Mark Shenton: Remembering Barbara Cook’s great performances

Actor and singer Barbara Cook, 89. Photo: Joella Marano
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Broadway dimmed its lights on August 9 to mark the death of Barbara Cook at the age of 89 the previous day. But, though I won’t again get to experience the rare light of integrity and embrace that shone from her whenever I saw her live, Cook will live on forever in the cast recordings of shows she originated (including Candide, The Music Man and She Loves Me), studio solo albums and the stunning recordings of her live appearances.

These live recordings include the famous Carnegie Hall concert that returned her to the New York stage in 1975 – launching her concert and cabaret career – and the 2006 concert at the Metropolitan Opera House 41 years later that I saw live. The latter marked her 80th birthday and was the first time the opera house had ever hosted a non-classical female solo singer in a full-length concert.

But while I saw her in venues as large as the Met or the adjoining Vivian Beaumont Theatre, as well as the London Coliseum, Haymarket or Gielgud Theatres, I also saw her perform in much smaller cabaret spaces, such as New York’s Feinstein’s and the Cafe Carlyle.

I last watched Cook live two years ago, when she was 87, at Lincoln Centre’s stunning Appel Room as part of its annual American Songbook season. At the time I reported: “She is still in shimmering voice – but frailer now than I’ve seen her for a while. ‘But I’m not dying!’ she defiantly insisted to the audience as we stood in unison for her (though she could hardly stand, herself, and performed the entire concert seated). It turns out that she’s got two small fractures in her back, and is waiting for a pain management consultation while nature heals it (a feeling I know all too well). But 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.”

I will be penning a formal obituary for The Stage, but meanwhile I’d like to share and celebrate her enormous talent with a few great moments from YouTube. She will be missed, but at least thanks to these recordings, never forgotten.

When You Wish Upon a Star

In The Disney Album, her studio recording released in 1988, Cook gave ravishing voice to glorious songs from the Disney canon. She would regularly sing songs from it in concert, including When You Wish Upon a Star, sung live in Melbourne.

In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies

If I had a time-machine, I’d love to go back to 1971 for the original Broadway production of Follies (though I’d only have been nine at the time). But the one I most wish I hadn’t missed was the legendary 1985 concert performance of the same show at Lincoln Center two years after my first trip to New York. Cook played Sally Plummer, and sang a devastating In Buddy’s Eyes. This mini-documentary goes behind-the-scenes of her preparing for it and features an extract from the performance itself.

Losing My Mind from Follies

From the same concert, Cook performs Losing My Mind. The National Theatre is about to revive the show with Imelda Staunton playing Sally – she has a tough act to follow.

Till There Was You from The Music Man

Cook originated the role of Marian in The Music Man on Broadway in 1957. Exactly 30 years later, she reprised the song Till There Was You on the 1987 Tony telecast – a sublime example of her artistry and rich tones.

Ice Cream from She Loves Me

One of Cook’s signature songs was Ice Cream, which she originated on Broadway in the 1962 musical She Loves Me. Here she sings it live on a TV show recorded in France in 1979.

Glitter and Be Gay from Candide

Cook was the first performer to sing Leonard Bernstein’s glittering coloratura aria, and no one has ever sung it more glitteringly than her.  You can hear her from the original cast album here (audio only). In the video above, Broadway musical director Seth Rudetsky offers one of his amazing deconstructions.