The Many Acts of Song Leg­end Bar­bara Cook

An Ex­clu­sive In­ter­view

American Senior - - NEWS - By CHRISTINA BURNS

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.

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

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