Barbara Cook: October 25, 1927 – August 8, 2017
By: Ellis Nassour
One of Broadway’s most famous sopranos and a darling of the concert world, Barbara Cook died Tuesday morning of respiratory failure at her Manhattan home. According to publicist Amanda Kaus, at her last meal she was served vanilla ice cream, a nod to one of her most famous roles, shop clerk Amelia Balash, and oft-quoted songs in Bock and Harnick’s 1963 She Loves Me. Lauded as the “singer’s singer,” she was 89.
Barbara Cook’s pure soprano tone and warm presence have delighted audiences around the world just short of 70 years. Considered a favorite ingénue during the heyday of the Broadway musical, Miss Cook launched a second career as a concert and recording artist. She was blessed with the ability of sustaining mesmerizing and lengthy high notes with great clarity. It’s amazing how very personal she could make lyrics. You’d see that she was feeling them and that made for an affecting performance.
In her trademark black pants, black pull-over that was a cross between a chemise and a poncho and those oh-so-comfortable sandals, Miss Cook was equally at home on international stages, such as London’s Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall or intimate cabaret settings, such as Cafe Carlyle, where she often rang in Spring with long-time collaborator and accompanist [the late] Wally Harper, and Feinstein’s at former Loews Regency.
She had a much-lauded career with Tony, Grammy, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards. Miss Cook is a Theatre Hall of Fame inductee. In January, 2007 Miss Cook became the first female pop singer to present a full concert at the Metropolitan Opera in its 123-year history.
The person who often told Miss Cook what to do and the one she trusted most, Harper, whom she called her rock, “someone who understood me better than I understood myself.”
His death in 2004 was a devastating blow. Theirs was an incredible partnership “where we knew what the other was thinking before we thought it. That’s not to say we didn’t argue and disagree,” she laughs. “Just like old friends, we went at each other over just about everything under the sun. In spite of that, we got along quite nicely. Now that I think about it, maybe it was because we actually rarely disagreed. On those occasions when we did, I listened to him. The best I can say about Wally is that he was simply a musical genius!”
From their first meetings in the 70s, Harper wanted to add another “element” to Miss Cook. She explained he really pushed her, not always willingly, to experiment to see what she was capable of doing. The result was the addition of a strong rhythmic pattern to her vocals.
In the early 90s, Miss Cook was beyond thrilled to be named to the Theater Hall of Fame. Though concerts and cabaret became her bread and butter, “Broadway,” she said, “is still my first love.”
In 2011, she became an honoree at the 34th annual Kennedy Center Honors and, with her fellow inductees Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, and Meryl Streep, feted at the White House by President and Mrs. Obama. “With her sublime voice and rich performances,” said Kennedy Center chair David Rubenstein, “Barbara Cook has defined all that’s best and brightest in the Great American Songbook.”
Her 2004 engagement on the West End was SRO. Returning stateside, she took the show to the Lincoln Center’s Beaumont for 14 sold-out weeks, and received critical raves. She was Tony-nominated for Best Theatrical Event. Miss Cook and Harper, a team for over 30 years, were recipients of MAC Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Three years earlier, she premiered Mostly Sondheim at Carnegie Hall and took it to the West End, where she was nominated for Olivier Awards for Best Entertainment and Best Actress in a Musical.
Her last Broadway appearance was in 2010, for 76 performances, in Sondheim on Sondheim, co-starring with Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott.
Morton, currently appearing in Hamilton, says, “I was blessed to work with the very best, but I cannot sing the praises of Miss Cook enough. I simply fell madly in love with her. She was 83and stunning. I couldn’t help but marvel at how she sounded. Her voice was mesmerizing, simply exquisite. She told me she hadn’t done eight shows a week in over three decades and that she was concerned, worried about her physical stamina. We watched her closely, but she soldiered on gloriously!”
Miss Cook related that she never thought of Sondheim tunes as songs, “but as gifts. I love the simplicity and the clarity of Irving Berlin, and Stephen’s work has that also. There’s something so rich about his work that I never tire of his songs. The more I do them, the more I’m finding different things and subtleties. Quite simply, nobody writes as he does.”
She became one of the finest interpreters of the composer’s work, and he had high praise for her: “No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara Cook.”
Barbara Cook graduated in 1945 from Girls High in Atlanta, where she remembered how students poked fun at her because she wore the same clothes over and over. She sang for troops at the U.S.O. and many local organizations. Everyone was wowed by her voice. She worked three years as a typist to fulfill her dream of moving to New York.
Three years later, “I was on my way to seek my fame and fortune” with no plans to return. “Mom thought it was just going to be a visit,” she laughs, “but I packed everything I owned. I wanted to see what I can do with my singing. She didn’t believe me, but after two weeks she was on her way home alone. Now, looking back, because we were so close, she must have been devastated. She lost a daughter [complications from pneumonia], but accused me of being responsible – something that haunted me for years. As far as Mom was concerned, we were one person with no separation, no boundaries. Thankfully, I am a strong person or I might not have survived that.”
She continued as a typist and went to as many auditions as she could squeeze in. The summer of 1950, she worked in the Poconos at Tamiment resort. “It was a wonderful time, and I learned so much,” she noted. “There was Danny Kaye, Side Caesar, Herbert Ross, and Jerry Robbins. I was the ingénue, and Jack Cassidy was the juvenile, and we did songs from Broadway shows. People kept encouraging me and I gradually built confidence.” She would in the not so distant future cross paths again with Cassidy.
A long-term cabaret experience in Boston prepared her for Broadway and clubs. “I spent nine months doing revues with small casts. The music was Porter, Gershwin and Berlin.”
It took three years before luck struck, but romance beat luck to the door. Miss Cook met acting teacher David LeGrant in 1952 when they worked the same resort. After marrying, they hit the road in a 1953 national tour of Oklahoma! [The couple had a son, Adam, born in 1959.] They divorced in 1965, one of the incidents that led her to begin drinking to find solace.
The tour brought her to the attention of casting directors. She made her Broadway debut at 23 in 1951 as the ingénue lead in Sammy Fain, Yip Harburg, and Fred Saidy’s Flahooley, which co-starred the exotic Peruvan singer Yma Sumac. “Considering the great talents in theater at that time,” she said, “that was pure luck. However, we closed after 40 performances.”
She was back to auditioning, which soon paid off with limited engagements of musicals at City Center and went on to roles in Plain and Fancy, the original Candide as Cunegonde, The Music Man as Marian the Librarian, The Gay Life, She Loves Me!, The Grass Harp and, less we forget, Carrie on the West End.
“In 1956, when I heard who was putting Candide together,” she pointed out, “I wanted to be cast, but never thought I’d get a part. My vocal instructor insisted I learn Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart, even though I kept telling him it wasn’t the type of music I wanted to sing.” As it turned out, that insistence was a huge pay off. “When I arrived at my first audition, I was surrounded by opera singers.
“Leonard Bernstein was late, always late,” she continued, “but I used the wait to look over the sheet music. With all those high notes, you could have mistaken it for grand opera.”
Audition she did, and Bernstein was impressed enough to want to hear more, but not what she was prepared to sing. In what she called quite a brazen and foolhardy moment, she told the maestro that she would do an aria from Madama Butterlfy if she had the music.
“He said, ‘I don’t need the music! I know it.’ And Mr. Bernstein sat at the piano and started playing – at a different place than I knew. He was playing a part of the aria I didn’t know! But we got on the same page and I gathered all my strength and ended with a D Flat and, boy, did he perk up!”
Candide lasted only 73 performances. “But,” noted Miss Cook, “what a pedigree it boasted: the only musical libretto by Lillian Hellman and one of Leonard Bernstein’s best scores. Lyricist, John LaTouche, sadly, died prior to rehearsals and Richard Wilbur took over. No less than Dorothy Parker came in to make a few contributions.”
Miss Cook related that she learned a lot about music working with Bernstein. “He was wonderful and made me feel as if I could do anything. He loved to catch you off guard. There was, however, one time I could have strangled him. He came to my dressing room and took great delight in telling me Callas was out front. ‘That’s not what I need to hear before a performance,’ I shot back. He laughed and replied, ‘Watch out! She’d kill for some of your E Flats!'”
She observed when starting out, that she didn’t put a lot of thought into acting a song. “That’s something that evolved. In time, I came to understand how to absorb the lyrics, inhibit and feel them as if they’re part of me. I live inside the songs I love, and sing my way out.”
For The Music Man, Miss Cook won a 1958 Tony. Strangely, it was in the Featured category when she was the co-star opposite Robert Preston and even billed above the title. “There were compensations,” she said. “It was a wonderful show and I couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding, easy-going, or nicer co-star than Robert. It was such a pleasure to come to work and hard to believe I was enjoying every day as much I was. Robert was the engine of the show, the spark. Onstage, he had enough electricity to light Chicago for ten years
“It was nice being in a show that was such a hit,” she adds. “Everyone who was anyone came, and came back after. One night Robert came into my dressing room for our usual chit chat and said, ‘Coop’s out front.’ I replied, ‘Coop?’ He said, ‘Yes, Coop. Gary Cooper.’ That got my attention. I told him if I didn’t meet him there’d be hell to pay. After the curtain, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there he was – all six foot three of him. I looked up and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Cooper, it’s so wonderful to meet you. I’m a huge fan.’ And he replied, ‘Gosh.’ And that was it. Yes, there are some disappointments in life.”
In 1961, she was cast in the much-anticipated Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz musical The Gay Life, with book by the Fay and Michael Kanin – based on a cycle of late 1890s Viennese short stories by Arthur Schnitzler that focus on a womanizing playboy, who ultimately marries Liesl. The score is a mixture of traditional Broadway tunes and operetta. As Liesl, Miss Cook had two memorable tunes: “Magic Moment” and “Something You Never Had Before.” “It was such a lovely show [directed by Gerald Freedman, choreographed by Herbert Ross]. Walter Chari and Jules Mushin were so wonderful to work with.” The show closed after 113 performances. Another disappointment.
She went on to become a memorable Anna in the City Center revival of The King and I and was a stunning Magnolia in a New York State Theater production of Show Boat. She ventured into non-musical roles during the run of Any Wednesday, in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, and Lincoln Center Theatre’s production of Gorky’s Enemies.
Miss Cook was known to have a temper. She also had a long memory. “However,” she recalled, “whenever I was asked how it felt to work in Broadway’s so-called ‘Golden Years,’ I said I didn’t know. I didn’t. I was just walking, one foot in front of the other, wondering where my next job would come from. Do you think, one day, the actors working today will look back at this time as the ‘Golden Years’ of musicals?”
On second thought, rolling off names such as Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon, Rex Harrison, and Julie Andrews and the shows they were appearing in at the time, she opined, “I guess those were golden years. And I was lucky to be where I was. It was just the right time and I was the right package. I was so fortunate to have worked with such amazing people.”
There was a huge disappointment in 1964. Her She Loves Me! co-star Jack Cassidy was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Stephen Kadaly, but in her integral role as Amalia Balash, in one of the great mysteries for theatrical history books, she – who had become a musical theater darling — was inexplicably overlooked, in spite of rapturous reviews, by the Tony nominators.
She did win featured Tonys for The Music Man and Sondheim on Sondheim.
There is one theatrical experience she preferred to talk about. However, she eventually came round.
“Tastes had changed,” she said. “My style of music was out-of-favor with audiences that count. Work was hard to find. In 1988, when Royal Shakespeare Company director Terry Hands offered me the co-starring role in Carrie at Stratford, it seemed like a good idea. It would be a new start. And the show was set to move from London right to Broadway.”
Barbara Cook playing Margaret White was quite unusual casting [the part was played on Broadway for a few nights by Betty Buckley]. Throughout her career, Miss Cook said she played those nice girls Broadway audiences loved. She certainly wasn’t your vision of a rabid religious fanatic, “but I dug in and gave it my all. There were more than a few creative differences during rehearsals.” She and Hands got into heated arguments. She wanted to quit but thought that would be unprofessional, so she courageously stuck with the show.
“Courageously” is not used casually. “On opening night,” reported Miss Cook, “in one of those freak stage accidents, I literally almost gave it my all. I was nearly decapitated when one of the props malfunctioned!” She wanted out as soon as possible, and leave was granted. “I did absolutely the right thing in leaving. It was a debacle. There were some good songs, but as a whole it was…Oh, God!”
Hands, then a leading light of the RSC, she explained “had a good vision – in the beginning. But he was used to directing works by dead authors. He’d never done a musical [actually, he had]. Carrie was a whole different can of worms. And I think we may have had a few cans of them onstage! I don’t know if it was so much ill-conceived, or just problem-plagued. The biggest problem was that not one person working on it had done a show from scratch. No one had a clue as to how to fix it. I thought if a scene didn’t work, Terry would see it. He didn’t.”
Miss Cook’s new theatrical beginning was not to be. Though she stopped drinking in the late 70s, she developed manic depression, which led her to step away from the limelight and out of public life. “Then, somewhere, somehow when I saw how I was spiraling to that point of no return, I pulled myself up and sought help.”
Part of her “recuperation” was getting back onstage and singing. And her concert appearances and new recordings led to rediscovery from new audiences.
Candide, She Loves Me! and The Music Man were great experiences. “Though I haven’t done musical theater since 1971’s The Grass Harp,” she observed, “there’s nothing like being in a Broadway show. I loved everything about it, especially the rehearsal period and being with people all working toward one goal. I made bonds that will last forever. Theater offers a wonderful sense of family and camaraderie. Even when you don’t always get along!”
What? Not get along with Cunegonde, Marian the Librarian, and Amalia Balash? “No, when they didn’t get along with Barbara Cook,” she retorted. “It happened occasionally. But usually it was like we were all fighting on the same side, in the trenches, watching out for each other.”
On those rare occasions when there were serious falling outs or a problem with a fellow performer, Cook said it was difficult to leave hurt feelings backstage, especially when she had to go out and sing a romantic ballad and do a love scene. “A couple of times it was quite the most difficult thing! Most of the time, however, I just went out and did it. I didn’t have a choice. Thankfully, the problems I had didn’t last long. I’d try to patch things up quickly.
“It all comes down to the fact that you’re not out there alone,” she continued. “Some actors thrive on that. I never did. I hate that! I always tried to keep things cool because it’s hard to work if you feel you can’t trust the other person.”
Miss Cook was greatly influenced in her approach to concert and cabaret music by the legendary song stylist Mabel Mercer. “I owe so much to Mabel for all I learned from her.”
Surprisingly, Miss Cook never did warm-ups or vocal exercises. When I asked why, she stated, “I was fortunately born with a naturally sweet soprano. I had a wonderful vocal teacher who helped me build my voice. I learned good technique and I’ve always done what I was supposed to do. A lot of it has to do with the genes.”
At the end of an interview promoting her 80th birthday concerts with the New York Philharmonic, I asked Miss Cook if she knew how much longer she could go on. She
replied, “Singing is something I love doing, so, as long as I can do it, why stop?”
Miss Cook taught master classes around the world. Finally, in 2015, after being promoted to do so for years, she sat down in her apartment on Riverside Drive and began telling her story, co-written with Tom Santopietro. Her brutally honest autobiography, Then and Now, A Memoir (2016), details the working relationships she shared with the key composers, musicians, and actors — among them Bernstein, Harper, Elaine Stritch, Preston, and Sondheim, – and even reveals the long-kept secret of her affair with actor Arthur Hill, when they were both married.
With aging, her crystal soprano changed. She gained weight and wasn’t in the best physical shape. She occasionally forgot lyrics to songs she’s sung a thousand times and often worked with sheet music on a stand. The voice became a shade darker, but not in a blatant or perceptible way. However, when she sang, it was magic. At the last performance I caught, at Queens College, she was down with a bad cold, but soldiered on. She had amazing voice control and only coughed a bit between songs.
In 2011, I was asked by the late American Theatre Wing president Isabel Stevenson to watch for Miss Cook’s arrival at a pre-Tony Awards luncheon at the Waldorf. She arrived with an assistant by taxi, and I greeted her. She didn’t remember my name, but said she knew my face. I told her we had spent three occasions doing interviews. She replied, “Oh. Okay, so, where do we go?”
I informed we’d be heading for the ballroom, but the one elevator on the Park Avenue side which went there was under maintenance – and, oh no!, that we’d have to walk up a flight of stairs and cross to elevators on the Lexington Avenue side. She was having none of that. Before suggesting a cab to go around, I ran up to the bellman’s desk and asked if there was a way to use the elevator. There wasn’t. I returned to the entrance with the news.
Guests were arriving, and a bellman was putting luggage on a cart. Miss Cook looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes darted to her assistant, then back to me. “Are you sure?” She replied, “Honey, I’ve done just about everything, but this’ll be a first!”
We were brought a cart, she boarded, and, accompanied by her assistant and a bellman, we went on a block and a half journey laughing all the way. We took the escalators to the elevators and I escorted her to her table in the ballroom. I went to leave and she blurted, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to help me to the stage?” I asked to be prompted a few minute before she was to be onstage. When I got the signal, we made our way to the stage in the dark. Someone was singing. There were stairs. I got in front and went up backwards, guiding her up. She wouldn’t let me leave. At the appointed time, I walked her out in the dark to the microphone.
Afterward, we did everything in reverse, but went to the Lexington Avenue exit, where her assistant hailed a cab. “Was I terrible?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but I was worried we’d have an accident and I’d be responsible for your injuring yourself.” She laughed, “So was I! That’s why I held on to those brass poles for dear life!”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Especially later in her life, I believe this was the motto Barbara Cook lived by.