Theatre world mourns the loss of actress and singer Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook, whose nonpareil career stretched from dazzling portrayals in classic Broadway musicals to iconic performances in concert halls and cabarets, died on 8 August at the age of 89. The cause was reported to be respiratory failure.

Cook made her Broadway debut in 1951 as the ingenue lead in the short-lived musical Flahooley, then moved on to revivals of Carousel and Oklahoma!

After a turn in Plain and Fancy in 1955-56, her glittering soprano was given a formidable showcase in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

That was followed by perhaps her best-known role, Marian the librarian, in the Meredith Willson blockbuster, The Music Man.

Later she triumphed again in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s She Loves Me. Other book musical appearances included The Gay Life, The Grass Harp and revivals of Show Boat and The King and I.

She also appeared in several non-musicals, but bouts with depression, weight and alcoholism took their toll.

However, her career re-emerged with a brilliant second act. In a long partnership with accompanist Wally Harper, she became an interpreter of songs both familiar and unfamiliar, bringing to them a deepened musicality and appreciation of lyrics, drawing audiences both to concert halls and cabarets in addition to her recordings.

Her renditions of the songs of Stephen Sondheim became paradigms. In 1985, she appeared in a renowned concert version of Sondheim’s Follies, and her 2001 concert Mostly Sondheim was acclaimed in both London and New York. In 2010, she returned to Broadway in the musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

A concert based on her 2016 memoir, Then and Now, was scheduled for a limited Off-Broadway engagement last year, but was later cancelled, with mobility problems for the performer cited.

A one-minute dimming of Broadway marquees to mark Cook’s passing has been scheduled for today (9 August). Meanwhile, tributes from fans and colleagues made their way onto Twitter.

Laura Benanti, who in the recent revival of She Loves Me played the role Cook created, wrote: “Thank you for inspiring so many of us. You will not be forgotten.”

Vanessa Williams, who co-starred with Cook in Sondheim on Sondheim, wrote: “Loved every moment together. Honoured to have called you friend.”

Steve Martin recalled: “Barbara Cook enchanted my youth with her performance in The Music Man.”

And Mia Farrow assayed: “Some heavenly choir just gained a magnificent voice – and we have lost Barbara Cook.”

       Ron Cohen


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