We knew this day was coming for a while.
On March 28, 2016, Barbara Cook announced – only sixteen days before she was to start performances of Barbara Cook: Then and Now at New World Stages – that she was “postponing indefinitely.”
The official explanation was that finishing her memoir had taken a lot out of her. Cook did say “I want all of my friends and fans to know that I look forward to singing again for them very soon.”
Although three months ago she officially announced her retirement, we had feared when she’d postponed her off-Broadway show that her ever again performing for friends and fans was a longshot. At that point, Cook was five months past her eighty-eighth birthday, a date – October 25th – that many of us knew by heart because Terrence McNally mentioned it in his 1995 Tony-winning play Love! Valour! Compassion!
“For a while there because of that play, I was getting many more birthday cards,” Cook told me.
This was backstage at the 2007 Theatre World Awards, which rewards performers who have made auspicious Broadway and off-Broadway debuts. Cook was there to present to Fantasia Barrino; the take-over star of The Color Purple had impressed Cook who then phoned the awards’ powers-that-be and asked if she could present to the new star.
I annually emcee the awards, and I’m sure you can guess how thrilled I was that she would be there and add luster to the ceremony.
We try to use previous winners to present to the new ones, so Cook was eligible, for she’d won for Plain and Fancy in 1955. Actually, she shouldn’t have; Cook had made her auspicious Broadway debut nearly four years earlier in Flahooley and had followed it with City Center stints as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! in 1953 and Carrie in Carousel in 1954. Perhaps Theatre World Awards founder Daniel Blum, then in his tenth year of choosing winners, had not seen those three productions. A better bet is that he was so impressed by Cook’s Plain and Fancy performance that, for one of the few times in his career, he bent the rules.
I remember in 1975 when Cook announced that she’d replicate her Carnegie Hall concert in Cambridge, Massachusetts. P.D. Seltzer, who ran the record department in the Harvard Cooperative – and was a diehard musical theater enthusiast – asked her to do a record-signing of Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall. How his face beamed when he told me “She said she’d be glad to do it!”
Seeing her enter the department with such style while still looking casual was in itself impressive. Many bought Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall that afternoon; others had already purchased it and brought it in. One man, however, carted in his original cast recordings of Candide, The Music Man, The Gay Life, She Loves Me and The Grass Harp (but no Flahooley, which then was very hard-to-find) but didn’t leave it at that; also in his hands were her studio and revival cast albums of Show Boat (she’d played Magnolia in each) and her studio cast album of The King and I, where I don’t have to tell you she didn’t play The Kralahome.
Bringing every album that a person has recorded to a records-signing earmarked for only one recording is considered poor form. Many artists simply refuse to sign anything but the album that is to be celebrated that day. Cook, though, was t-h-r-i-l-l-e-d to see her Broadway career before her, signed every one and often commented to boot. “I love this one!” she said of The Grass Harp, punctuating her remark by patting the cover with both hands twice as if to say “And you’d better believe it.”
When Follies in Concert was conceived in 1985, an all-star cast was required for such a monumental event and score. No fewer than seven Tony-winners were recruited – including Cook, who had won for originating Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. Cook played Sally, and while dozens had already sung or recorded “Losing My Mind,” I can still hear the cheers the Avery Fisher Hall audience gave Cook’s rendition.
Cook would occasionally play a non-musical role. On Broadway in 1965, she took over for Sandy Dennis in Any Wednesday, played it for a year and helped it become the thirteenth longest-running comedy in Broadway history.
En route, Albert Hague wrote a song called “Any Wednesday” specifically for her. Cook recorded it just to promote the show, so the producers released it themselves on the “Any Wednesday” label.
Back then, when I asked for it in record stores, I created a veritable Abbott-and-Costello routine:
Me: “Do you have ‘Any Wednesday’?”
The clerk: “On what label?”
Me: “Any Wednesday.”
The clerk: “No, what label?”
Me: “Any Wednesday.”
The clerk: “Mister…”
(No one ever was able to get it for me.)
Cook’s strangest non-musical assignment was the 1967 original Broadway production of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders. It was a scathingly uncommercial indictment of how American cities were deteriorating and becoming dangerous and we’d all better start shooting back. The story of Patsy (Cook’s role) whose fiancé (Elliot Gould) made his living shooting pictures of people’s bowel movements was not Broadway fare.
I saw a matinee performance during its tryout at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre. Sitting next to me were two quintessential matinee ladies, who were shocked at the end of the second act when a loud noise ripped through the theater and Patsy fainted.
“They shot her!” one lady exclaimed followed by the other’s crying out “Patsy’s dead!” Remember, I was very young then, and youth is the time of your life when you know everything. Only good manners kept me from yelling at them “Patsy is not dead! That was a noise from outside, probably a car backfiring! Do you think that a show with Barbara Cook would kill her off after the second act with a full act to go!? Why do you people bother coming to the theater when you’re unable to understand what’s going on?!?”
The third act began with Patsy’s funeral.
In 1993, I moderated a Drama Desk panel on Original Cast Albums at The Ballroom on West 28th Street. My guests were lyricist Sheldon Harnick, record producers Jay David Saks and Thomas Z. Shepard and Cook. She reported that her biggest beef was bootleg recordings – that when she was asked to play Margaret White in the London world premiere production of Carrie (from which she eventually bailed) the tape she made with the composer at the piano was supposed to simply be a work session. Everyone assured her that it wouldn’t get out.
I’ve since seen it in many an apartment.
No one at The Ballroom was surprised to hear that Cook’s hardest assignment – and the one for which she’ll be most remembered – was singing the nearly six-minute long “Glitter and Be Gay” in the original Candide.
“I almost keeled over when Leonard Bernstein first gave it to me and laid out page after page after page of sheet music,” she said.
And we’ve been keeling over Barbara Cook performances for nearly seventy years. Thanks to her numerous recordings, we needn’t stop.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.