Barbara Cook, Tony Award-Winning Actress And Singer, Dies At 89

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 7:24 pm

Tony Award-winning actress and singer Barbara Cook, an ingénue in Broadway's Golden Age — during the 1950s and '60s — who later transformed herself into a concert and cabaret star, has died. She was 89.

Cook died early Tuesday of respiratory failure, surrounded by friends and family at her home in Manhattan, according to her publicist.

The Atlanta-born soprano started her Broadway career in 1951, but it was her 1956 role in Leonard Bernstein's short-lived Candide, with its popular cast recording, that ensured her immortality. In 2002, Cook told NPR that Bernstein's vocal demands were daunting.

"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," she said. "It's unheard of. But that's what was in the score for me to sing and I did it eight times a week."

Cook's next Broadway outing proved to be one of her greatest triumphs. In The Music Man, she played the spinsterish Marian, a librarian who falls for con artist Harold Hill, played by Robert Preston. Meredith Willson wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, which he later realized was a thinly veiled autobiography.

"One day, he came to me," Cook recalled. "He said, 'Oh ... I know who you are. I know who this character is.' He says, 'I wrote this and I didn't know it was my mother. This is my mother.' "

Cook won a Tony Award for that role. But actresses can't play ingénues forever and as the '60s drew to a close, roles became scarce. Cook succumbed to what she referred to as her "middle-escence," battling alcoholism, depression and obesity. She disappeared from the Broadway stage for five years. Then, in 1975, she reinvented herself as a highly regarded concert and cabaret artist.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden says that as the years went on, not only did her voice grow deeper, but so did her musical interpretations.

"High voices really don't express much. They're just beautiful and phenomenal," Holden says. "And it's low voices that you can really get into the dark side of things, or whatever you want to call it. And she goes there and puts all of her life into what she sings."

Over the decades, Cook also developed her own philosophy and approach to performance. She said, "I think it's absolutely, totally important for a person, first of all, to hopefully know who they are as a performer and to choose songs that illuminate that person; and then to be present — to really, really be present."

And for those lucky enough to be there, every minute was a thrill.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Barbara Cook could sing just about anything. And she sang it on Broadway, in cabarets and in concert halls around the world. She was one of the most acclaimed interpreters of theater tunes in American popular songs. Barbara Cook died early this morning at her home in Manhattan of respiratory failure. She was 89 years old. Jeff Lunden has our appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The Atlanta-born soprano with her petite frame, blond hair and piercing blue eyes blazed on Broadway stages from 1951 onward, starring in musicals like "Plain And Fancy" and "Flahooley." But it was her role in Leonard Bernstein's short-lived "Candide" in 1956 with its popular cast recording which ensured her immortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLITTER AND BE GAY")

BARBARA COOK: (Singing) Observe how bravely I conceal the dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.

LUNDEN: In 2002, Barbara Cook told me Bernstein's vocal demands were daunting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLITTER AND BE GAY")

COOK: (Vocalizing).

LUNDEN: Cook's next Broadway outing proved to be one of her greatest triumphs. In "The Music Man," she played the spinster-ish (ph) Marian the librarian who falls for con artist, Robert Preston. Meredith Wilson wrote the book, music and lyrics for this thinly veiled autobiographical show set in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COOK: One day he came to me, he said, oh. He says, I know who you are. I know who this character is. He says, I wrote this, and I didn't know it was my mother. This is my mother (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL THERE WAS YOU")

COOK: (Singing) There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all till there was you.

LUNDEN: Cook won a Tony Award for her role. But actresses can't play ingenues forever. And as the '60s drew to a close, roles became scarce. Cook succumbed to what she referred to as her middlescents (ph), battling alcoholism, depression and obesity. And she disappeared from the Broadway stage for five years. But in 1975, she reinvented herself as a highly-regarded concert and cabaret artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BETTER WITH A BAND")

COOK: (Singing) I like to sing, but it's better with a band. Carnegie Hall, a conductor and an orchestra at hand.

LUNDEN: New York Times critic Stephen Holden says that as the years went on, not only did her voice grow deeper, so did her musical interpretations.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: High voices really don't express much. They're just beautiful and phenomenal. And it's low voices that you can really get into the dark side of things, or whatever you want to call it. And she goes there and puts all of her life into what she sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN")

COOK: (Singing) I've got you under my skin. I've got you deep in the heart of me.

LUNDEN: Over the decades, Barbara Cook developed her own philosophy and approach to performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COOK: I think it's absolutely, totally important for a person, first of all, to hopefully know who they are as a performer and to choose songs that illuminate that person and then to be present - to really, really be present, to be there.

LUNDEN: And for those lucky enough to be there, every minute was a thrill. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR FRIEND")

COOK: (Singing) I make believe nothing is wrong. How long can I pretend? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.