Barbara Cook 1927-2017

| August 10, 2017

Barbara Cook

We are sad to report that Broadway legend and cabaret favorite Barbara Cook passed away this morning. She was 89 years old. Her son, Adam LeGrant, reported that the cause of death was respiratory failure. Her soaring soprano lent itself to her roles in The Music Man, She Loves Me, and Candide and made her a star. She had a second, productive career when she turned to concerts and cabaret, and was a most-welcomed addition to the cabaret scene. Her intelligence was on display with her unfussy interpretations of classics from the Great American Songbook, and her approach to Stephen Sondheim’s songs was unparalleled. She graced the cover of Cabaret Scenes a number of times throughout our 22-year history. She will be missed.

Here is the article we published in our December 2011 issue, written by Peter Haas.

Celebrating Barbara Cook

Where is Barbara Cook these days? The “where” depends on which of “these days” you mean. In the middle of November, you could have caught her at an East Side Barnes & Noble, autographing copies and performing songs from her latest album, You Make Me Feel So Young. She recorded it earlier this year during an engagement at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. At the end of November, she was at New York’s Edison Ballroom, being honored by the York Theatre Company and receiving its 20th Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre. The event, hosted by Michael Feinstein, included appearances by Jason Danieley, Cheyenne Jackson, Norm Lewis, Vanesssa Williams, Tom Wopat and others. The first weekend in December brings her to Washington, D.C., dining with Hilary Rodham Clinton, shaking hands with President and Mrs. Obama, and in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The occasion: Barbara has been selected to receive a 2011 Kennedy Center Honors medallion for her career-long contribution to the nation’s arts. If you didn’t see her at all, she might have been working quietly at home, finishing the autobiography she’s writing with the help of Charles Isherwood of The New York Times.

However, cabaret fans get the chance to see her live, through December 30, in a brand new show with Michael Feinstein at Feinstein’s at The Loews Regency. For the few days she is away for the Kennedy Center Honors, Michael performs at the club solo, “holding down the fort,” he says.

“I’m elated at Barbara’s receiving the Kennedy Center Honor,” Michael told Cabaret Scenes. “It affirms her legacy as a national and international treasure. It’s significant and cheering to see a person honored who has never compromised her musical integrity, who propagates the Great American Songbook and, in that way, ensures its survival.”

The Kennedy Center Honors, now in its 34th year, recognize men and women who have made lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. Honored with Barbara Cook this year are singer/songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, saxophonist/composer Sonny Rollins and actress Meryl Streep. Barbara receives her medallion at a State Department dinner on Saturday, December 3, hosted by Mrs. Clinton, and is saluted the next day at a star-studded Honors Gala at the Kennedy Center Opera House, attended by President and Mrs. Obama. The Gala will be broadcast on Tuesday evening, December 27. Says Barbara: “What an amazing thing to have this validation from the Kennedy Center Honors Committee! I am so moved to be included in the extraordinary group of artists who have been honored in the past. Barbara Cook and Fred Astaire! There isn’t a ‘wow!’ big enough!”

The Making of a Legend
Behind Barbara’s award is more than a half-century of performing as a professional. Born in Atlanta, she went onstage in an amateur contest at age 14 at the city’s Roxy Theatre, singing “My Devotion.” Her prize: $10. She moved to New York in 1948 to pursue a singing and acting career, was spotted by composer Vernon Duke—who recommended her for a 1950 summer theatrical show in the Poconos—and soon won her first professional New York engagement, at the Blue Angel. She made her Broadway debut in 1951 in the Sammy Fain/E.Y. Harburg musical, Flahooley. That show also marked her first recording.

Ado Annie in Oklahoma!

Her career flourished quickly. It included a return engagement at the Blue Angel; the roles, in national tours, of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and Carrie in Carousel; television productions that included Babes in Toyland and Bloomer Girl; and, in 1955, the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy. The following year brought her triumph as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, hitting high Cs with the song “Glitter and Be Gay.”

Cunegonde in Candide

In the years that followed, she melted hearts onstage as Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, singing “Till There Was You” and “Goodnight, My Someone,” and winning her first Tony Award. She sang “Ice Cream” as Amalia in She Loves Me. She acted in non-musical plays as well, and subsequently made many distinctive solo albums, including No One Is Alone and It’s Better with a Band. In 1974, she began a concert partnership with pianist/arranger Wally Harper that took them throughout the world, including performances at The White House, Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. Their work together lasted 30 years, until Harper’s death in 2004. In addition, Barbara was the first female solo pop singer to be presented in concert by the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Amalia in She Loves Me

“It’s Cook’s great good fortune, and, of course, ours,” wrote Charles Isherwood in Variety after one of her concerts, “that she’s arrived at a point where nothing is outside her emotional range and yet almost nothing is outside her vocal range either. Her rapport with an audience is just as all-embracing. By the end of (her) remarkable evening, songs, singer and audience seem to have fused.”

Marian in The Music Man

Barbara returned to live theater in 2010, winning rave reviews and a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the Roundabout Theater production of Sondheim on Sondheim. “There’s so much there, so many of his songs with real depth,” says Barbara, speaking of Sondheim. “I saw one of his works on television, and I was reminded again how much I love his music. I wrote to him, told him how I enjoyed that program, and said that I wanted to thank him for the songs he’s given us. I told him, too, that I thought his songs are strong enough to hold our lives as we pour ourselves into them. In his reply, he said, ‘I don’t usually cry so early in the morning!’”

Feinstein’s at The Loews Regency

The first pairing of Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein at Feinstein’s at The Loews Regency took place in September, 2010. Says Michael today: “I have been a great fan of Barbara’s for many, many years. I knew her recordings; I grew up on the cast recording of The Music Man. I always felt that she had extraordinary diction, no matter what she sang and in what range. It was always about the lyric, but with her exquisite musical talent, she always found a way to combine the two. We were booked together out of town a couple of times, and I thought we might prepare some duets. We had a great time, and the idea arose of doing a show together. She agreed. “Then we needed to pick our songs,” he says. “It was a tremendous task; there were so many! As we winnowed them down, we spent many, many hours going over different keys, seeing what we felt we could combine as duets. I used to listen to the great duets of Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby—they’re so brilliantly constructed—and we wanted to try to create the same style for our first show.” “Michael and I work really well together,” adds Barbara. “I think our voices blend well. We are both interested in pure song; is so knowledgeable! And we like each other! It’s a nice combination.”

Michael Feinstein & Barbara
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Their first pairing proved to be an outstanding hit. “(Its) most surprising aspect is that they didn’t think of getting together sooner,” wrote reviewer David Sheward in Back Stage. “Their teaming is a natural. Both have a deep appreciation for the Great American Songbook, and deliver their numbers, separately and in duet, with a deep blending of those two sensuous, caressing voices. Their soothing yet dynamic sensibilities make for a simultaneously comforting and intoxicating evening. The pair give each selection an unexpected twist or an extra intensity that renders the material uniquely their own.” Wrote Scott and Barbara Siegel on TheatreMania.com: “Rather than trying to squeeze their act into an artificial formula, these two musical greats have opted simply to sing great songs—and that proves more than sufficient to create an evening of great entertainment.”

Barbara and Michael’s first endeavor resulted in a live recording: Barbara Cook & Michael Feinstein: Cheek to Cheek, released earlier this year. For their new December run at Feinstein’s, Barbara and Michael will sing gems from the Great American Songbook by Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Rodgers and Hart, plus Broadway hits and holiday classics. For this engagement, the club, in Barbara’s honor, is rolling back prices to those that were in effect when the room opened in 1999: $60 cover and no minimum.

What more, for Barbara? “I’ll be back in 2012 making appearances, singing with orchestras,” she says. “I held off performing a lot this past year, to be able to write. That was hard going for me! I’m not the kind of person who has always kept journals and diaries. But the book should be coming out soon. This past October was my 84th birthday; I’m now in my 85th year. And, to quote Mr. Sondheim, ‘I’m still here!’”

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Category: Cabaret Features, Listings and News, New York City, New York City Cabaret Features, New York City Listings and News

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An outstandingly talented musician.