Farewell to the Great Barbara Cook

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 12.28.25 PMOf course, we all knew it was coming—and the great Barbara Cook’s last performances and interviews (from just over a year ago) acknowledged with her characteristic openness the inevitable diminishing effects of time.

But her death today at age 89 is still painful and even shocking, in part because for so long she seemed to have stopped the clock. Well into her 70s, her vocal tone had the same sparkling freshness she’d had decades earlier as Broadway’s favorite ingenue.

I had the great good fortune to hear her many times, starting with a Los Angeles nightclub performance around 1975, just months after the sensational Carnegie Hall concert that reinvented her career. Thereafter, I saw her at Studio One, Lincoln Center, the Carlyle Hotel, and other venues on both coasts. And of course, her many recordings are some of my favorites. On Broadway and in the larger sphere of American popular song, she’s the gold standard.

Below are three short pieces I wrote about her between 2002 and 2014.

Barbara Cook Singer In Dressing Room 1986.Critic’s Pick – Barbara Cook at the Merriam (written in October 2002)
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Barbara Cook ruled Broadway as the musical ingénue incarnate.  This Atlanta native was a Georgia peach indeed, a sweet-faced blonde who radiated niceness, and whose luminous soprano – dazzling in the simplest melody or the coloratura complexities of Bernstein’s Candide – assured us everything was right with the world.

But musicals limited Cook.  Her best roles (Amalia in She Loves Me, Marian the Librarian in The Music Man) brought out some vulnerability, and let her show her acting chops.  But she had more to offer.

Fast-forward to a triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in 1975 – and a new career as a solo performer.  Cook’s voice retained the soaring top notes, and showed a new power and confidence in the lower register.  Her repertoire, still drawn mostly from show tunes, also explored a wider emotional range.

Thereafter, Cook embraced concert and cabaret venues.  She also largely abandoned theatre.  She didn’t need it.  The theatre was now in her voice.

Even so, pairing the still-sunny, still soprano Cook with the sardonic music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim seemed off-kilter.  Yet in 1985, the maestro chose her to play the tormented Sally in Follies in Concert.  She scored another triumph.

Now the diva returns the favor with Mostly Sondheim, a solo evening that includes works Sondheim wrote (“Happiness” from Passion, of course “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music) or loves (Arlen and Mercer’s “I Had Myself A True Love,” Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost In His Arms”).

Mostly Sondheim also celebrates Cook’s 50-plus years in show business.  In fact, this month she turns 75, but seeing her you won’t believe it.  Presence and voice are astonishingly undiminished by time.  Most nights the high B that closes “Ice Cream” (a signature number from She Loves Me) rings out like a chime.

Best of all, it turns out that the coupling of Cook’s basic goodness with Sondheim’s ambivalence isn’t a misfit at all – far from it.  Each sheds new light on the other.  In a career of highs, Mostly Sondheim may be Barbara Cook’s most completely satisfying evening yet.

Capsule Review – Barbara Cook at the Mitzi Newhouse / Lincoln Center Theater (written in July 2004
The beloved Broadway veteran holds forth in an evening of theatre songs and stories.  Most of the repertoire is new to Cook, and there’s an intriguing disjunction between the sunny soprano who talks to us with unfailing optimism, and the music that now suits her best: ballads burnished with experience and regret, including “In Buddy’s Eyes,” “The Gentleman Is A Dope,” and a heart-stopping “This Nearly Was Mine.”  It’s a kind of artistry unimaginable from Cook in her ingénue days, which brings the inevitable reference to passing decades: in October, she will be 77 years old!  But the beautiful, wide-ranging voice is astonishingly untouched by time, the technique still more so.  I have no doubt that Cook ranks among the master singers of our time, but let’s not yet place her in the past, when happily she’s part of our present.  She is scheduled to return to the Newhouse for two weeks in July… and, one hopes, regularly thereafter.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 12.52.00 PM.pngOn listening to Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall (written July 2014)
This concert and its history may be familiar to many musical theater fans of my generation, but it might be new to younger folks.  To fully understand its transformational impact (for Cook herself, let alone her fans) it’s worth remembering that in 1975, when she gave this performance – her first solo outing at Carnegie – she was 47 years old, and her string of Broadway ingenue roles was more than a decade behind her.

Has any performer more brilliantly reinvented herself?  Nearly 40 years after this event, Cook continues to perform with much of the voice – and all of the style – intact.

Still, the Carnegie concert is special – I’d forgotten just how much so till I took if off the shelf recently.   Her shining soprano has never been in better shape, as she tackles an exceptionally imaginative program that includes some old favorites (songs from Gay Life and She Loves Me) alongside a lot of new repertoire.  I’m not entirely persuaded by her outings in contemporary pop (songs by Burt Bacharach and Judy Collins), where the polish of her tone and manner seem too self-consciously sophisticated.

But the rest is sheer bliss.  If you’re sampling, I recommend especially “When I Marry Mr. Snow” – it’s a song that has been very well done by many singing actors (Audra McDonald included, of course), but to me Cook brings unique spirit and verbal life to the character.  And my favorite of all is “My White Knight” from Music Man, the show that won Cook her Tony Award – but this is an early version of the song, with extended patter that ties the character of Marian even more closely to Harold Hill.  It’s an absolutely delightful piece, brilliantly done.  (I’m sure that Meredith Willson had a good reason to use the shorter, simpler version in the show, but I’m so glad we have this souvenir!)

Throughout the concert, the audience goes crazy – as well they should!




Categories: Criticism, General Ramblings, Theater

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1 reply »

  1. Well said in all respects, David. Thank you

    Her memoir THEN & NOW, from last year, is worth mentioning too. She has plenty of high points to talk about, and recoveries from bad luck, but she’s also completely unsparing with herself about times when she was the one who messed up big-time. Which doesn’t diminish her stature, rather the contrary I think.

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