Remembering Barbara Cook, Broadway and Cabaret Great, By One Life-Changing Concert

Aug 9, 2017

So many of us can point to a moment when we heard something that changed our lives. In January of 1975, I was a high school student who had saved my money to buy a ticket and sit alone in the balcony of Carnegie Hall. Barbara Cook had returned to the stage after virtually disappearing from public view. Seeing her then, after hearing her on countless recordings, I knew I had to be a part of the theater.

I have often thought back to that night and wondered what had such an impact. Was it Barbara’s flawless pitch? Or perhaps that she had created some of Broadway’s most iconic roles? She had been Cunegonde and Amalia, and Ado Annie and Marian. And that night, she sang many of those roles.

But it was her performance of “Time Heals Everything,” from the 1974 musical Mack and Mabel, that made me understand. This was the one song on the program not associated with her, but rather with Bernadette Peters. (Bernadette’s costar in the show happened to be Barbara’s most notable leading man: The Music Man himself, Robert Preston.) The song is about loss and hope. Barbara had certainly experienced loss, but it became apparent that night that while she wasn’t turning her back on her past, she was reinventing herself.

It never occurred to me that time had passed between her last show and that night in Carnegie Hall. When I closed my eyes and listened, I heard those characters — yet the person who stood on that stage did not look like that person on the cast albums. She had aged and had grown out of her costumes. But she never sacrificed the meaning of a lyric for the sake of some artistic bravado. She was arm in arm with my sensibilities: great music in sync with great lyrics, which translates to emotion.

Over the years, I never missed an opportunity to hear her. Her voice maintained its pristine soprano, barely ripening. And each show she performed was a new  experience, giving the audience a reason to come back.

While she originated many roles, she had been a replacement as well, stepping into parts made famous by others. And yet her interpretation of  Sally in Follies and Julie Jordan in Carousel (ironically, both concert versions) became the ones I played over and over on my turntable. She came from an era where interpretation was not in changing notes but in connecting to emotion and context.  Barbara was Sally. She was Julie. It didn’t matter if anyone else had sung those songs and played those characters before her.

Barbara was generous with her time, giving master classes to young artists. Because she was known for her exacting musicianship and extraordinary vocal range, her students were often eager to show off high notes. But Barbara always patiently explained that that was only a small part of the lesson: it was the artistry that gave purpose to those notes. Technique was merely what enabled you to get the words out. It was mesmerizing to experience the transformation she could impart on a student.

Years later, I had the opportunity to interview her for a radio broadcast. Here I was to be face to face with the woman who had brought so much to me that January evening — completely transforming the way I listened to music, and performed it myself. I had played her records over and over, and seen her on stage countless times. What was I going to ask her? I couldn’t divulge that I knew every breath she took in every phrase she sang. I didn’t want to appear to be a sycophant; my devotion was genuine, yet I couldn’t be overly effusive. I had to be professional even though at this point, I had become so overwhelmed with anticipation that my face broke out.

So we talked about expectations. The expectations that people had of her. To be thin. To be sober. To hit those notes night after night. And in the case of Richard Rodgers compositions, to sing the music exactly as he had written it. To be the artist we remembered from early in her career.

She succeeded in a few of those and failed in others. And it while it was those expectations that made her want to run from the spotlight when she was younger, they made her fight to keep going when she discovered something about herself as well, during that concert at Carnegie Hall. That night, in January 1975, had been a turning point for her too. She found a new path as a concert singer unequivocally accepted by an audience for who she was.  

When the interview was over, we hugged like two long-lost friends, and she invited me to come and hear her that weekend at the Kennedy Center. It was the last time she performed with her longtime musical director and pianist Wally Harper, and they were magic.

She went on to play even bigger stages: the following year, the Met. The Kennedy Center Honors. After a while, her body undermined her ability to perform; in recent years, her will to sing could not overcome the challenges in physically getting on a stage, or even breathing. So she stopped. She knew when she couldn’t meet her own expectations.

Listen to Audra McDonald or Josh Groban — or most notably, Kristen Chenoweth — and you’ll hear Barbara’s unmistakable influence. She made it O.K. to be outspoken as an advocate for gay rights, lending her voice in step with her son, Adam, and others followed suit. Endearing herself to the Broadway community in yet another platform.

Some people will remember a picture of Barbara Cook the petite ingénue, and some the caftan-wearing cabaret singer. No matter what the image, it was her voice that never let us down, and will endure in our memory.

Amy Niles, the President and CEO of WBGO, appeared on Broadway in the original run of Evita, and later hosted the Broadway Channel on Sirius Radio.