger/pianist Wally Harper and other musicians ranging from a small jazz band to a small orchestra, addresses a selection of songs taken mostly from the musical theater and sometimes from her own shows, but also from the Tin Pan Alley of the interwar period and even from contemporary (albeit, non-pop
ock) sources. Thus, on Live from London, she may take on "Beauty and the Beast" from the then-current musical of the same name, and mix it with "Never Never Land" from Peter Pan; try mid-century Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"; and include newly written songs by younger songwriters such as the poignant "Errol Flynn" by Amanda McBroom and "Sweet Dreams" by John Bucchino. By opting to create a box set that simply repackages existing releases for the most part, DRG almost inevitably repeats songs, as Cook sings some of the same numbers in the studio and in her concerts. Several songs are heard twice, and Stephen Sondheim's "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind," as well as Arlen and Mercer's "I Had Myself a True Love," each turn up three times. The Mostly Sondheim video (which, by the way, is an entirely different performance from the Cook CD of the same name) gives the strongest sense of her as a live performer, including far more between-song remarks to the audience. It also includes a Cook master class in which she instructs students, although the interview that is another of the extras only relates to the master class, not to her career in general. The EP material suggests that, although over 80, she is still in good voice and ready to continue her DRG discography with another fine recording.