Tony Award-winning actor / singer Barbara Cook, an ingénue in Broadway’s Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s, who later transformed herself into a concert and cabaret star, has taken her final bow. She was 89-years-old. Up until a month ago, Cook was doing book signings for her memoir, Then And Now, and as recently as summer 2015, she was giving concerts.
One of the greatest American singers of her generation, and a terrific actor, Cook had a magical, if turbulent life with a career spanning seven decades.
The legendary Cook had a career that started with a bang as one of Broadway’s leading ladies in roles like Cunégonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), Amalia Balash in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me (1963), and her career-defining, Tony-winning role as the original Marian the librarian in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1957).
Yet, by the late 1960s, Cook’s astonishing talent onstage was threatened by her debilitating depression and alcoholism that forced her to leave performing. Cook bounced back in the 1970s, reinventing herself as a major concert and cabaret artist, performing the songs of Stephen Sondheim and other Broadway composers, and gaining a reputation as one of the greatest and most acclaimed interpreters of the Great American Songbook.
Bernstein’s Candide only had a short run on Broadway, but it developed a cult following with its popular original cast recording that cemented Cook as a Gay Icon with her solo Glitter And Be Gay. Cook:
“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. It’s unheard of. But that’s what was in the score for me to sing and I did it eight times a week.”
I have loved Cook for my entire life. And, as a gay man of a certain age with excellent taste, she meant the world to me. In NYC, on a beautiful 1998 October evening, my husband and I hightailing to the Upper East Side to catch a late night show with Cook doing her cabaret act at The Cafe Carlyle. It was our 19th anniversary and we had seen Cook at the same venue on our 16th. I was hoping for a new tradition: to see one of my favorite performers in that tiny venue, just inches away from the stage and to listen to that gorgeous, august soprano doing the best music of the past century, sharing it all with the man that I love.
Much loved by the Gays, Cook even starred in a Broadway musical titled The Gay Life (1961). She was also the mother of an out and proud gay son, L.A. based actor/ teacher/ vocal coach Adam LeGrant. She writes movingly of their experience together with the same warm openness that she brings to her songs. Cook:
“When he told me he was gay, I laughed. I laughed! Because it was the farthest thing from my mind. He said: `Mom, I’m not kidding.’ It was like a thunderbolt, & I was very upset. The family & the grandchildren & all that stuff bothered me. But more than that, here was this person whom I thought I knew so well, & here was this enormous part of his life that I knew nothing about. I felt as if I didn’t know my own son. I was very upset, not so much at the time, because I was in shock, & I also didn’t want to make Adam feel bad. Then I went into a kind of depression & really, really cried for 5 days & mourned the son I thought I’d had. On about the fifth day of that, I said to myself: What the hell is going on?”
“I’ve always felt that I was not a part of the mainstream of life. I don’t know what the hell I mean by that, but it’s the only way I know how to put it. When I had a son it seemed to connect me more to the mainstream. When Adam told me that he was gay, I felt, I’m no longer a part of the mainstream. Then my next thought was: my son is not here to make me feel comfortable. He’s here to be the fullest person he can be & what I have to do is help him fulfill himself as much as I can. When that came to me, the whole thing lifted. I love him so much. I loved him then, & I love him now. & I like him…that’s the thing.”
Cook had long been involved with PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends Of Lesbians and Gays):
“What I will never, never be able to understand is how a family or a mother or father could ever be able to turn their backs on a child because of homosexuality, & do that to themselves, much less to their children. I can’t understand how anyone could come to that.”
Cook was always candid about her struggles with depression, her weight, alcohol, and the disappointments of showbiz. As a youngster, I was the ultimate little Musical Theatre fanatic. I had the Original Cast album of nearly every musical, with a specialty in obscure shows and the flops. Among that collection were shows that had featured Cook: Flahooley (1951), Plain And Fancy (1955), The Grass Harp (1971); plus hit revivals of classics Show Boat, Carousel and The King And I. My personal favorite is the perfect bon-bon of a musical She Loves Me
I was firmly a fan before Cook resurrected her career by turning to cabaret and concerts. In the summer of 1975, her Barbara Cook At Carnegie Hall concert album was one of my most played records.
I was so excited the first time I saw Cook live. It was summer 1975, and I was a 21-year-old college student in L.A. In line to see her cabaret act, I sent Cook a note backstage at Studio One, a gay disco in West Hollywood. My missive explained that I was a huge fan, but that my date for the evening was not a fan of standards or show tunes, yet I was still hoping her act would prompt some romance with him.
I was more than a little shocked when a staff member of Studio One, asked those in line: “Stephen? Stephen Rutledge? Would you come with me? Ms. Cook would like to speak to you”. I was ushered into the tiniest of dressing rooms, where I was treated to a meet and greet with the most perfect virtuoso performer of the popular songs. Cook told me she had a real laugh reading my note. What must she have made of me, this brash, young, gushing, saucer eyed fan sporting a big red afro?
Cook received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. In the last decade of her life, Cook kept on singing. Her voice had not declined, but it had changed, mellowed and had even more weight and emotional depth.