Barbara Cook, whose heartfelt soprano led her to a remarkably long-lived career, first as one of Broadway’s most memorable musical theatre ingénues and then as a leading light in the international cabaret scene, died August 8, 2017, of respiratory failure at the age of 89.
The Atlanta-born soprano started her Broadway career in 1951, but it was her 1956 role in Leonard Bernstein’s short-lived Candide, with its popular cast recording, that ensured her immortality. In 2002, Cook told NPR that Bernstein’s vocal demands were daunting.
“I was counting the high notes in the score, and there were four E flats over high C, there were six D flats, there were 16 B flats and 21 high Cs. … That’s just unbelievable,” she said. “It’s unheard of. But that’s what was in the score for me to sing and I did it eight times a week.”
Cook’s next Broadway outing proved to be one of her greatest triumphs. In The Music Man, she played the spinsterish Marian, a librarian who falls for con artist Harold Hill, played by Robert Preston. Meredith Willson wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, which he later realized was a thinly veiled autobiography.
In the 1962 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me. Cooked played what would be one of her most memorable roles, that of Amelia Balash. Of her performance Norman Nadel of the World-Telegram & Sun wrote: “Her clear soprano is not only one of the finest vocal instruments in the contemporary musical theatre, but it conveys all the vitality, brightness and strength of her feminine young personality, which is plenty.” The song “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the latter became one of Cook’s signature songs.
“One day, he came to me,” Cook recalled. “He said, ‘Oh … I know who you are. I know who this character is.’ He says, ‘I wrote this and I didn’t know it was my mother. This is my mother.’ “
Cook won a Tony Award for that role. But actresses can’t play ingénues forever and as the ’60s drew to a close, roles became scarce. Cook succumbed to what she referred to as her “middle-escence,” battling alcoholism, depression and obesity. She disappeared from the Broadway stage for five years. Then, in 1975, she reinvented herself as a highly regarded concert and cabaret artist.
In October 1991 they appeared as featured artists at the Carnegie Hall Gala Music and Remembrance: A Celebration of Great Musical Partnerships which raised money for the advancement of the performing arts and for AIDS research
In 1988 she originated the role of Margaret White in the ill-fated musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, which premiered in England and was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1994, she provided both her acting and singing skills to the animated film version of Thumbelina which featured music by Barry Manilow. That same year she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
In October 1991 she appeared as featured artists at the Carnegie Hall Gala Music and Remembrance: A Celebration of Great Musical Partnerships which raised money for the advancement of the performing arts and for AIDS research
New York Times critic Stephen Holden says that as the years went on, not only did her voice grow deeper, but so did her musical interpretations.
“High voices really don’t express much. They’re just beautiful and phenomenal,” Holden says. “And it’s low voices that you can really get into the dark side of things, or whatever you want to call it. And she goes there and puts all of her life into what she sings.”
Over the decades, Cook also developed her own philosophy and approach to performance. She said, “I think it’s absolutely, totally important for a person, first of all, to hopefully know who they are as a performer and to choose songs that illuminate that person; and then to be present — to really, really be present.”