Barbara Cook, who originated the role of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man on Broadway and after a tumultuous career eventually became one of America’s best-known and most beloved cabaret singers, has died at 89. Her catalog is incredible.
Born in Atlanta in 1927, Cook first struck it big as a Broadway star in the 1950s and won a Tony for her role in The Music Man. While she was ultimately passed over for the film adaptation, you can get a glimpse at her performance in this 1960 TV medley.
Her breakout role was in Bernstein’s Candide, particularly for the song “Glitter and Be Gay,” which is just totally unbelievable. I can’t even believe it’s real!
You can get a glimpse of the amount of work that goes into crafting such a performance with this later-life interview.
After her early successes, however, she hit a rough patch; “actresses can’t play ingénues forever and as the ’60s drew to a close, roles became scarce,” NPR explained, adding that, “Cook succumbed to what she referred to as her ‘middle-escence.’” According to the New York Times:
But her private life — she married a drama coach, David LeGrant, in 1952, had a son in 1959 and lived in a house with a garden on Long Island — was not the suburban idyll portrayed by the entertainment media. The couple were divorced in 1965. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Ms. Cook drank more and worked less. In 1973, her teenage son went to live with his father.
By then, as she acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2005, she was virtually unemployable, an alcoholic mired in depression. She went on eating binges and grew to 250 pounds.
“I was not some lady drunk,” she said. “I was a real nonfunctioning alcoholic. Dishes, always in the sink. The kitchen a mess. The bathroom a mess. Everything a mess.”
Then, she reinvented herself—this time, as a cabaret singer, working for decades with pianist and composer Wally Harper. And she still had the same incredible voice. Here she is in a performance from the late 1970s:
She quit drinking and made peace with her weight; “I decided that I had to try to be comfortable with my body as it was, because otherwise you just live in a closet, you don’t go out,” she told the Times.
She performed in places like Carnegie Hall and became associated with the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who told the Washington Post in 2002 that, “No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.” She continued to perform into her 80s and became a Kennedy Center honoree in 2011. Via Variety:
“I’m the slowest bloomer, the latest bloomer ever,” she said in a 2005 interview. “I think — barring any kind of big health problems — I’ll sing better five years from now, because I expect I’ll have more courage to be even more open. Because I believe that’s the kind of the road I’m on. I consider myself a work in progress.”
And what a work!