A big part of the American musical theatre is the great ladies of song it has produced. And there have been many. But I happen to have two favorites that I think stand just a little taller than all the rest. And one of them is Barbara Cook.
While everyone is entitled to his or her favorite, it’s indisputable that Barbara Cook has maintained the star quality of her singing longer than anyone, male or female, who has ever taken a bow on Broadway. At the age of 82, she was nominated for a Tony Award for “Sondheim on Sondheim.” It wasn’t just sentiment at play: She was giving eight impressive performances a week with that distinctively bright and beautifully spun sound.
Cook’s voice has always been beautiful, even when she came to the Big Apple as an ingenue in her 20s. She had a natural placement and a firm technique that not only gave her the ability to finesse some fiendishly difficult music, but great versatility, as well. Who can forget her unbeatable version of “Glitter and Be Gay” that has been the rueful assignment of many an opera singer? And her turns in “The Music Man” and “She Love Me” are Broadway legend.
But in addition to her wonderful instrument and unprecedented longevity, Cook has grown into much more than a Broadway singer. She enjoyed more than 30 years as a solo concert artist, bringing interpretive depth to a huge repertory of songs, including many golden tunes from the American Songbook, but also memorable renditions of contemporary compositions, such as Janis Ian’s “Stars” and John Bucchino’s “Sweet Dreams.”
I don’t think anyone sings Sondheim better than Barbara Cook. Here she is stealing the show in a 1985 concert version of “Follies” singing the heck out of “Losing My Mind” (with Spanish subtitles). It’s just about everything anyone could ask for with this exposed, anxious ballad.
I have had the great fortune of twice hearing Cook live, including her “Mostly Sondheim” show when she took it on tour. I can tell you that when she sang “Losing My Mind” in that performance in Los Angeles, she cast something of a spell on the audience which, by the time she reached that number on the playlist, was happily eating right out of her hand. It was the kind of musical enchantment that one often just dreams about.
There is no singer before the American public today for whom I have greater admiration. One could hardly question the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to invite Ms. Cook to give a concert in that fabled theatre, the first non-operatic singer ever to do so. It was just one of many, many great nights of music from this very great lady.