Few voices can match the rich, haunting, yet comforting voice of Broadway, and cabaret legend Barbara Cook. Born October 25, 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia, Cook began singing at an early age, at the Elk Club and to her father over the phone (he was as traveling salesman), she spent three years after graduating from high school working as a typist. But, while visiting NYC in 1948 with her mother, Cook decided to stay and try to find work as an actress. She began to sing at clubs and resorts, eventually booked an engagement at the posh Blue Angel club in 1950. She made her Broadway debut a year later, as Sandy in the short-lived 1951 musical Flahooley. She landed another role quickly, portraying Ado Annie in the 1951 City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, and stayed with the production when it went on its national tour the following year.
Cook returned to City Center to portray Carrie Pipperidge in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In 1955, she began to attract major critical praise when she played the supporting role of Hilda Miller in Plain and Fancy. The critic, Walter Kerr wrote of her performance: “Barbara Cook, right off a blue and white Dutch plate, is delicious all the time, but especially when she perches on a trunk, savors her first worthwhile kiss, and melts into the melody of ‘This is All Very New To Me’. Her good reviews and blissful soprano voice enabled her to win the role of Cunegonde in Bernstein’s new operetta Candide in 1956.She became known for the show stopping song, “Glitter and be Gay. In May 1956, she appeared on television in a production of Bloomer Girl as Evelina Applegate. In 1957, she took the role of Julie Jordan in the another City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
Although Candide was not a success, Cook’s portrayal of Cunegonde established her as one of Broadway’s leading ingenues. Her two most famous roles after this were her Tony Award winning portrayal of Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and as Amalia Balash in the 1962 musical She Loves Me. Of her performance in She Loves Me, Norman Nadel of the World-Telegram & Sun wrote: “Her clear soprano is not only one of the finest vocal instruments in the contemporary musical theatre, but it conveys all the vitality, brightness and strength of her feminine young personality, which is plenty.” The song “Ice Cream” from She Loves Me has become one of Cook’s signature songs.
During the 1960s, Cook created roles in some less successful musicals: Liesl Brandel in The Gay Life (1961)and Carol Deems in Something More!(1964). She did, however, make a well received portrayal of Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I in 1960, and an acclaimed portrayal of Magnolia in Show Boat in 1966,both revivals at NY City Center. Cook also recorded the role of Anna in a 1964 studio recording with Theodore Bikel as the King. She starred in two National tours during the 1960s, Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964, and Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 1967.
Cook also tried her hand at non-musical roles, replacing Sandy Dennis in the play Any Wednesday in 1965, and originating the role of Patsy Newquist in Jules Feiffers’s Little Murders on Broadway in 1967. Her last original “book” musical role on Broadway came in 1971 when she played Dolly Talbo in the musical version of Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. From the mid-1970s on, Cook returned only sporadically to acting, mostly in occasional studio cast and live concert versions of stage musicals. In September 1985 she appeared as Sally in the renowned concert version of Sondheim’s Follies. Since then, Cook has been known mainly for her concert, and cabaret appearances. She last appeared on Broadway in 2011 in the Roundabout’s revival of Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54. Cook returned to to the venue’s club, 54 Below, just last spring for a limited engagement of her newest cabaret act.
To see Ms. Cook live is to understand what makes Broadway great. She continues to pave the way for so many sopranos who have come after her; and reminds us all that age is but a number when you are doing what you love. Happy Birthday Barbara, we adore you!
Click below to celebrate the career of Broadway legend, Barbara Cook:
“Till There Was You” from The Music Man (1960).
Bloomer Girl (1956).
Barbara Cook salutes Broadway (1966).
“Yellow Drum” from The Grass Harp (1971).
“Ice Cream” from She Loves Me, live in France (1979).
Follies in Concert (1985).
“When You Wish Upon A Star” in Melbourne (2006).
Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway (2011).
34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors honoring Barbara Cook (2011).