Remembering Barbara Cook
It rained a little on Broadway this week with the passing of Barbara Cook, a legend of the Broadway musical whose clarion soprano and boundless emotion took songs into the outer stratosphere. Cook, who has been a presence on the Broadway scene since the 1950s in both musicals and concerts, died on August 8 at the age of 89 after a long illness. Her legions of fans are mourning the loss of the great lady who, among myriad roles, originated the role of Marion Paroo in the 1957 production of The Music Man.
Cook had the unfortunate luck of being cast in many Broadway flops, but it was her presence in them that helped to keep them alive long past their productions shuttered. She made her Broadway debut in the musical Flahooley where she introduced the intoxicating Sammy Fain/E.Y. Harburg song “Here’s to Your Illusions.” In 1955, she took on the supporting role of Hilda Miller in the also-ran Plain & Fancy, singing “This Is Very New to Me.” When Leonard Bernstein wrote his score for Candide (1956), Cook was well-paired to the material when she was cast as Cunegonde. Her rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay” remains one of Broadway’s most exhilarating recordings of the song. In 1961, she played Liesl Brandel in The Gay Life, another short-lived confection with a score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. 1964 brought her the role of Carol Deems in Something More!, a mostly forgotten piece with a score by Sammy Fain and Marilyn and Alan Bergman. One of her finest performances was in the 1971 musical The Grass Harp, based on the Truman Capote novella of the same name. She played the eccentric and free-spirited Dolly Talbo, singing such gems as “Yellow Drum,” “Chain of Love,” and “Reach Out.” In 1988, she took a stab at the religious zealot, mother from hell, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel. Many of these flops and forgotten titles received original cast albums and each is worth hearing (again and again) to bear witness that Cook was in no way culpable for their failure to ignite. She sparkled everywhere she went.
Not every show in which she performed failed. Of course, we best remember her for her Tony-winning performance in 1957’s The Music Man. Her wistful “Goodnight My Someone,” her spine-tingling “My White Knight” and her emotionally-charged “Till There Was You” are all performances that rank amongst the legendary. Arguably, her finest moment was in the 1962 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me where she portrayed the lovesick saleswoman Amalia Balash. She captured our hearts with “Will He Like Me?,” broke our hearts with “Dear Friend,” and then melted our hearts with “Vanilla Ice Cream.” She also played Ado Annie Carnes in a 1951 revival of Oklahoma!, and Carrie Pipperidge in a 1954 revival of Carousel (both at Lincoln Center), performed as Anna in The King and I (1960), and Magnolia in Show Boat (1966). All these performances received great acclaim and made Cook a sought-after ingénue for two decades. In 1985, she appeared as Sally in the New York Philharmonic’s concert of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies where her haunting performance of “In Buddy’s Eyes” was a highlight of the star-studded event. In 2010, she was one of the headlining stars of the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Sondheim on Sondheim, for which she was Tony nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Cook also toured with two musicals, playing the title character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) and as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1967). She appeared in a handful of television musicals, including Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s Bloomer Girl, playing the rebellious feminist Evelina Applegate on this 1956 episode of Producer’s Showcase. She starred as Jane Piper in the 1955 made-for-television Babes in Toyland, and in the 1958 Hansel and Gretel, opposite Red Buttons.
Cook was not only a musical theatre actress, although that is where she particularly shined. She cut her non-musical acting chops on the dramatic stage as well, including performances in Any Wednesday (1965), Little Murders (1967), and Gorky’s Enemies (1972). She evolved into a beloved staple of the concert stage, performing in venues as diverse as Lincoln Center and the Café Carlyle. No matter where she shared her talent, people came and each concert was a success, thanks entirely to her ability to take a song and finesse it with emotion, and her indelible knack for storytelling.
Remembering Barbara Cook, I think what will stick most-closely with me is the way she came to life as soon as the music started. In began in her toes, swelled in her chest, and shined right out through her face. This was before a sound was even uttered. She reveled in singing and that glow of life was the vessel on which she sailed her ethereal voice. It’s a magic that seldom happens. No one wants that glow to fade, but we are surely grateful that we were warmed by it while it was here. Ms. Cook, you are Broadway legend.