Remembering Barbara Cook, the Soprano Who Breathed New Life Into Every Lyric

Diva Talk   Remembering Barbara Cook, the Soprano Who Breathed New Life Into Every Lyric
 
A personal recollection of the late Tony-winning artist through her concerts, recordings, and interviews.
Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I can sing of jewels or of ice cream that’s vanilla, and if I really have to I can sing it a cappella!”


The above lyric, from Wally Harper and David Zippel’s “It’s Better with a Band,” is featured on Barbara Cook’s thrilling, live 1980 Carnegie Hall recording, and if you’re ever feeling a little blue, be sure to play that track (at least once but probably twice), as Cook’s exuberant performance will surely leave you in a better frame of mind: Her joy is palpable and contagious. (The song begins at the 27:55 minute mark in the video below.)

Barbara Cook: It's Better with a Band, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, was actually the second Cook album I ever purchased. The first was her 1977 LP As of Today, which she dedicated to her son Adam. I first heard tracks from that recording in 1986—my freshman year at Brandeis University—on a local radio station from Emerson College, and I was immediately taken by Cook’s beautiful tones on the haunting Janis Ian ballad “Candlelight.” On first hearing, Cook’s voice reminded me a bit of Barbra Streisand’s, but I later realized that Cook’s sound was all her own, stunningly full and crystal clear with a seemingly limitless range. She was that rare soprano whose upper register had the power, excitement, and often the sound of a Broadway belter, and her interpretive skills were as good as they get. I’ve listened to As of Today too many times to count over the past decades, and I’m still moved by her beautiful tones and deeply felt interpretations on the aforementioned “Candlelight” as well as another Janis Ian stunner, “Stars,” plus “Ain’t Love Easy,” “You and I,” and more.

I think I collected each and every Cook recording that was released after that point, and I’m particularly fond of her live discs, including Barbara Cook Live From London (featuring a version of “Beauty and the Beast” that simply melts into “Never Never Land” plus a mix of standards and newer tunes, including Amanda McBroom’s “Errol Flynn” and “Ship in a Bottle,” John Bucchino’s “Sweet Dreams,” and the powerful anthem “Love Don’t Need a Reason”) and Barbara Cook at The Met. The latter, recorded when Cook was 78, featured two guest stars—multiple Tony winner Audra McDonald and recent The Great Comet star and Tony nominee Josh Groban—and was further evidence of how Cook’s interpretations grew in dramatic depth over the years. Just listen to the emotion that fills “In Buddy’s Eyes,” the Stephen Sondheim tune she had first performed two decades earlier in a star-studded version of Follies. Cook also delights with several other Sondheim songs: wonderful pairings of “Another Hundred People” and “So Many People,” and “Not a Day Goes By” and “Losing My Mind.” I’m also a big fan of the two-disc Mostly Sondheim, recorded live at Carnegie Hall with special guest Malcolm Gets. Cook offers a generous mix of songs written by Sondheim and those he wished he had created. Cook gets to work her special magic on two songs from Passion, and she is equally impressive on such non-Sondheim fare as “I Got Lost in His Arms,” “I Wonder What Became of Me?,” and a joyful “The Trolley Song.”

I had the pleasure of seeing Cook in concert settings numerous times, and she never failed to deliver: impressing with not only her vocal beauty but also with her capacity to touch the heart like few others. In March 2000, I caught Cook at the Café Carlyle, the first time I had seen the Tony winner in such an intimate setting. That evening prompted this review:

Barbara Cook is a wonder. That she can still bring to vivid life songs that she has probably sung hundreds of times is truly remarkable. I’ve only seen Cook in large concert settings, once at the North Shore Music Center and once in my college’s auditorium, so I was quite excited to see the former Music Man star in the small confines of the Café Carlyle. Her new show, titled The Best of Barbara’s Broadway, celebrates Cook’s six years at the Carlyle, and the 60-minute program included some of her very favorite Broadway tunes. Cook opened the show with an upbeat version of “That’s Entertainment,” and from the moment she sang the first few notes, you knew you were witnessing a true professional, a woman who has mastered her craft.

Cook followed with a glorious “It Might As Well Be Spring” and then greeted her adoring audience. “Nobody Else But Me,” a tune that was added to the 1946 revival of Show Boat, and “Mr. Wonderful” were the next offerings, and then Cook delivered a belty, open-hearted version of the title song from She Loves Me, changing the “she” to “he.” Intense takes of “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “They Say It’s Wonderful” were quite moving, especially the latter, which Cook delivered in a wistful, teary-eyed manner. She then sang two songs from South Pacific that span the range of emotions: an almost giddy “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” and a heart-wrenching “This Nearly Was Mine.”

“The Very Next Man” preceded a striking medley of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,” and Cook finished her act with a song from The Music Man, and not the one you’d think. Instead of her award-winning rendition of “Till There Was You,” she concluded the show with the tongue-twisting “Trouble,” which was originally sung by her Music Man co-star, the late Robert Preston, whom she spoke about lovingly. Cook returned for an encore: a soothing, unmiked version of “Goodnight My Someone,” which displayed the beauty of her natural tones. With the exception of one flubbed lyric in “In Buddy’s Eyes,” it was a truly flawless evening of song. Anyone who is a fan of the theatre and/or cabaret should not miss this Tony Award-winning performer in action.

Throughout the past decade or so, I also had the honor of speaking with the always-candid Cook on many special occasions, including her solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, the announcement that she was among the 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees, and, most recently, upon the publication of her autobiography, Then and Now: A Memoir. Excerpts from these many chats with the Broadway star follow:

2006:
About her solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera:
“Well, it was extraordinary. For me to come out and immediately to see the entire place standing was really quite an amazing thing. It made me feel that they felt I deserved to be there and that they were happy I was there. It was really wonderful. The Metropolitan Opera means a great deal to me. I’ve loved opera since I was just a little kid. I would go inside on Saturday afternoons [while the] other neighborhood kids would still be playing. They always knew Saturday afternoon I’d go in to listen to the Met broadcast from the time I was nine or ten years old.”

About the loss of her pianist and musical director Wally Harper and working without him:
“A nightmare—really, really hard. And that’s not intended to take away from the wonderful people who’ve been helping me. It’s just that our work together, I see now, was spectacular. That’s all. Spectacular. He was absolutely perfect for me and I for him. We inspired each other, and it’s just one of those times of people coming together that are just exactly right.”

2010:
About Mostly Sondheim, which debuted at Carnegie Hall prior to a 2002 engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a mounting that would earn Cook a Tony nomination for Best Special Theatrical Event:
“Well, that was the idea of [my late musical director] Wally Harper. We were always looking for a theme or an idea, so I said, ‘Let’s do a show based on songs that are in shows that I wish I had done.‘ You know, ‘I wish that I had been in this show and would sing this song.’ We worked on that for about 20 minutes, and suddenly Wally said, ‘You know, what about that article that I think Frank Rich did with Stephen for the Times Magazine section in which [Sondheim] listed 50 songs that he wishes he had written. Why don’t we do a show that’s half Sondheim songs and half songs that he wishes he had written?’ So, I think it was a brilliant idea and I think a very good show, and Wally and I put that together.”

About Sondheim as a person:
“Oh, God! He’s a complex guy. I mean, I think people are complex, but he’s complex-er than most! But he’s an extraordinary guy and great wit and loves jokes . . . . I feel really so happy to know him, be around him, and get to work with him.”

About comparing Sondheim’s songs to other composers:
“Well, they’re just very difficult . . . Many of them are quite difficult, but they pay off. The work pays off. Steve just has an insight into life in general, and he’s able to translate those ideas, you know, with his extreme gift, not only musically, of course, but with the text. It is very rich material.…Well, I love the score for Follies. I love Passion. I think Passion is his second masterpiece after Sweeney.”

About Sondheim’s legacy:
“Well, you know, already you see more younger writers [write in his style]—sometimes, not in a good way. I think they try to do what he does without having the skills [but] that’s not true of everybody. . . . I think his work will really last, partially because it’s complex. He finds ways to say things that are universal that, I think, everybody can come to and understand.”

2011:
On the day the Kennedy Center Honors announcement was made, I had a chance for a very quick chat with the 2011 honoree.

About the public announcement of the Kennedy Center Honors:
“Well, I’m just wonderful, thank you! What a great, great honor. I’m so excited and pleased and thrilled and all of those words. They don’t have words for how I feel, to tell you the truth.”

About how Cook originally found out that she would be a Kennedy Center Honoree:
“Well, you know, when you’re asked to accept the honor, they send you a letter, and I got a letter from Michael Kaiser, the president of Kennedy Center, about four weeks ago, and of course, you have to sit on the news. You’re not supposed to tell a soul, and that’s been very hard.”

About her initial reaction when she received the letter from the Kennedy Center:
“Well, I cried. I simply cried. I had heard a rumor that maybe it would happen, but I didn’t believe it, you know. And, I still don’t believe it, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.] I’ve been there for those weekends two or three times because I’m one of the nominators, and they’re wonderful weekends. I enjoy them tremendously. I’m trying to picture myself inside those moments. I still can’t quite do it.”

About what it meant to her to get such an award:
“Well, I feel that it’s a kind of validation of my whole life because that’s what I do when I sing: I put my life into my work, so I feel that it’s a validation of not only of my work, but this whole career—this whole life—that I’ve had singing for people.”

About what she was most proud of when looking back on her career:
“Enduring, I suppose. That and also, I think more and more, I try to sing more and more purely and simply, although now I think I have more courage to go deeper into a song than I did maybe 20 years ago.”

2012:
I was thrilled to have Cook participate in our Favorite Things column, where she discussed 10 of her favorite theatrical performances she had witnessed as a member of the audience.

Cook had this to say about the late Gwen Verdon in Redhead:
“Another great performance from our loveable Gwen. I wonder if anybody else ever had the same ability to make an audience fall in love with her. She was so sweet. So strong. Nobody like her. Nobody even close.”

Read More: CLICK HERE TO READ ALL OF COOK’S ‘FAVORITE THINGS’

Barbara Cook Memoir HR

2016:
About what she learned about herself writing her memoir:
“Well, what I finally know now is that I’m a pretty good writer. First of all, I have very good grammar and all of that. I understand language, and that helps me a lot. I’m sure I made mistakes here and there, I don’t mean that I’m perfect by any means. But I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned: I’ve learned that I can do things I had no idea I could ever do. That’s important, you know? I would never ever have thought I would hold my book in my hands. Never. And that was a great moment, when I got that first book. You know, “Oh my God, I did this!” So, it kind of makes me feel that if I really try, I can do just about anything.…”

About working with Elaine Stritch:
“Oh, she was funny as hell. She was a good old broad. I knew her for so long, and we got along pretty well, except when we really tried to work together, and she tried to tell me how to sing a song…. I got a few f*cks out of it. [Laughs] She was such a talented person, though. Oh my God, so talented. She could be a pain in the ass to work with, but boy she was good.”

About her reason for writing the memoir:
“It’s hard to deal with [alcoholism]. And yet, I wanted to be honest. And I’m hoping maybe people who are reading the book who need help will have an open mind and hopefully be helped. That’s the final thing I thought about writing the book—because I put it off a long time, and I didn’t really want to do it because I knew how hard it would be. And then finally it occurred to me that if somebody’s in trouble and they have an open mind, maybe there are things in the book that could help them. Maybe they could see that you can have a second life. And you can stop drinking. It ain’t easy, boy.”

If you haven’t read Cook’s wonderfully honest and insightful autobiography Then and Now: A Memoir, released by HarperCollins, I highly recommend the book, which can be likened to her singing—not one false note. It is not a white-washed celebrity biography, but rather a seemingly truthful examination of a life of several lows and even greater highs. Especially refreshing is Cook’s ability to take responsibility for and learn from some of life’s missteps, gaining hard-earned wisdom that she hoped would benefit others. The Kennedy Center Honoree delves into her bleak childhood, her battle with alcoholism and its connection to her anxiety attacks, and a failed marriage. The gifted singing actor also details her work with some of Broadway’s greatest talents on some of the classics of the American musical theatre—Cook discusses auditioning for Leonard Bernstein, working with Robert Preston, taking direction from Harold Prince, and building an international concert career with musical director and accompanist Wally Harper—as well as her friendships with Elaine Stritch and Maureen Stapleton and her loving relationship with her only child, Adam LeGrant.

As I was listening this week to that very first Barbara Cook album I ever owned, As of Today, I reread Rex Reed’s wonderful liner notes, which end with these two statements: “She’s the best thing that’s happened to music since the invention of the harp, and that’s all anyone has the right to ask for now. But if I ever get to Heaven, and the angels don’t all sound just like Barbara Cook, God’s gonna have a lot to answer for.” I am sure Ms. Cook is now singing with what must be a stellar group of angels, but her artistry and honesty are truly missed among those down here on earth.

Senior Editor Andrew Gans is also the author of the monthly Their Favorite Things column. He can be reached by email at agans@playbill.com.

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