Barbara Cook (born October 25, 1927 – August 8, 2017) is an American singer and actress who first came to prominence in the 1950s after starring in the original Broadway musicals Candide (1956) and The Music Man (1957) among others, winning a Tony Award for the latter. She continued performing mostly in theatre until the mid 1970s, when she began a second career that continues to this day as a cabaret and concert singer.
During her years as Broadway’s leading ingénue Cook was lauded for her excellent lyric soprano voice. She was particularly admired for her vocal agility, wide range, warm sound, and emotive interpretations. As she has aged her voice has taken on a darker quality, even in her head voice, that was less prominent in her youth. Today Cook is widely recognized as one of the “premier interpreters” of musical theatre songs and standards, in particular the songs of composer Stephen Sondheim. Her subtle and sensitive interpretations of American popular song continue to earn high praise even into her eighties.
34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors 2011. Musical Tributes to the great Barbara Cook.
Cook was born in Atlanta, Georgia to Charles Bunyan, a traveling hat salesman, and Nell (Harwell) Cook, an operator for Southern Bell. Her parents divorced when she was a child and, after her only sister died of whooping cough, Barbara lived alone with her mother. She later described their relationship as “so close, too close. I slept with my mother until I came to New York. Slept in the same bed with her. That’s just, it’s wrong. But to me, it was the norm….As far as she was concerned, we were one person.” Though Barbara began singing at an early age, at the Elks Club and to her father over the phone, she spent three years after graduating from high school working as a typist.
Cook died from respiratory failure on August 8, 2017 at her Manhattan home. She was 89. She is survived by her only son Adam LeGrant.
The marquee lights of the Broadway theaters were dimmed for one minute in tribute to Cook on August 9.
While visiting New York City in 1948 with her mother, Cook decided to stay and try to find work as an actress. She began to sing at clubs and resorts, eventually procuring an engagement at the Blue Angel club in 1950. She made her Broadway debut a year later, as Sandy in the short-lived 1951 musical Flahooley. She landed another role quickly, portraying Ado Annie in the 1951 City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and stayed with the production when it went on its national tour the following year.
Also in 1952, Cook made her first television appearance on the show Armstrong Circle Theatre which presented her in an original play entitled Mr. Bemiss Takes a Trip. In 1954, Cook was cast in the short lived soap opera Golden Windows which ran for only a handful of episodes before being canceled. She also starred as Jane Piper in a television version of Victor Herbert’s operetta Babes in Toyland and returned to City Center to portray Carrie Pipperidge in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In 1955, she began to attract major critical praise when she played the supporting role of Hilda Miller in Plain and Fancy. Cook’s good reviews and clear soprano voice enabled her to win the role of Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s new operetta Candide in 1956. She became famous for the show stopping song, “Glitter and Be Gay”. That same year she appeared on television in a Producers’ Showcase production of Bloomer Girl as Evelina Applegate.
In 1957, she took the role of Julie Jordan in the yet another City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel and portrayed Elsie Maynard in a television version of The Yeomen of the Guard as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. Other television credits for Cook during this time of her career include appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Perry Como Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The United States Steel Hour, Play of the Week, and a musical version of Hansel and Gretel.
Although Candide was not a success, Cook’s portrayal of Cunegonde established her as one of Broadway’s leading ingenues. Her two most famous roles after this were her Tony Award winning portrayal of Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson’s 1957 hit The Music Man and as Amalia Balash in the 1962 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me. The song “Ice Cream” from the latter became one of Cook’s signature songs.
Cook married acting teacher David LeGrant on March 9, 1952. They had one child, Adam, in 1959, and were divorced in 1965.
During the 1960s, Cook created roles in some less successful musicals: Liesl Brandel in The Gay Life (1961) and Carol Deems in Something More! (1964). She did, however, make a well received portrayal of Anna Leonowens in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I in 1960 and an acclaimed portrayal of Magnolia in Show Boat in 1966, both revivals at City Center. Cook also recorded the role of Anna in a 1964 studio recording with Theodore Bikel as the King. She starred in two National tours during the 1960s, Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964 and Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 1967.
Cook also tried her hand at non-musical roles, replacing Sandy Dennis in the play Any Wednesday and originating the role of Patsy Newquist in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders. Her last original musical role on Broadway came in 1971 when she played Dolly Talbo in The Grass Harp. In 1972, she returned to the dramatic stage in the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center’s production of Gorky’s Enemies. As she began struggling with depression, obesity, and alcoholism in the seventies (she eventually quit drinking in 1977), Cook began finding trouble getting stage work.
In the mid 1970s Cook’s fortunes changed for the better when she met and befriended composer and pianist Wally Harper. Harper convinced her to put together a concert and on January 26, 1975, accompanied by Harper, she made her debut in a legendary solo concert at Carnegie Hall that resulted in a highly successful live album. Continuing a collaboration with Harper that lasted until his death in 2004, Cook became a successful concert performer. Over the next three decades, the two performed together at not only many of the best cabaret spots and music halls like Michael’s Pub and the St. Regis Hotel in New York City but nationally and internationally. Cook and Harper returned to Carnegie Hall in September 1980, to perform a series of songs arranged by Harper. The performance was captured on the CD It’s Better With a Band.
In 1986, Cook was nominated for an Olivier Award for her one-woman show, accompanied by Harper, at London’s Albery Theatre. She won a Drama Desk Award in 1987 for her Broadway show A Concert for the Theatre, again with Harper. In October 1991 they appeared as featured artists at the Carnegie Hall Gala Music and Remembrance: A Celebration of Great Musical Partnerships which raised money for the advancement of the performing arts and for AIDS research. In 1994, they performed a critically acclaimed performance at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. Alistair Macauley wrote in the Financial Times about the concert, “Barbara Cook is the greatest singer in the world… Ms. Cook is the only popular singer active today who should be taken seriously by lovers of classical music. Has any singer since Callas matched Cook’s sense of musical architecture? I doubt it.” The performing duo traveled all over the world giving concerts together including a number of times at the White House – for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.
From the mid 1970s on, Cook returned only sporadically to acting, mostly in occasional studio cast and live concert versions of stage musicals. In September 1985 she appeared with the New York Philharmonic as Sally in the renowned concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. In 1986, she recorded the role of Martha in the Sharon Burgett musical version of The Secret Garden along with John Cullum, Judy Kaye, and George Rose. In 1987 she performed the role of Julie Jordan in a concert version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel with Samuel Ramey as Billy, Sarah Brightman as Carrie, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show for A Concert for the Theatre. In 1988 she originated the role of Margaret White in the notorious musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, which premiered in England and was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1994 she provided both her acting and singing skills to the animated film version of Thumbelina which featured music by Barry Manilow. That same year she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. In 2000 she was joined by Lillias White, Malcolm Gets, and Debbie Gravitte on the studio cast recording of Jimmy McHugh’s Lucky in the Rain.
In 1997, Cook celebrated her 70th birthday by giving a concert at Albert Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2000, she was one of the only American performers chosen to perform at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival in the fabled Sydney Opera House.
In February 2001, Cook returned to Carnegie Hall to perform Sings Mostly Sondheim which was recorded live and released on CD. Critically acclaimed from the start, Cook took the concert to London’s West End where it was the smash hit during London’s 2001 summer season. She garnered two Olivier Award nominations for Best Entertainment and Best Actress in a Musical for the concert. She went on to perform Sings Mostly Sondheim at Lincoln Center for a sold-out fourteen week run, winning a Tony Award nomination for Best Theatrical Event, and then took the show on a National tour throughout major cities in the United States. DRG filmed the stage production and it was released on DVD on the DRG/Koch Entertainment label. Sings Mostly Sondheim was the last major project that Wally Harper and Cook worked on together.
After Harper’s death in 2004, Cook made the painful adjustment to new accompanists in solo shows like Tribute (a reference to Harper) and No One Is Alone that continued to receive acclaim; The New York Times exclaimed in 2005 that she was “at the top of her game….Cook’s voice is remarkably unchanged from 1958, when she won the Tony Award for playing Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. A few high notes aside, it is, eerily, as rich and clear as ever.”
In January 2006, Cook became the first female pop singer to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera in the company’s more than one hundred year history. She presented a solo concert of Broadway show tunes and classic jazz standards, and was supported on a few numbers by guest singers Audra McDonald and Josh Groban. The concert was recorded and subsequently released on CD. On June 25, 2006, Cook was the special guest star of the Award Winning Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., celebrating GMCW’s Silver Anniversary in a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
Cook was the featured artist at the Arts! by George gala on September 29, 2007 at the Fairfax campus of George Mason University. On October 22, 2007, Cook sang at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts (Fort Lauderdale, FL) with the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus in the chorus’s concert entitled “An Evening With Barbara Cook”. Upon completion of the concert, an almost full house greeted her with a round of “Happy Birthday” in honor of her impending 80th birthday. On December 2, 2007, Cook celebrated her birthday in the UK with a concert at the home of English National Opera – The Coliseum Theatre, in London’s West End.
Most notably as she entered her ninth decade, she performed in two sold-out concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. The New York Times reviewer threw his hat in the air, writing of Miss Cook as “a performer spreading the gospel of simplicity, self-reliance and truth” who is “never glib” and summoning adjectives such as “astonishing” and “transcendent,” concluding that she sings with “a tenderness and honesty that could break your heart and mend it all at once.”
In June 2008, Cook appeared in Strictly Gershwin at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England with the full company of English National Ballet. She appeared with the Ulster Orchestra as the Closing Concert of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on 31 October 2008. Her other 2008 appearances included concerts in Chicago, West Palm Beach and San Francisco. In 2009 she performed with the Princeton Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and gave concerts in Boca Raton, Florida and at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. She is currently performing in a cabaret show in New York City which opened in April 2009.
Cook returned to Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre’s Stephen Sondheim revue “Sondheim on Sondheim”, created and directed by long-time Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, at Studio 54. She starred opposite Vanessa L. Williams and Tom Wopat. Cook was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the category of Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, opposite notables like Angela Lansbury and Katie Finneran (the winner).
Barbara on Broadway
|Sondheim on Sondheim
[Musical, Revue, Original]
|Apr 22, 2010 – Jun 27, 2010|
|Barbara Cook’s Broadway!
[Special, Concert, Original]
|Mar 28, 2004 – Apr 18, 2004|
[Special, Solo, Concert, Original]
|Jan 14, 2002 – Aug 25, 2002|
|Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre
[Special, Concert, Original]
|Apr 15, 1987 – Apr 26, 1987|
|Nov 09, 1972 – Dec 16, 1972|
|The Grass Harp
[Musical, Comedy, Original]
|Nov 02, 1971 – Nov 06, 1971|
|Apr 25, 1967 – Apr 29, 1967|
|Nov 10, 1964 – Nov 21, 1964|
[Play, Comedy, Original]
|Feb 18, 1964 – Jun 26, 1966|
|She Loves Me
[Musical, Comedy, Original]
|Apr 23, 1963 – Jan 11, 1964|
|The Gay Life
|Nov 18, 1961 – Feb 24, 1962|
|The Music Man
[Musical, Comedy, Original]
|Dec 19, 1957 – Apr 15, 1961|
[Musical, Drama, Revival]
|Sep 11, 1957 – Sep 29, 1957|
[Musical, Comedy, Original]
|Dec 01, 1956 – Feb 02, 1957|
|Plain and Fancy
[Musical, Comedy, Original]
|Jan 27, 1955 – Mar 03, 1956|
[Musical, Drama, Revival]
|Jun 02, 1954 – Aug 08, 1954|
[Musical, Comedy, Revival]
|Aug 31, 1953 – Oct 03, 1953|
[Musical, Comedy,Puppets, Original]
- Songs of Perfect Propriety (1958)
- Barbara Cook Sings “From the Heart” – [The Best of Rodgers & Hart] (1959)
- At Carnegie Hall (1975)
- As Of Today (1977)
- It’s Better With a Band (1981)
- The Disney Album (1988)
- Dorothy Fields: Close as Pages in a Book (1993)
- Live from London (1994)
- Oscar Winners: The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (1997)
- All I Ask of You (1999)
- The Champion Season: A Salute to Gower Champion (1999)
- Sings Mostly Sondheim: Live at Carnegie Hall (2001)
- Count Your Blessings (2003)—Grammy Award nominee (Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album)
- Barbara Cook’s Broadway! (2004)
- Tribute (2005)
- Barbara Cook at The Met (2006)
- No One Is Alone (2007)
- Rainbow Round My Shoulder (2008)
Cast and studio cast recordings
- Flahooley (1951)
- Plain and Fancy (1955)
- Candide (1956)
- The Music Man (1957)—Grammy Award winner (Best Original Cast Album)
- Hansel and Gretel (Television Soundtrack, 1958)
- The Gay Life (1961)
- Show Boat (Studio Cast, 1962)
- She Loves Me (1963)—Grammy Award winner (Best Score From An Original Cast Show Album)
- The King and I (Studio Cast, 1964)
- Show Boat (Lincoln Center Cast, 1966)
- The Grass Harp (1971)
- Follies in Concert (1985)
- The Secret Garden (World Premiere Recording, 1986)
- Carousel (Studio Cast, 1987)
- Lucky in the Rain (2000)
- The Grass Grows Green (1972)
- Thumbelina (Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1994)
- Sondheim on Sondheim (2010)
- The Broadway Years: Till There Was You (1995)
- Legends of Broadway—Barbara Cook (2006)
- The Essential Barbara Cook Collection (2009)
- Howard Goldstein: “Barbara Cook”, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed December 04, 2008), (subscription access)
- Witchel, Alex (2005-04-17). “Alone, Again” (reprint). The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2007-10-29. Retrieved 2007-05-18.
- Wallace, Mike (2004-06-13). “Barbara Cook: Toast of Broadway”. CBS News. Retrieved 2007-05-18.
- Arts! by George
- New York Times 2007
- The Official Barbara Cook Online Resource
- Official Website for Carrie The Musical
- Barbara Cook at the Internet Broadway Database
- Barbara Cook at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Barbara Cook at the Internet Movie Database
- Barbara Cook – Downstage Center interview at American Theatre Wing.org
- TonyAwards.com Interview with Barbara Cook
- BelfastFestival.com -Barbara Cook