The cliché says there are no second acts in American life. The career of Barbara Cook, who died on August 8, just a few months short of her ninetieth birthday, firmly repudiates that cliché, just as Cook herself would have smacked down any clichéd way of interpreting the songs she sang. Classically trained, she battled reverses both personal and artistic, turning her life, too, into what now seems a classical form: not merely a two-act but an ultra-traditional three-act play. As it rolled along, she inspired hundreds of young artists and blessed ever larger audiences with her delvings into what we now call the American songbook.
An Atlanta girl from a broken home, Cook discovered early that her musical gifts could win her love as well as applause. Landing in New York just in time for one of the Broadway musical’s great eras, she found her lustrous, intriguingly edgy soprano voice and her spunky, sweet-and-sour personality winning her bigger and bigger roles, thanks to the admiration of prestigious colleagues. These included Rodgers and Hammerstein, for whom she played in a succession of touring companies and revivals, and Leonard Bernstein, at whose behest she tackled the murderously difficult role of Cunegonde in Candide (1956), singing its huge display aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” eight times a week without a peep of complaint.
Candide, like its predecessors on Cook’s Broadway résumé — E.Y. Harburg’s eccentric political parable Flahooley (1951) and the modestly successful Plain and Fancy (1955) — broke no box office records. But as with most of Cook’s later Broadway musicals, its cast recording spawned a devoted following. She sailed to fame with her next venture, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1957). The more symmetrically photogenic Shirley Jones snagged the lead role in the 1962 film version, but by then Cook’s sour-creamy tone had set the show’s hit songs reverberating through America’s collective memory, via the cast album and hundreds of sold-out Broadway performances.
Nothing else Cook tried in the theater approached this peak. While aficionados treasure their scores, both The Gay Life (1961) and The Grass Harp (1971) closed quickly and have largely been ignored since. Most disappointingly, Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me (1963), now a beloved perennial, did lackluster business in its initial run. Popular taste was changing, and musical-theater makers were struggling to keep up. As their misfires made Cook’s career trajectory increasingly bumpy, her personal life fell apart big-time: A divorce led to binges of both drinking and overeating. By the mid-Seventies the once-svelte Cook, whom her She Loves Me co-star Daniel Massey had had no trouble lifting off the floor eight times a week, was weighing in at 250 and, being “not a ladylike drunk,” as she recalled later, was increasingly viewed as unemployable.
But the love and esteem she had earned by then sent her a dividend: the devotion of composer-arranger Wally Harper. Through careful coaching, arranging, and monitoring, Harper conveyed her into a new career as a cabaret singer. I remember one of her earliest such gigs, in 1974, before a rapt audience of gays and musical-theater professionals crammed into a Hell’s Kitchen firetrap called Brothers & Sisters. Much of her repertoire, rock and folk-pop, was new, but even more refreshing was the deeper reality that her downslide had taught her to bring to her Broadway standards. Her fall had led to an astonishing rebound.
With Harper nurturing her, for the three decades until his own death in 2004, Cook’s new approach evolved into a new mastery. She stopped drinking; she made peace with her body size. Her increased confidence fed into increasingly rich interpretations of an ever widening repertoire. From this came her third flowering: The mature artist blossomed into an elder stateswoman of American song. Her venues progressed from the scruffy to the chic cabarets, then on to Broadway theaters, lofty concert halls, and master classes at places like Juilliard. The grander environments never made her get grandiose: When, in 2006, she became the first female pop singer ever to give a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera, the program included Harper’s adorably daft arrangement of the Thirties hit “Them There Eyes,” in which Cook tootled the final chorus on a kazoo.
Increasing frailty never diminished her rediscovered spunk: When she celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday onstage at Carnegie Hall in 2012, back trouble largely confined her to a wheelchair. Still, she stood up to deliver her encore — John Lennon’s “Imagine” — wholly unamplified, with crystalline clarity. Now the third act of her personal drama has ended, but her example, preserved by innumerable CDs and videos and memories, makes me hope there will be many sequels. In my mind I hear thousands of stage-struck youngsters saying, “At eighty-five, I want to sound as good as Barbara Cook.”