By Penny Landau ****Legendary singer/actress Barbara Cook passed away this morning at the age of 89, of respiratory failure. The favorite of both Broadway, cabaret and concert audiences, Cook died in her Manhattan apartment with family and friends by her side. Her last meal, we are told, was one of love of theatre and her role in it – vanilla ice cream.
Born in Atlanta, Barbara Nell Cook grew up with a traveling salesman father and a mother who worked for Southern Bell and who blamed her for passing on whooping cough to her 18-month-old sister, who died of the disease. “I killed my sister when I was 3 years old,” she wrote in her 2016 memoir, Then & Now. Her mother never forgave her. The one of joy in her youth was singing and as a child, she would sing to her father when he called from the road. She never learned to read music, but was a natural singer, learning from the films and the radio. “I was also completely enthralled by the movies,” she once told the New York Times, “and I wanted to be Jeanette MacDonald so badly.”
Moving to New York in 1948, she was intent on conquering Broadway, auditioning whenever her day job would permit. At one audition, songwriter Vernon Duke saw her potential and urged her to spend a summer performing at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Pocono Mountains that was a training ground for generations of singers, actors, writers and comedy stars. Nightclub owner Max Gordon saw her at the camp and booked her at the Blue Angel. He also urged her to study the stylings of Mabel Mercer, who along with Judy Garland, became her most influential vocal role models.
In her 20’s and 30’s, Cook became the toast of Broadway Musical Theatre, starring in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, Flahooley (her Broadway debut for which she won a Theatre World Award as a Promising Personality of the 1954-1955 season) and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, introducing such standards as “Glitter and Be Gay,” “Till There Was You” and of course, “Ice Cream.”
Ms. Cook’s most famous role, and the part for which she is best remembered, is Marian “The Librarian” Paroo, in The Music Man, opposite Robert Preston as the fast-talking music salesman Harold Hill, winning a Tony Award for her performance. Candide, in 1956, was arguably her most challenging assignment, a musically intricate reworking of Voltaire’s satire of a young man’s picaresque adventures. Leonard Bernstein is said to have shaped the operatic comic song “Glitter and Be Gay” around Ms. Cook’s voice and phrasing. In 1963’s She Loves Me, she played opposite Daniel Massey as one of two young colleagues in a Budapest perfume shop who detest each other, not knowing they are secretly romantic pen pals. In the show, she realizes her sudden love for the man she once hated in “Ice Cream,” a song ostensibly about a gift of sweets brought by Massey.
“Her career slowed down and following the birth of her son Adam, the weight poured on…” As she said, “If you’re happy, you eat. If you’re sad, you eat. You lose a job, you eat. You get a job, you eat. It’s addiction.” As the Broadway roles seemed to elude her, Cook drowned her sorrows in alcohol, “I was really in bad shape,” she told the New York Times. “I would get up to get him off to school and go back to bed and sleep till he was about to come home. I’d set the clock and try to be dressed, kind of together when he came home from school. The house was a wreck, terrible.” At 14, he went to live with his father, acting coach David Legrant.
Her career turned around in 1975, when she made her debut as a song stylist at Carnegie Hall and the critics went wild with praise. She returned to the hall again in 1980. By the 1990’s and 2000’s, she was regularly headlining the country’s best cabaret and concert halls.
“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara,” Stephen Sondheim proclaimed, as she became one of the finest interpreters of his work. Performing in a star-studded concert of Sondheim’s Follies with the New York Philharmonic, she brought down the house with “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind.”
“When I first started out, I didn’t give much thought to acting a song. That evolved. Now I think of it as living inside a song and singing my way out—inhabiting it, feeling it, making it felt from my core to your core. That’s the only way I can explain it. I think I know how to act theater songs as well as anybody’s ever done it,” she said, “and that’s something I didn’t understand in the beginning. It’s hard to judge your own work.”
Working with her on the Carnegie Hall concert was accompanist Wally Harper, who had suggested the idea and became her long-time collaborator and musical director for three decades, until his death in 2004. “There’s no way to quantify” what Mr. Harper contributed, Cook said, “We do it together.” Following Harper’s death, she teamed with musical director Lee Musiker and her career thrived once again.
Cook released several recordings, including The Disney Album, All I Ask of You, Live from London and Barbara Cook’s Broadway. She also released a memoir, Then and Now, in 2016, detailing her long career and her personal battles. Cook stopped drinking in 1977, realizing that it was a major source of her panic attacks that landed her in the hospital many times.
Cook appeared at the White House in 1978 and for the next 30 years, her career flourished. In 2006, she became one of the rare solo performers to be presented as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s season, which is where I saw her performance, one that I will never forget. Wally Harper was an old friend (we met while I was doing PR for David Zippel’s Off-Broadway show It’s Better with A Band, from a song he wrote with Harper) and invited me to the concert. I was hooked on Cook from that moment on.
Cook marked her 80th birthday in a performance with the New York Philharmonic and her 85th at Carnegie Hall. She was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2011 and was given the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs on her 88th birthday in 2015.
Her son, Adam, is her only immediate survivor.