Barbara Cook, one of the true great performers of the musical theater and the concert stage, has died of respiratory failure at 89.
In a career that spanned six decades, she originated roles in such shows of Broadway’s Golden Age as The Music Man, Candide and She Loves Me before reinventing herself as a solo interpreter of the Graet American Songbook.
In between those two distinct careers, she left the limelight to battle her personal demons of depression, alcoholism and weight. The petite ingenue of those early theater triumphs morphed into a plus-sized powerhouse, re-emerging in 1975 at Carnegie Hall in an acclaimed solo evening immortalized in a live recording, the first of many discs that will be her legacy.
With musical direction by Wally Harper, who would guide Cook’s concert and recording career until his death in 2004, the Carnegie Hall evening featured two of her signature Broadway solos, “Vanilla Ice Cream,” from She Loves Me, a stream-of-consciousness discovery of romantic feelings for a co-worker, and “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, a take-off of the vocal gymnastics of the Bell Song from Delibes’ opera Lakmé. Adding to the wonder of Cook’s pitch-perfect renditions of these and many other bravura performances is the fact that she never learned to read music.
Born and raised in Atlanta into a family that would be fractured by divorce when Barbara was only 6, she struggled to overcome a natural shyness that threatened her show business ambitions. I vividly recall the first time I interviewed Cook, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, not long after the Carnegie Hall concert. She spoke meekly, as if puzzled why anyone would care what she had to say.
“My story bores me,” she conceded to me. “I guess it’s partly because maybe I do think, ‘Who cares?’ I think I’m not that well-known a person to assume that people are going to care.
“What am I? A soprano who sings popular music. I don’t think there is anybody else who does that,” she told me, more apologetic than boastful. “People don’t know what to make of me.”
Almost as much a milestone in Cook’s career as the Carnegie Hall concert was her appearance in a 1985 Lincoln Center concert of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, in which she sang heartbreaking, definitive versions of “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind.” The evening showcased her remarkable interpretive gifts and began her long association with the emotionally and musically complex works of the theater’s premier composer-lyricist.
In 2002, Cook brought a concert of his songs, the Tony Award-nominated Mostly Sondheim, to Broadway (and later to Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Playhouse). Eight years later, she appeared in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim, her final Broadway stint.
As she remarked to me about performing his material, “Singing one of his songs is like being handed a great scene to play, beautifully written, layered with character, something you enjoy performing over and over, because you keep discovering more about it. They’re surprising, they’re profound.”
Returning the compliment, Sondheim once said, “No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”
At 88, Cook planned yet another Broadway solo show, aiming to open in the spring of 2016. But during rehearsals, the production was abruptly canceled because of concerns over her health.
It’s like we were cheated out of one more close encounter with Barbara Cook. And now, there will be no more of them, except for the many recordings she made – of characters from Marian the Librarian, Cunegonde, Amalia Balash, Sally Plummer and herself, Broadway musical interpreter extraordinaire.