Barbara Cook, Broadway’s favorite Golden Age ingénue turned cabaret queen, perched on a couch in her cheery Riverside Drive apartment on a recent afternoon, mulling the paradoxes of good fortune. On Jan. 20, she will become the first Broadway-bred chanteuse to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera in its 123-year history, but her whirligig schedule of concerts, master classes and awards ceremonies has kept her too busy to prepare.
“I’ve got to really, really get started. I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to sing,” she said in that frank, warm drawl that still bears traces of her native Atlanta. “But I’ve been traveling so much lately, I haven’t even had time to play Texas hold ’em!”
She released a loud peal of laughter that made the soft folds of her cheeks shake.
At 78 years old, Ms. Cook is enjoying a long, crowd-pleasing third act of a career that has unfolded much like a Broadway book. She has sung for the Queen of England and was most recently nominated for a Tony in 2002, for her 14-week Lincoln Center hit, Mostly Sondheim. In 2003, her album Count Your Blessings earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. She lost, cruelly, to Rod Stewart.
For Ms. Cook’s fans, the secret of her singing lies as much in her voice as in her uncanny ability to invest each note with history and personality—or, in a word, autobiography. Her elastic voice combines exquisite technique with a rare soul-baring honesty. The composer Stephen Sondheim has praised her as one of the foremost interpreters of theatrical music now living. An attendee of one of her recent master classes at Juilliard was even bolder, declaring, “I feel like when she performs, she performs naked.” Never mind that Ms. Cook’s still-supple soprano no longer reaches those glass-shattering high E’s. Singers are supposed to retire long before 65, but Ms. Cook’s singing has only become more daring.
“I think I sing, as far as communication goes, better now than I did 10 years ago. I just seem to have more courage,” she said. “I think, generally speaking, people do have more courage as they get older. Finally you get to the point where you say, ‘Look, this is it, folks—it’s not going to change much more than this. Take it or leave it.’
“You know, getting older has some real benefits,” she continued as her parakeets, blue-bellied George and yellow-winged Gilbert, twittered in the dining room. “There’s no way you can have the kind of perspective at 20 that you have at 50. There’s just no way—you’ve just got to live it.”
Ms. Cook has done well by her years, having absorbed enough aphoristic wisdom to make Oprah envious while retaining the jolly energy of someone half her age. An ample Mother Earth of a woman, there is nothing frail or wispy about her, nothing careful or uncertain. She wears the artist’s uniform of black on black, accented by bold turquoise or gold baubles. She sleeps five hours a night. She calls people “darlin’,” as if she were still rehearsing to play everyone’s favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein coquette, Ado Annie.
“You know, some days I feel like I could be 30; some days I feel like I’m 12. My knee doesn’t feel like it’s 12,” she added with a soprano’s tinkling laugh, “but I do.”
Ms. Cook arrived in New York City in 1948, 20 years old, as blonde-haired, button-nosed and determined as one of those dewy-eyed ingénues she would later play in musicals. Her mother thought they were only heading to New York for a two-week visit—but when two weeks came to an end, only her mother returned to Atlanta.
“I had gotten to the point where clearly I was talented. I didn’t know how talented I was, but I certainly realized it would be utterly foolish to not give it a good try,” Ms. Cook said. “I knew that this was where I belonged.”
But beneath Ms. Cook’s bravado there was also terror. Looking back, she still marvels that her doubt-ridden younger self—the self that couldn’t ask an operator to place a long-distance phone call without breaking into a clammy-handed sweat—had the brass and sass to pursue a career under the floodlights. “But I just did it,” she said. “If you’re really passionate about something, you find your way, because that’s all you think about 24 hours a day.”
Within three years, Ms. Cook landed her first big Broadway role, the romantic lead in a satirical, Joe McCarthy–inspired musical called Flahooley. The play fizzled after 40 performances—it was, after all, a Joe McCarthy–inspired musical—but it earned Ms. Cook enough critical attention that she soon found herself do-si-doing in the City Center revival of Oklahoma!, melting hearts as the lovelorn Hilda Miller in Plain and Fancy, and belting out high C’s (21 of them in one song alone!) as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s exquisitely impossible Candide. “He was extraordinarily supportive of me,” she said of the legendary music macher. “He was an amazing personality, a very sexy man—oh my Lord!”
But it was her turn as the lovable spinster Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson’s premier production of The Music Man in 1957 that immortalized her as the blue-eyed everygirl with the silver pipes.
Throughout the next decade, Ms. Cook continued to warble her way across the Great White Way. But during the late 1960’s, as Broadway’s golden age turned to copper and Ms. Cook neared 40, she hit a lost, dark period that she dubs “middlescence.” Divorce, a drinking problem and a struggle with obesity all collided with the curse of being middle-aged on Broadway. Her son, Adam, went to live with her ex-husband, David LeGrant. (They later reunited and are now quite close.) She stopped performing. By the early 1970’s, she had disappeared from Broadway.
“I remember thinking that I didn’t know where to aim myself,” she said. “I think I needed to stop working for a while, sit back and take stock of things. But it would have terrified me—the idea that I was just going to on purpose decide not to work for a while.” She paused. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I didn’t know how to get it together, somehow.”
But eventually, she did just that—slowly and reluctantly at first, perhaps more out of a desire to work than some protean urge to reinvent herself. The transformation began with a 1975 concert she gave at Carnegie Hall along with her late, great accompanist and music director, Wally Harper. It was a triumphant performance, a bravura return from nowhere that earned them a deal with CBS Records and the opportunity for follow-up gigs. For the next 30 years, until Harper died in October 2004, the two were among the most celebrated figures on the cabaret circuit.
In many ways, Ms. Cook found her voice during these decades, the emotional richness that has become her signature in later life. She owed part of this discovery to her partnership with Harper, part of it to her practice of carefully and consciously investing herself in each note of every song. But much of the credit goes to sheer hoary, humble age and experience.
“I don’t sing like I did 20 years ago—but there are other things I do now that I didn’t do 20 years ago, as far as singing goes,” she said. “I think my ability to communicate has gotten stronger, and probably five years from now will be stronger than it is now, because that’s the path I’m on. I don’t consider myself a finished product. It’s a work in progress.”
But Ms. Cook didn’t sound like a work in progress when she stood onstage at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater on Dec. 1, trilling out the notes to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific showstopper, “A Wonderful Guy.” She was wrapping up a master class, showing the stiff, overtrained students how to transform themselves from “singing machines” into “real people.”
“I expect everyone of my crowd to make fun / Of my proud protestations of faith in romance,” she swooned as her new accompanist, Eric Stein, clanged out the melody. Her voice wasn’t as crystal as the youngsters’ had been, but as she waltzed and strutted about the stage, belting out the love-struck lyrics of a far younger woman, she captured some strange possibility of sound and language that none of her students had done. “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love,” she sang. And for a moment, she was both 78 and 21, wildly in love, unleashing the longing of youth and the wisdom of age—the whole drama of a life—across the quivering air.