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Remembering Broadway's Barbara Cook: 'My First Memories Are Of Singing'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the site TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we're devoting the show to Barbara Cook, the wonderfully talented Broadway star and cabaret singer who died Tuesday at age 89.

For decades before retiring earlier this year, she sang in intimate clubs, working her way through various set lists from the Great American Songbook. But her career began long before that. It's been 60 years, for example, since she originated the role of Marian the librarian in the original Broadway production of "The Music Man," introducing such classic songs as "Goodnight My Someone" and "Till There Was You." She won a Tony award for that role and also starred in the '50s and '60s in the original Broadway productions of "Candide" and "She Loves Me." In her memoir "Then & Now," Barbara Cook wrote about her life in music and theater, and she was very frank about her personal difficulties, including bouts with alcoholism and food addiction and a difficult relationship with her mother.

Terry spoke with Barbara Cook in 2016 when her memoir came out. They began with one of the Broadway songs she originated, "Till There Was You." This is from the 1957 cast recording of "The Music Man," for which she won the Tony.


BARBARA COOK: (Singing) There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing. No, I never heard them at all till there was you. There were birds in the sky, but I never saw them winging. No, I never saw them at all till there was you. And there was music, and there were wonderful roses. They tell me in sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew. There was love all around, but I never heard it singing. No, I never heard it at all till there was you.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Barbara Cook, welcome to FRESH AIR.

COOK: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Early in your career - and I guess you're in your late teens or early 20s at this point - you meet the composer Vernon Duke. He loved your voice. He had you sing at backers auditions. Then he told you to audition to perform at Tamiment, a resort hotel in the Pennsylvania Poconos.

You got the gig, and there you met Jerry Bock, who, with Sheldon Harnick, later wrote "She Loves Me," which you starred in. They also wrote "Fiorello!" and "Fiddler On The Roof." In your second season at this resort hotel, you met the man who became your husband and the father of your son. So through...

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The help of Vernon Duke, you were launched into this new world, then the world that became your home, the world of performing. What was it like for you to make the transition into that world?

COOK: Well, it was scary because I saw a lot of these people performing before I joined them. And I thought they were all gods - you know, theater gods. And it made me nervous because I was so afraid - God, am I ever really going to be able to do that, you know?

GROSS: So let's talk about one of your early musicals, "Candide," with music by Leonard Bernstein. And...

COOK: Oh, God.

GROSS: ...One of - you know, the piece you became famous for in this was "Glitter And Be Gay," which is a very showy, operatic song. What function does the song serve in the musical, just in terms of being that kind of ornate - with all these, like, high notes and, you know, kind of trilling?

COOK: Well, it was and is very difficult. And a lot of singers do sing it now but not always very well, I think. Particularly, the spoken part is overdone, I think, far too often. It's a very delightful, funny song. And what they do is try to make it more delightful and more funny. And it just gets silly sometimes. You know, people think - sound like they're losing their minds when they do this and they (vocalizing). It's nuts. I don't know why they do that.

And they - you know, I was lucky because I was right there when the song was being introduced, and I have - what's the word? I know personally what Lenny Bernstein wanted it to sound like, certain things that are difficult to do. The ha-ha-has in there - he wanted to really be like separate notes - and so that each one is a little push. And then you have to be sure to really sing very lyrically after that to get you out of the pushing because pushing ain't no good in singing, you see.

GROSS: Right. Then there's a part like - excuse me for - I was going to demonstrate, but that's ludicrous. Can you just talk about the - like demonstrate what the sound is in a lower note of the pushing has?

COOK: Well, for instance, it's written ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (ph), right? Those are the notes. And many people do it like a run, you know? Da, da, dee - connecting all the things. But that's not what he wanted. He wanted each one to be a separate ha, so it really sounds like laughter. He wanted it to be ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. It's hard to do. And most people don't do that. They do (vocalizing), you know? They do make - they make it like a run or something.

GROSS: So how did you protect your voice? Because even your vocal coach told you that the ha is - why is the ha bad? It forces the vocal chords together?

COOK: It's - well, it's not good to push, and he said if you - in the ensuing phrases, if you sing very lyrically, very carefully and smoothly that you heal yourself instantly, so you don't have to worry about those ha-ha-has. Do what he wants and then sing very lyrically. Also, he always felt from the beginning that I could do this - well, I don't know about easily - but he thought I wouldn't have any trouble with it.

GROSS: OK. I think we should hear a little bit of this. This is (laughter) the incredible performance by my guest Barbara Cook from the musical "Candide." And this was recorded in 1956. So here's Barbara Cook.


COOK: (As Cunegonde, singing) Born to higher things. Here I drop my wings, singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage. And yet of course I rather like to revel, ha-ha. I have no strong objection to champagne, ha-ha. My wardrobe is expensive as the devil, ha-ha. Perhaps it is ignoble to complain. Enough, enough of being basely tearful. I'll show my noble stuff by being bright and cheerful ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha.

GROSS: That's my guest Barbara Cook singing "Glitter And Be Gay" from the original 1956 cast recording of "Candide." Barbara Cook has a new memoir called "Then And Now." So you originated the role of Amalia in the 1963 Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock musical "She Loves Me." There are some wonderful songs in this that you got to sing. But the signature song from the show for you became "Vanilla Ice Cream." So I want you to tell us a little bit where this song falls into the show and why you love the song.

COOK: Well, first of all, it's not one of the songs that was written originally when we went into rehearsal. And at some point, Sheldon said, we have an idea for a song. It's going to do this. It's going to do that. And, you know, it's going to be a great, great, great song. It turns out to be that. But I thought, yeah, well, good luck. You know, he's telling them he's going to do this. He's going to do that. And they actually did it. It is a really, really great song. Stephen Sondheim said he thinks it's one of the best theater songs ever written. And I think it is, too. It's a lot of fun. And it's - you know, it's hard to do. Some people sing it now, but it ain't easy.

GROSS: What's hard about the song?

COOK: The range. Range is a little difficult, but it's great fun. You know, I was so pleased when they first played it for me. I added the top note. (Vocalizing). I added that part.

GROSS: (Laughter) Because you could.

COOK: Yeah, because - you know, I think it fits the idea of the song, and - you know, to just rip that off at the end - I thought that, well, people will like that. And I think they did.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear the song that Barbara Cook originated in the 1963 original Broadway production of "She Loves Me."


COOK: (As Amelia, singing) Dear friend, I am so sorry about last night. Last night, I was so nasty. Well, he deserved it. But even so, that Georg is not like this Georg. This is a new Georg that I don't know. Somehow it all reminds me of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For right before my eyes a man that I despise has turned into a man I like. It's almost like a dream. As strange as it may seem, he came to offer me vanilla ice cream.

BIANCULLI: Barbara Cook from the 1963 Broadway production of "She Loves Me." Cook died Tuesday at the age of 89. We'll hear Terry's first interview with Barbara Cook recorded in 1993 after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're saluting Broadway and cabaret singer Barbara Cook, who died Tuesday at age 89. Terry Gross first interviewed Barbara Cook in 1993. Here's an excerpt of that conversation.

GROSS: I know you said that two of your great influences musically were Judy Garland and Mabel Mercer. And what interested me about that is that they're really opposites as performers. You know, Judy Garland was very emotional. There was always this tragic aura about her on stage, whereas Mabel Mercer was very regal. She sang everything as an art song and sang with a certain amount of emotional distance in a way. You never felt she was necessarily singing about herself.

COOK: That's interesting.

GROSS: And she was just so regal onstage. And I'm wondering what - in terms of stage presence, if you felt you took things from each of them.

COOK: Well, when Judy was here at the Palace, there's a little after-hours club - it was called The Gold Key Club, and it was a private club. You had to have this little gold key, if you were a member, to get in. And I knew the men who played piano there. Very often, she would come over after her performance and sing some more for herself and for her friends. And so when she was going to be there, he would call me, and I would come in so I - you know, I could hear her do this stuff just for herself. And having a chance to observe her so close - I've really learned a lot for the - you know, I never have - still have never had any coaching, per se. My voice teacher mainly was interested in technique. But I haven't had a lot of help with - how do you sell a song or put it over, if you know what I mean?

What I think I learned from Garland during those months was to think about shaping a song so that it had a beginning, a middle and an end and so that it had a kind of emotional line. And that was something that hadn't occurred to me before. And with Mabel, she had this very idiosyncratic way of of using words. Her take on a lyric was so personal. I'd never heard anybody have that kind of personal take on a lyric? Do you know what I mean by that? Her sense of irony was so strong. And I think, actually, her sense of humor in a song was greater than anybody I've ever heard. She broke so many rules. She sang consonants. You know, and you're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to sing vowels and get off the consonants.

GROSS: Now, explain what you mean by that.

COOK: Well, for instance, a word like wonderful - now, we would be told to hold that wah. Wah - to hold that because that's how you get the sound out and to get off that next N and D as fast as you can. Wonderful - or to say wonderful. You see? But she would do things like wonderful.


COOK: And it's more wonderful. So I learned that kind of thing from her.

GROSS: Gee, I never - no, you're absolutely right. I've never noticed that before.

COOK: And a song like "Remind Me" - now, if you were just going to sing that straight, you might sing (singing) remind me not to find you so attractive. Remind me that the world is full of men.

But she would sing (singing) remind me not to find you so attractive. Remind me - You see what I mean?

GROSS: Absolutely.

COOK: So, you know, you've got to be judicious with that stuff. But, boy, she sure as hell knew how to do it. I'm telling you.

GROSS: Well, that probably gave you permission to do things, too, that you discovered on your own.

COOK: Yeah. Sure. I think so.

GROSS: Do you think your voice has gone through different periods as you've gotten older?

COOK: Well, most voices do change timbre. They get darker. And, certainly, I don't have those light, light, high notes like I did during the "Candide" days. But, you know, I have other stuff. I have a much greater ability to put emotion into a song - much greater ability than I had in those years. It's amazing. When I used to do those cast albums, I would - usually, the albums were done the second Sunday after we opened or the third Sunday - soon after we opened and I found that as I played the show, I found more and more things and I liked the performances better, say, after three or four months, you know? What used to happen is in the show albums, God, I was feeling so much. And I was getting maybe one-eighth of that into the voice...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COOK: ...You know?

GROSS: It must be really good to like how your voice is changing and feel, you know, more expression going into it. And...

COOK: Well, yeah. I do. Of course, I'd like to be able to do everything. You know, I want to still be able to sing Q over X up there. But I can't do that anymore. But it's OK 'cause I got other stuff that I really like better, if I had to choose.

BIANCULLI: Singer Barbara Cook speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. Barbara Cook died Tuesday at age 89. Terry also interviewed her more recently in 2016. We'll hear more of that conversation after a break. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new bank robbery action movie "Good Time." Here's an amazing live recording by Barbara Cook from the 1985 All-Star performance of "Follies In Concert." Cook played Sally, one of the leading roles in the Stephen Sondheim musical. This is a torch song about unrequited love called "Losing My Mind." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


COOK: (As Sally, singing) The sun comes up. I think about you. The coffee cup - I think about you. I want you so. It's like I'm losing my mind. The morning ends. I think about you. I talk to friends - I think about you. And do they know it's like I'm losing my mind? All afternoon, doing every little chore, the thought of you stays bright. Sometimes, I stand in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right. I dim the lights and think about you, spend sleepless nights to think about you. You said you loved me. Or were you just being kind? Or am I losing my mind? I want you so. It's like I'm losing my mind.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're remembering Barbara Cook, the Broadway and cabaret singer who died Tuesday at age 89. Barbara Cook first became known for her starring roles in the original Broadway productions of "Candide," "The Music Man" and "She Loves Me." After a period of alcoholism, she reinvented herself as a cabaret singer, widely considered one of the best. Here's more of the interview Terry did with Barbara Cook last year, when Cook's memoir "Then & Now" was published.


GROSS: So some time - I guess it was a few years, maybe, after "She Loves Me" - you basically stopped doing Broadway and went through this really bad period of your life where you became addicted to alcohol and food. But then you managed to get sober. And you had a second career that I'm really grateful for because I just really love your interpretations of songs.

COOK: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: And your voice changed, too. I mean, your voice deepened. And...

COOK: Sure.

GROSS: And even you say in your book that there was this, like, emotional depth that you found in songs that you feel you didn't quite get to in the same way on stage...


GROSS: ...In musicals. And I want to play - I don't know. This is what - I particularly love this performance. And it's you singing "We'll Be Together Again."


GROSS: And I just want to play this so people hear how you sounded in 1998, when you made this, with your longtime accompanist and music director, the late Wally Harper...

COOK: Yes.

GROSS: ...Accompanying you at the piano. So let's listen to Barbara Cook in 1998 singing "We'll Be Together Again."


COOK: (Singing) No fears, no tears - remember there's always tomorrow. So what if we have to part? We'll be together again. Your kiss, your smile are memories I'll treasure forever. So try thinking with your heart. We'll be together again. Times when I know you'll be lonesome, times when I know you'll be sad, don't let temptation surround you. Don't let the blues make you bad. Someday, some way - we both have a lifetime before us, for parting is not goodbye. We'll be together again.

That's nice. I like it.

GROSS: No, it's so beautiful. There's just such depth in that performance. And...

COOK: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I wonder, like - I know you've sung that other times. And you sang that at Carnegie Hall - was it Carnegie Hall or the Met? I'm pretty sure it was Carnegie Hall. And I wonder if there's anything or anybody that you particularly think about when you sing that song.

COOK: I can't think of anybody specifically. But, do you know, when I sing, I put my - how can I put it? - my whole life into that - in other words, all my memories of all these things that have happened, good and bad. And by singing, that's what I try to do. And there's a lot going in on that one, I think. It's good.

GROSS: Your accompanist on that version of "We'll Be Together Again" was Wally Harper.

COOK: Yeah.

GROSS: And he helped open the door to a whole new performing identity for you. He led you into the cabaret world and became your music director and accompanist for - and good friend - for about...

COOK: Well...

GROSS: ...Thirty years.

COOK: Yeah. Well, I had done cabaret - the first work I did in New York was cabaret at a little place called the Blue Angel. And then there was a long time when I was out of work and was having problems with weight and alcohol and everything else. And he really helped me get this second career, if you will. He helped me get that going. It was very, very helpful to me in many, many ways - very generous man, and a good person in lots of ways.

BIANCULLI: Barbara Cook speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with 2016 with Broadway and cabaret singer Barbara Cook. It was their most recent conversation before Cook died Tuesday at age 89.


GROSS: So I want to play another song, and this is also with Wally Harper at the piano, your longtime accompanist and arranger. And it's a Stephen Sondheim song. It's "Loving You" from his show "Passion."


GROSS: And this is from your mostly Sondheim concert at Carnegie Hall in 2001. This is a beautiful song that somebody who's very ill sings. She's somebody who she very much - who - she's very much in love with who doesn't love her back, but she wants him to love her back. Can you tell us why you chose to do this song, what the song means to you?

COOK: Well, it's one that I love and loved, and that's basically it. I just wanted to sing it.

GROSS: OK. Well, I'm glad you chose it. So this is my guest Barbara Cook recorded in 2001 at Carnegie Hall, the Stephen Sondheim song "Loving You."


COOK: (Singing) Loving you is not a choice. It's who I am. Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice. But it gives me purpose, gives me voice to say to the world, this is why I live. You are why I live. Loving you is why I do the things I do. Loving you is not in my control. But loving you, I have a goal for what's left of my life. I will live, and I would die for you.


GROSS: That's Barbara Cook, recorded in 2001 at Carnegie Hall singing Stephen Sondheim's "Loving You." You mention in your memoir - your new memoir "Then & Now" that you once ran into Sondheim before you did this mostly Sondheim concert. And he said to you, Barbara, how come you never sing my songs? So how come you weren't singing a lot of his songs?

COOK: I'm not sure. After I did the concert - the big concert, the Sondheim concert that I began doing his things. I'm not sure. You know, sometimes songs don't bump up against each other very well. And I think I thought that was true. I probably was wrong, but - because he's written - my God, he's our Kern, he's our Gershwin. And he's it, just great stuff, great stuff.

GROSS: So Wally Harper died in 2004 at the age of 63. And I think that was the result of cirrhosis of the liver because he drank so much. Did you feel like you saw this coming, and there's still nothing you could do about it?

COOK: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, it's a terrible thing to watch somebody that you care about so much let go, you know? But I don't think he could stop it. I don't think he could stop. I don't know. He was really caught.

GROSS: I want to ask you about recovering - recovering from his loss personally. But how did you recover from it professionally?

COOK: Well, I haven't totally recovered from it personally. I think about him all the time. I talk about him often. Rarely does a day go by that I don't think about him or talk about him. He was such a huge part of my life. You know, we worked together almost 31 years - yeah, 30 full years we worked together. And we were friends and companions, and he did the arrangements and helped me tremendously - tremendously. And he was - my God, he was talented.

I was very angry when he died, you know, because I needed him, and I wanted him to still be there helping me. I miss him terribly, you know, still, just as a friend - much less as an accompanist. Scott (ph), he was talented. Boy, and so many people depended on him musically, too, so it wasn't just me.

GROSS: So you get around in a wheelchair now.

COOK: I do. I can't walk. I have some kind of - I think it's called - wait a minute - PMR, polymyalgia romantica (ph), not romantica, Barbara - rheumatica.


COOK: Poly - wait a minute - poly rheumatic - [expletive]. I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COOK: I guess you have to do something about that (laughter). Poly rheumatic whatever something.

GROSS: So can you...

COOK: Polymyalgia rheumatica. That's it.

GROSS: And what does that mean? Do you know?

COOK: What does it mean? It means I can't walk (laughter).

GROSS: Right. OK.

COOK: It means I have great weakness in my muscles - some muscles. And it's particularly my legs, so it's hard to walk.

GROSS: I was actually surprised reading your book at your generous use of expletives in some places for some reason because you're like the ingenue in the Broadway shows that I know...

COOK: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: I kind of didn't - I didn't expect you to know words - like, isn't that ridiculous that I would think that?

COOK: Yeah, it is.


COOK: Unfortunately, I do very well with those words.

GROSS: (Laughter) Are those words you learned early in life or that you picked up later?

COOK: Oh, much later.

GROSS: You worked in a burlesque show. I'm sure you learned some of it there, right?

COOK: Oh, God. My husband wouldn't even let me say damn, you know? Oh, he was very against it. So then when we divorced, I was just saying words all over the place.

GROSS: What does it mean to have a husband who won't let you say certain words?

COOK: It means you wonder if you're in the right marriage.

GROSS: (Laughter). So when you perform, do you still have stage anxiety?

COOK: I do sometimes if it's a big deal. Like Carnegie Hall - I stand in the wings, and, you know - and I worry a bit. But there's something I do when that happens that helps me a little bit when I'm standing in the wings waiting to go on. I kind of plant my feet and feel a kind of strength coming up from the ground into me.

And then I think about giving back this gift that I have been given. And when I do that, then I get out of ego so much. And then I don't worry so much about what think - people think about how I sing or how I look. And I just try to sing more deeply and more personally, and I really enjoy that. I love singing. I do. I get rid of so much stuff by singing. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do.

GROSS: Barbara Cook, thank you so much for talking with us.

COOK: Darling, thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Broadway and cabaret singer Barbara Cook speaking to Terry Gross in 2016. Barbara Cook died Tuesday of respiratory failure. She was 89 years old.


COOK: (Singing) Anyone can whistle. That's what they say. Easy. Anyone can whistle any old day. Easy. It's all so simple. Relax. Let go. Let fly. So someone tell me, why can't I? I can dance a tango. I can read Greek. Easy. I can slay a dragon any old week. Easy. What's hard is simple. What's natural comes hard. Maybe you could show me how to let it go, lower my guard, learn to be free. Maybe if you whistle, whistle for me.


COOK: Thank you so much. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall in 2001 singing the title song from the Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents musical "Anyone Can Whistle." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Robert Pattinson crime caper movie, "Good Time." This is FRESH AIR.


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