The Coda to a Career: Barbara Cook Has Retired
By JAMES BARRON MAY 7, 2017
Barbara Cook with her son, Adam LeGrant, in 1963. Her son recently disclosed that Ms. Cook, 89, had retired after a lengthy singing career. via Adam LeGrant
Adam LeGrant answered the phone and said that, contrary to the arrangements that had been made, his mother was not going to come on the line to talk.
So it fell to him to deliver the news: She has retired. He said this in the past tense — not “she is going to retire,” but “she has retired.”
His mother is Barbara Cook, of the magical voice.
“She has retired” — three words that a fan feared were coming but did not want to hear, because they foreclose on the promise of more. Her fans long to marvel yet again at how she always manages to discover something different and arresting in a song they thought they knew, something unexpected and raw and authentic.
Ms. Cook is 89 now. She defied so much for so long: depression, alcoholism, age. Mr. LeGrant said, on the phone and over lunch a couple of days later, that she had decided to put out the word about retirement. “The public hasn’t seen her in months,” he said, “and somebody would go ‘Oh, my God,’ and it would be on Page Six.”
And maybe, just maybe, she does not really mean it. Mr. LeGrant said she might not stay retired.
“She may decide to come out of retirement like Frank Sinatra did,” he said. “It’s goofy, and we’ve laughed about it.” (Sinatra retired in 1971 after singing, “Excuse me while I disappear,” but he did not do so for long. He was back in the spotlight in two years.)
Mr. LeGrant said it was harder for Ms. Cook to move around these days. “The years have not been kind to her joints,” he said. She considered knee surgery several years ago, he said, but decided against it. More recently, a back problem has made getting around more burdensome.
So her fans have their memories — of the thrilling climbs to sky-high notes, of the emotional punch in song after he-treats-me-bad-but-he’s-my-man song. For years she seemed to be living out an up-tempo number that she often performed, “It’s Not Where You Start.”
Ms. Cook in 1975, the year she rejuvenated her career with a solo performance at Carnegie Hall. Associated Press
Better begin by climbing up, up, up the ladder.
If you’re going to last you can’t make it fast, man,
Nobody starts a winner, give me a slow beginner.
In her 20s, she established herself on Broadway. She starred in “The Music Man” and in “Candide,” by, as she referred to him in a memoir published last year, LEONARD BERNSTEIN, in capital letters. “He was already LEONARD BERNSTEIN, so I was, as usual, nervous as hell,” she wrote.
She said in the memoir — “Then and Now,” written with Tom Santopietro — that the music Bernstein wrote for her part as Cunegonde was filled with notes so high that a lot of them were off the staff: four E-flats above high C, six D-flats above high C, 16 B-flats and 21 high Cs. She could hit them all.
But she wrote that by the late 1960s, she was all but unemployable because she was “a drunk — not a nice, ladylike drinker, but a drunk.” A few pages later, she added, “My life was a complete mess.”
Then, in her late 40s, she contradicted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about no second acts by reinventing herself as a solo performer. Carnegie Hall served as a bookend. A 1975 concert there opened the way. Her last public appearance was there, too, as a surprise guest at Kelli O’Hara’s solo concert last fall.
The symbolism was not lost on Ms. O’Hara. “Let me be personal,” she said last week, “as a woman who is where I am, agewise, which is you’ve finished that beautiful climb to establish yourself and now it’s where am I headed? You remember that she made a second half in life. That’s pretty powerful for someone like me.”
Ms. Cook’s career seems all the more remarkable, considering that she does not read music. Ms. O’Hara, who does, said that might have been a secret of Ms. Cook’s success.
“If you have the page in front of you, you get caught up in it — ‘That’s an eighth note,’” Ms. O’Hara said. “You might ask, ‘Why is Barbara Cook such a good interpreter?’ Maybe it’s that she never cemented what was written. She made it her own.”
But if Ms. Cook was Broadway royalty, she wowed the classical set, too. The lyric soprano Amy Burton discovered her through the recording of “Candide” and, years later, marveled at the continuing freshness of her voice.
Robert Caplin for The New York Times
“She has a quality about her that reminds you of Ella Fitzgerald,” Ms. Burton said. “There’s a clarity, and the text is impeccable.”
All that flashed through Ms. Burton’s mind as one of those New York moments played out. One night nearly 20 years ago, as intermission at the Metropolitan Opera was winding down and the audience was returning to its seats for the next act of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” there she was, going down the same aisle: BARBARA COOK.
Ms. Burton could not resist saying hello. “I said, ‘I’m such a huge fan, and you are the greatest Cunegonde that ever was,’” Ms. Burton recalled last week. “She said, ‘Shhhh, don’t say that around here.’ She was being funny. If this were on Facebook, I would now put in a winkie emoji.”
It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.
A hundred-to-one shot, they call him a klutz,
Can outrun the favorite, all he needs is the guts.
Barbara Cook fans have their Barbara Cook moments — when they realized that she was the soundtrack for the best first date ever, when they realized that Liza Minnelli really was 30 feet away at another table at the Café Carlyle, when they understood that there was more to Barbara Cook than sunny numbers like “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.” There were the songs by Stephen Sondheim — complicated, technically demanding, transcendent.
“Her own life experience allows the necessary gravitas needed for a canon of work that runs incredibly deep and wide,” observed the pianist Lee Musiker, her music director since 2007.
Mr. LeGrant’s favorite moment is from years earlier, when Ms. Cook starred in “She Loves Me” on Broadway. This was in 1963, and he was 3 ½ years old. Reviewing the show in The New York Times, Howard Taubman praised the range she brought to her role: “Barbara Cook is testy and tender and sweet as the heroine.” Also in the cast was Jack Cassidy, who had charmed Mr. LeGrant during a brief backstage introduction sometime earlier.
Mr. LeGrant was taken to a performance. “It was the first time I was allowed to see my mother onstage,” he said, “and my mother made it very clear me that when she walked onstage, I was not to shout, ‘That’s my mommy.’”
“Here we are in the darkened theater” — the Eugene O’Neill, on West 49th Street — “and I had a memory of my mother’s admonition,” Mr. LeGrant recalled, “so as soon as Jack Cassidy came on, I stood up and said, ‘That’s my friend Jack Cassidy.’”
If Mr. LeGrant remembers his mother’s admonition, he does not remember her reaction. “I think,” he said, “that she just shook her head.”