Broadway said farewell to one of the brightest talents of its history, singer-actor Barbara Cook, in a star-filled memorial concert December 18 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Cook died August 8 of respiratory failure at the age of 89. The same stage where Cook herself frequently performed was occupied by friends, family, and admirers, including Tony Award winners Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Sheldon Harnick, and Frank Langella, along with fellow stars Norm Lewis, Vanessa Williams, Jessica Molaskey, John Pizzarelli, Renee Fleming, Jane Summerhays, Michael Kaiser, and Roy Furman, plus Cook’s son, Adam LeGrant, all of whom spoke and many of whom performed.
Langella told stories about their long friendship, saying she was “filled with beauty, filled with music,” a combination “every one of us should envy.” He added, “She was vain, egocentric, needy, and insecure—like the rest of us.”
Cook's seven-decade career included leading roles in two landmark musicals, She Loves Me and The Music Man, as well as Cunegonde in Candide, and roles in the lesser-known shows Plain and Fancy, The Grass Harp, Flahooley, and The Gay Life.
The memorial was directed by Tony winner James Lapine, with Andy Einhorn at the piano. None of the singing stars attempted their own versions of Cook signature songs like “Vanilla Ice Cream,” “Glitter and Be Gay,” My White Knight,” or “Till There Was You.” Cook herself performed snippets from those songs via video projection on a large screen over the Beaumont stage.
Instead, the guests sang numbers Cook had offered in her innumerable concert, cabaret, and record performances, and special songs that reminded the singers of their lost friend.
McDonald sang Kander & Ebb’s "Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys, and described how Cook's own ease in front of an audience (even when she went up on her lyrics) had helped her overcome her stage anxiety and backstage fainting spells.
O’Hara said Cook was “the best speaker-on-pitch I’ve ever known,” and sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi. Williams and Lewis contributed a duet on the Sondheim tune “So Many People.” Molaskey sang a jazzy “I Got Rhythm” with her husband, Pizzarelli, on electric guitar.
She Loves Me lyricist Sheldon Harnick told a story of how Cook learned the lyrics to "Vanilla Ice Cream" in an afternoon (using a prop letter as a prompt sheet), and put it into the show the same day it was written, during the show’s out-of-town tryout.
Common themes of the speakers were about how Cook revealed herself in her performances, and demanded that students in her master classes do the same. When a student made a breakthrough, she would tell them, “You are enough”—a catchphrase cited by many.
For all the revealing Cook herself did in her lifetime—particularly in her 2016 memoir Then and Now—there were still many intimate glimpses that only her friends and her son could supply. Cook loved Christmas, she loved the color yellow (the stage was decorated with an arrangement of yellow flowers), she loved to stay up until the middle of the night and make phone calls and send emails, she loved to buy records, she loved to collect Hopi Kachina dolls, she loved listening to Josh Groban, and she apparently really loved fellow actor Hugh Jackman, whose name was mentioned repeatedly. Summerhays described Cook as a Southern girl at heart, who allowed expressions like “Lordy!” and “Holy Hannah!” to creep into her conversations.
According to LeGrant, his mother could also be stubborn and opinionated, but "her singlemindedness is what made her so brilliant at what she did."
Jackman himself appeared on screen in a recorded farewell message, as did Stephen Sondheim, who showed a funny clip of the actors in rehearsal for the 1985 concert version of Follies, listening rapt as Cook sang...all except an unimpressed Elaine Stritch who fussed obliviously with her shoe. After a laugh, the audience got to hear what was perhaps the purest note Cook ever hit, the final note on the Follies song “In Buddy's Eyes.”
LeGrant closed the evening by screening a montage of private photos of his mother on the beach, in the kitchen, beside the Christmas tree, and in other candid domestic scenes. He quoted the title from one of her favorite songs, “We'll Be Together Again.”