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Obituary: Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Barbara Cook lay unconscious in her Manhattan apartment last week, a succession of Broadway stalwarts came to pay tribute at her bedside before her death. Among them were Norm Lewis and Vanessa Williams, co-stars of her final Broadway appearance in the 2010 revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

They sang Sondheim’s Old Friends from Merrily We Roll Along and In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies, which Cook had sung in her renowned 1985 Lincoln Center concert performance of Follies and which became a signature part of her repertoire. As Lewis told the New York Times: “There was one response where she opened her eyes a little bit and we kind of interpreted it like, ‘Enough of that; you’re messing up my song’ ”.

It’s a story that’s pure Cook: at once affectionate yet also commanding. She owned this repertoire as few other singers did and that Follies concert marked a turning point in her career. As the critic Stephen Holden wrote: “This was when the essence of the mature Barbara Cook fully revealed itself. Attached to the glowing voice was the suggestion of a sigh from a woman looking back with a mixture of wistful regret and acceptance, without a trace of bitterness. It was a voice that invited you to nestle in her arms for mutual comfort.”

He added: “The Follies concert began her association with Sondheim, which helped both their careers soar. Because the passage of time is a major theme for both the singer and the composer, Ms Cook became, to an extent, his voice. Listening to her sing Send in the Clowns, Not a Day Goes By, Not While I’m Around and No One Is Alone… is akin to tuning in to an urbane, secular gospel ceremony preaching a message of friendship, loyalty and human values. You left every Cook performance feeling warmed and grateful to be alive.”

Born in 1927, she was an effervescent Broadway ingenue of the 1950s and 1960s with a shimmering lyric soprano, originating such roles as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (she was the first person to sing Glitter and Be Gay) in 1956, librarian Marian Paroo in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man in 1957 (for which she won her first and only Tony award) and Amalia Balash in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me (1963), as well as revivals of such classics as Carousel (1957), The King and I (1960) and Show Boat (1966), all of them preserved in recordings.

As the New York Times put it, she “was an ideal leading lady in the musicals of the 1950s and 1960s. She was slender and blonde, with a scrubbed schoolgirl charm and a radiant voice that ranged from the patter of comedy to the edges of aria.”

Following an unhappy marriage (which produced a son, Adam LeGrant, in 1959, who survives her) personal problems took over. She drank more and worked less. In a 2005 interview, she acknowledged she became virtually unemployable, an alcoholic mired in depression who went on eating binges and grew to 250lb. “I was not some lady drunk. I was a real non-functioning alcoholic. Dishes always in the sink. The kitchen a mess. The bathroom a mess. Everything a mess.”

But she found recovery in music after she met pianist-composer Wally Harper in 1974, who became her musical director and with whom she reinvented herself as one of the premiere exponents of the American songbook. Her personal challenges made her work all the richer. She launched a cabaret and concert career that would span more than 40 years, following her Carnegie Hall solo debut in 1975.

She stopped drinking in 1977 and became a fixture on the cabaret circuit, both in New York and then around the world. She first came to London’s Donmar Warehouse for David Kernan’s Showpeople series in 1986, which subsequently transferred to the Albery (now the Coward) Theatre. She became a frequent London visitor, appearing in seasons at the Gielgud and Haymarket theatres, as well as returning to the Donmar in 1998 as part of the inaugural Divas at the Donmar season. During that run, she delivered an afternoon masterclass for West End singers that was a highly instructive lesson in the importance of authenticity rather than technical effects in singing.

She made a short-lived return to musical theatre in the UK when she starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the notorious flop musical Carrie at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1988. After being nearly decapitated by a malfunctioning set, she resigned from the show but completed the Stratford run.

She returned to the Broadway stage as a solo artist with runs at the Ambassador Theater (1987), Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont (2001 and 2004) and in Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54 (2010).

In 2006, she became the first non-classical female singer to have a full-length solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, receiving a rapturous reception. She was said to have achieved the feat of making that vast house shrink to the size of the cabaret rooms where she held regular residencies, and each audience member felt as if she was singing to them personally.

She continued to sing virtually to the end of her life. When performing in New York in 2015, however, she seemed frail. “But I’m not dying!” she insisted defiantly as the audience stood in unison for her (though she couldn’t stand herself, performing the concert seated). As The Stage review noted: “The amazing thing is that, despite the obvious pain and discomfort she was in, she persevered with a stunning masterclass in connecting with both her material and her audience. Of course, the latter is a complete given: nowadays we’re simply there to worship at the shrine of one of the all-time great Broadway voices.”

As Broadway soprano Kelli O’Hara wrote in tribute last week: “Years ago, she gave me my first appearance at Carnegie Hall, and, unknowingly, I gave her her last. She graciously joined me on stage there last October, and the audience and I sang Happy Birthday to her. I didn’t know it would be her last time on that stage. But what I know is that I needed to thank her. And I did. And I do. And I always will. Thank you, Barbara Cook. My hero.”

Barbara Cook was born on October 25, 1927 and died on August 8, 2017, aged 89.

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