The Stephen Sondheim Society is saddened to hear of the death of our patron and friend Barbara Cook, who succumbed to respiratory failure at her Manhattan home on Tuesday morning at the age of 89.
Although she never appeared in a fully staged original Sondheim musical, Barbara will be forever associated with the composer-lyricist’s work, having championed it throughout her long and illustrious career.
The young and relatively inexperienced Barbara won our hearts after taking on the role of Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in 1956. It wasn’t her first stage job – she had already secured roles in New York revivals of Oklahoma! (1951) and Carousel (1954), among others – but it was the one with which she made her name.
The original production of Candide ran for only 73 performances, but the cast recording ensured that the show found an appreciative audience. Cook’s glorious “Glitter and Be Gay” remains the one against which all others are judged, and the dazzling number remains the encore of choice for any coloratura soprano looking to show off that top E-flat.
In reference to “Glitter”, The New York Times reported: “Barbara Cook is a lustrous singer, particularly in Mr. Bernstein’s own version of how a jewel song should be written. And her acting portrayal of a lyrical maiden who quickly learns how to connive with the world is sketched with skill, spirit, and humor.”
From then on, the young ingenue’s career flourished. Within the year, she delivered a Tony Award-winning performance as Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1957), and wowed audience as Amalia in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me (1962), serving up an unforgettable “Vanilla Ice Cream”, one of the songs with which she was thereafter forever associated.
In the 1970s, she began a long and fruitful relationship with the arranger, accompanist, composer and conductor Wally Harper, forging a career as a concert and cabaret artist, rather than a stage actress.
For her first full Sondheim engagement, Barbara chose no less a show than Follies, appearing in the New York Philharmonic concert version on 6 and 7 September 1985 at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, New York. It was to be the first of many more associations with the music of Stephen Sondheim.
It was with Wally Harper that Barbara conceived of Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim. The concert was inspired by the Library of Congress’ celebration for Sondheim’s 70th Birthday Celebration, which had been hosted by Nathan Lane on 22 May 2000 at the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington DC.
Among the songs of others – including Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen – Barbara sang Sondheim’s “Everybody Says Don’t” and “Anyone Can Whistle” from Anyone Can Whistle, “Another Hundred People” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (Company), “So Many People (Saturday Night), “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind” (Follies), “Happiness” and “Loving You” (Passion), “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music), and “Not a Day Goes By” (Merrily We Roll Along).
The concert was trialled on 29–31 December 2000 at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco before opening in Carnegie Hall the following February, with the performance on 2 February 2001 recorded for CD.
Buoyed by the success of the show, Barbara brought it to London later that year, where it was produced at the Lyric Theatre by Bill Kenwright from 16 July to 25 August. This was followed by a sold-out run from December 2001 to January 2002 at Lincoln Center, earning a Tony nomination for Best Theatrical Event. She then took it national, before performing the show at the Kennedy Centre in June and August 2002 as part of the Sondheim Celebration. She was filmed on 11 October 2002 at the Pepsico Theatre in New York, and the DVD released on the DRG/Koch Entertainment label.
In 2010, Barbara joined the cast of Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54, which opened on 22 April and ran for 76 performances until 27 June. Joining Barbara on stage – in front of giant projections of Stephen Sondheim – were Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott. In this revue-style show, Barbara sang “Love Is in the Air” (cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), “Take Me To the World” (Evening Primrose), “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (Company), “Loving You” and “I Read” (Passion), “In Buddy’s Eyes” (Follies), “Beautiful” (Sunday in the Park with George) and “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music).
Many a performer has cited Barbara Cook as their reason for entering the business, and her peers and friends were quick to sing her praises. “A friend. A mentor. A master,” said Josh Groban. “I will forever be grateful for the warmth she showed me on and off the stage. Rest in peace.” Her Sondheim on Sondheim co-star Vanessa Williams tweeted: “Farewell to the dearest, most talented Barbara Cook. Loved every moment together. Honored to have called you friend.” And “Some heavenly choir just gained a most magnificent voice,” said Mia Farrow – a sentiment echoed by Broadway’s newest star Benjamin Platt, who posted, “Thank you Barbara Cook for the beautiful songs, the indelible characters, and the masterful storytelling. Heaven must sound glorious today.”
“She was revered among critics, peers and theatergoers for six decades,” noted The Washington Post. “She combined an ebullient operatic technique and range with the emotional vulnerability and directness of a torch singer.” The Post also quoted Sondheim:
“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”
Barbara Cook (25 October 1927–8 August 2017)