The Many Acts of Song Legend Barbara Cook
An Exclusive Interview
Alegend of the American theater, Barbara Cook has spent decades in the spotlight, gorgeously interpreting the American songbook for our listening pleasure. Her recently released memoir, Barbara Cook: Then & Now, recounts her professional and personal story, including the tragedies she endured as a child, her break into show business, her dark period of depression, alcoholism, and unemployment, and finally, her rise back to stardom.
Born and bred in Atlanta, Ms. Cook quickly became Broadway’s leading ingénue during the “golden era” of musical theater. In the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein made her soprano voice famous in Candide, most notably with what would become one of her signature songs, “Glitter and Be Gay.” That success was followed by her Tony Award-winning performance for the role she originated of Marian the librarian in The Music Man. She would hold other leading lady roles in a string of plays and musicals, while juggling the demands of family life as a young mother.
In the late 1960s, her career was threatened by debilitating depression and alcoholism that forced her to step away from the limelight. In the early 1970s, Ms. Cook met her musical collaborator, Wally Harper, and re- emerged as a leading concert and cabaret artist playing in world-renowned concert venues including The Metropolitan Opera House, Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the Sydney Opera House. In 2010, she returned to Broadway as the headliner in Sondheim on Sondheim. Ms. Cook was named an honoree for the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2011, where the top names in Broadway paid tribute to her during the ceremony.
Ms. Cook took a pause from promoting her new book to talk with
PS Magazine: Your new memoir has an intimate tone and it felt like you were talking directly to me.
BC: Thank you, that’s quite a compliment. That’s really what I intended. I thought, “Well, just write it.” [Writing the book] is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was hard to think about all that stuff again.
PS: Who did you picture you were writing it for?
BC: I didn’t know! I didn’t know if I had an audience, just do what I can and hope for the best.
PS: Let’s start at the beginning. Your younger sister, Pat, died from pneumonia when you were only three years old, and you write about how that had a profound impact on your life.
BC: I remember certain things very well. I think in some ways I still feel the impact because I thought I was responsible for her death. And that’s quite a burden to carry. I know, of course, that that’s not true, but the residue of it is still sort of sitting there.
PS: From a very young age, you were attracted to show business, despite coming from a very modest background with no formal training in acting. How did you decide to pursue your dream?
BC: Just pure grit, I guess. Just do it, you know. I was supposed to go on a two-week visit [to New York City] and I planned to stay and to not go back to Atlanta after the two-week visit. I mentioned that kind of vaguely to my mother but I don’t think she believed it at all. But that’s exactly what I did, and I never lived in Atlanta again.
PS: At the beginning of your career as an actress and singer, you spent two summers performing at Tamiment, the summer resort in the Pocono Mountains. It is striking how much burgeoning talent existed in that one place— you were collaborating with other rising stars like the composer Jerry Bock, director Herbert Ross, and your future co-star Jack Cassidy, not to mention your ex-husband David LeGrant. Did you have any
notion of how pivotal that experience would be throughout your career?
BC: Yes, I did. I knew all the people who had come out of Tamiment before, and I knew it would be a really wise thing for me to do. There was no question in my mind about that. We knew its history, and we knew the people who had come out of there—Danny Kaye, for instance, and his whole show. It is amazing the people and the shows that came out of Tamiment.
PS: You suffered from a lack of confidence right before going onstage that was sometimes crippling. How did you get over your insecurities to perform in front of so many people?
BC: [Laughs.] A lot of it is just doing it. If you are afraid to fly, you fly a few times and you’re OK.
PS: You’ve worked with some of the most legendary composers and lyricists, notably Leonard Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Whose work is your favorite to perform?
BC: I don’t have one favorite song. I fall in love with songs, and then I want to sing them a lot. And I do, if I have the opportunity. I don’t hang on to things like
that so much. I’m always looking for new things to love.
PS: You cite your complicated relationship with your mother was because she couldn’t see you as an individual, only as an extension of herself. When you became a mother to your son, Adam, were you conscious not to make the same mistake?
BC: She didn’t see any separation between the two of us. And sometimes that was difficult. One of the things, as a parent, that I’ve tried to do is if I saw that—in some ways my mother would treat me unfair—I tried not to do that. I tried to avoid [being like] that.
PS: You went through a period of severe depression, battled alcoholism and weight gain, and found yourself unemployed for many years. How were you able to make your successful comeback?
BC: First of all, I need to sing. I want to sing, always. I did straight plays a couple of times and I enjoyed doing that but I missed the music and I missed being able to sing. I just plain- out love singing. I think a lot of my singing moves people emotionally and I love doing it. That’s what I plan and hope to do when I sing— to move people.
PS: You give a lot of credit to Wally Harper for the “second act” of your career.
BC: Wally was the person who put me back on the singing path and I’m very grateful to him.
PS: You were a part of the “golden era” of Broadway of the 1950s and 1960s, and returned in 2010’s Sondheim on Sondheim. Today, Broadway seems to be entering a renaissance, led by the immense success of Hamilton. What are your thoughts on the current state of musical theater?
BC: I haven’t gone to Broadway as much as I used to. So, I’m probably not the best person to ask that question to. I haven’t [seen Hamilton] but I plan to.
PS: You’ve performed as a solo artist in concert venues all over the world and won countless awards and accolades for your work.
You’ve performed for American presidents, royalty, and even the Supreme Court. What has been the pinnacle of your career?
BC: I’ve really been very fortunate. I was really pleased to get the Kennedy Center Honors because it made me feel that people understood what I was trying to do. In other words, they were telling me, “I get it.” And that’s a good feeling. I’ve been fortunate, too, in being able to be in the White House a couple of times and meeting a lot of presidents. That’s one of the nice things about this business: [meeting] people I would not normally have a chance to meet and talk to, that happens from time to time. And it’s a good feeling. ■
Barbara Cook’s 2016 memoir, Barbara Cook: Then and Now, published by Harper Collins
Ms. Cook’s first Broadway show, Flahooley, in 1951— with Bil & Cora Baird’s marionettes (which would late appear in the film version of The Sound of Music)
A publicity photo from the 1956 television production of Bloomer Girl
Singing Leonard Bernstein’s showstopping “Glitter and Be Gay” in Candide
With the adorable Eddie Hodges as Winthrop in
The Music Man
Ms. Cook with her three-year-old son, Adam
With musical director
Wally Harper following her performance in Mostly Sondheim at Lincoln Center
With Stephen Sondheim and Elaine Stritch at a signing for Follies in Concert
With fellow 2011 Kennedy Center Honors recipients Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, and Sonny Rollins
During a standing ovation after performing at The Metropolitan Opera