Broadway Legend Barbara Cook Dies At Age 89

Variety reports:

Barbara Cook, the golden-age Broadway ingenue who became a beloved cabaret and concert performer in the second act of her career, has died. She was 89. Her son, Adam LeGrant, confirmed to Variety that she died early Tuesday morning at her home in Manhattan, surrounded by friends and family.

Known for her rich, clear soprano with an astonishing range, Cook shot to Broadway fame in “Candide” and won a Tony for her turn in the original 1957 production of “The Music Man.”

In later years, she was hailed as one of the premier interpreters of the songs of Stephen Sondheim, thrilling audiences with both her technical skill and her ability to mine a song for the depth and complexity of its emotions. She received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2011.

Cook’s last meal was reportedly vanilla ice cream.

  • Truly, the saddest day. Rest in peace, Miss Cook. You are beloved!

  • coram nobis

    Perhaps the most appropriate one for today.

    • coram nobis

      (As a Smithsonian music commentator pointed out, note her treatment of the simple phrase, “Oh, well.” First time, tossed off; second time, more poignant; third time, a deeply-emotional portamento.)

      • jsmukg

        (Yes. Sadly, the pianist is vulgar and obvious even as Ms. Cook is the epitome of sublime refinement–if only it had been, say, Marian McPartland or Bill Evans playing for her.)

        • Ernest Endevor

          Sorry, but are you nuts? The piano is ravishing. Remember that we’re talking a show tune as arranged for a cabaret. Neither Evans, great musician that he was, nor McPartland, played this kind of music.

    • SFBruce

      What a wonderful song by a wonderful singer. If I’m not mistaken, she was around 80 when this was recorded. Fischer-Dieskau (obviously a completely different singer) said singers have to face two deaths: the death of their voice, and later, their physical death. I know Barbara Cook had more than her share of difficulties, but she was lucky to be long-lived in both respects. A completely uniquely wonderful singer is gone, but thanks to recordings, her voice will be with us forever. RIP.

      • Cook is not unlike DFD in terms of commitment to both words and music. It’s interesting that you would talk about them in the same paragraph. The only singer of American popular/Broadway songs that would be her equal in that regard is Ella Fitzgerald.

        • SFBruce

          Yes, DFD and Cook are similar in that regard. Among classical singers, especially, sometimes beauty of line is sacrificed for good diction and word painting, or a beautiful line somehow swallows the words, but not DFD who, for me, will always be at the top of my list of great singers. And yes, Ella Fitzgerald is another miracle, who sounded so fresh and so young for so long.

          • That is the struggle for every singer. We want to serve the music as well as the text. Often we sacrifice one for the other. Some manage to serve both at all times and those singers are legendary.

    • Ernest Endevor

      Lovely arrangement. Wally Harper is credited on the sleeve, and he was one of the absolute best. Haven’t heard the song given that kind of bluesy slant before. Of course they cut it in the movie. Lovely to hear. Thanks.

  • jsmukg

    My husband’s younger sister was one of the children in a run of ‘The King and I’ which starred Barbara Cook and Farley Granger. Mr. Granger was formidably studly; imagine something which eclipsed even his good looks. My husband saw many rehearsals and all fourteen performances and said that Barbara Cook became his idol instantly, not only for her ravishing singing and acting but for her tremendous kindness and generosity to every kid in the show.

    The world is immeasurably poorer without Saint Barbara.

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  • Johnny Wyeknot

    She outlived so many of her gay fans. RIP.

    • Librarykid

      They have her back with them forever as of today.

      • Johnny Wyeknot

        For some, like BF#3, it’s been a long wait.

  • another_steve

    An extraordinarily talented performer. And very queer-friendly.

    My husband and I saw her perform with the Gay Men’s Chorus of D.C. at one of their concerts.

  • M Jackson

    This was a Broadway legend who could make your heart stop with the simplest of emotional delivery. Her gorgeous soprano will live forever, we all heard it ringing!

  • JoeMyGod
    • pj

      8 times a week is right. the song is the mount everest in musical theatre. its long and fucking difficult. she made it look easy. great loss today. she wont be easily replaced. thanks for this vid joe. hes very very funny.

      • Interestingly enough we mostly here Glitter and Be Gay from young operatic sopranos who need an English language piece for competitions. Rarely does it go as well as they’d hoped. For one thing it’s a difficult acting assignment in addition to being vocally demanding.

  • BeaverTales

    She unexpectedly retired 2 months ago, and no word about her illness then either.

  • “Cook’s last meal was reportedly vanilla ice cream.”
    Goddam right.

  • Ken

    What a loss. I saw her perform a couple of times. She was unforgettable. She had that rare ability to make every song feel like autobiography, with a gorgeous voice to boot.

  • SLK in SF

    One of the very few times “legend” isn’t hyperbole. Here she is in 2013 — in her 80s! Sure, the voice had lost a bit of its famous precision, but she still had it going on.

  • LeftyNYC

    I once had the privilege of attending a party where many theatre greats were singing, including Barbara Cook. Betty Comden had just died, so as a tribute, Ms. Cook sang “Long Before I Knew You” from BELLS ARE RINGING. After Barbara Cook sang, the piano was closed– no one would dare follow such perfection.

  • Vira

    “Relax, let go, let fly…..”

    Thank you, beautiful Barbara Cook, for helping me appreciate Broadway more.

  • Jeffg166

    “Stars” sung by Barbara Cook, written by Janis Ian

    My favorite song by her.

    • M Jackson

      How beautiful.

  • another_steve

    Arguably the loveliest song from “Candide” – one that has become a staple of some LGBT choruses.

    Rest in peace, Ms. Cook.

    • j.martindale

      West Side Story was a great show, but I actually prefer Candide. It will never date.

      • another_steve

        Whatever Leonard Bernstein touched glowed.

        • j.martindale

          (Well, not his Mass, I am afraid. Jewish boys don’t usually have a good handle on things like that.)

          • another_steve

            Hon, it was a Jewish boy who established the original mass. 😉

          • j.martindale

            That is funny. His Mass is still a mess.

      • Ernest Endevor

        It’ a much better show, even though nowadays its usually handled with a ham-fisted jokiness that refuses to take the story seriously. It failed in New York and in London. Thank god, we have the recording.

        • j.martindale

          But the story is the broadest of satire. Voltaire is hilarious.

          • Ernest Endevor

            I’ve come to understand how he wanted to end his days working his garden. Though I doubt he was uprooting much poison ivy.

  • worstcultever

    My first childhood crush was not on a person but a voice – Barbara Cook singing “My White Knight.”

    RIP. We were so lucky to have you.

    • ClevelandJim


  • j.martindale

    Beverly Sills was the greatest coloratura soprano of all time in my books, but Cook’s performance in Candide, which I remember listening to on an old record player at the Park Ridge public library way back in ’59, is really in competition!

    • Ernest Endevor

      I know what you mean but she really wasn’t am operatic soprano. She was absolutely a creature of Broadway. The quality of voice and pos are just different.

      • j.martindale

        Do you really think so? I find much of what Cook did very close to the operetta work of Sills. Sills was often criticized, of course, for not adhering to the strict operatic presentation. Her early training was somewhat idiosyncratic. Her earliest work was with a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan company, which really provided the seeds of the musical theatre.

  • Puckfair52
    Singing Janis Ian’s Stars!

  • barrixines

    Oh this makes me very sad indeed. I remember going to see her in London – and take away my gay card here – without really knowing anything about her. The theatre was only half full and they moved everyone from the cheaper seats downstairs. It didn’t augur well. The appearance of this elderly very overweight woman further suggested we might be in for a less than stellar evening. And then she sang. It was absolutely joyous, her wonderful voice soaring, the warmth of her personality flooding the room. I would say it was perhaps the second happiest night I’d ever had at the theatre. The happiest was the following evening when I went back bought a ticket for the gods and ended up with a stalls front row seat. Not that I used it that much as I was on my feet after every song.

    Thank you Ms Cook for bringing something beautiful to my life.

  • royinhell

    “The parts for boys you play against they bring out all the clones to do
    And movie roles you live to play they give to Shirley Jones to do!”

    • Ernest Endevor

      That’s just what I sat down to try to find. From the record of her Carnegie Hall concert.

  • JoyZeeBoy

    Check out Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction of Barbara’s original cast recording of “Glitter and Be Gay.” He absolutely KVELLS over her E’s. On a personal note, I saw Barbara perform at Reno Sweeney’s way back in the late 70’s, not long after I moved to NY. She was magnificent.

    • Ernest Endevor

      Help me, where was Reno Sweeney’s? 47th St? I remember seeing her at Brothers and Sisters but might have it mixed up.

      • TuuxKabin

        Hmmmm, further downtown as I recall, in the Village. I’ll be back, going to go search.

        Found it: clubs, the name Reno Sweeney, taken from a character in ”Anything Goes,” has a special significance. From 1972 until it was sold in 1979, the intimate West 13th Street club was at the hub of a cabaret revival that was finally curtailed by the onslaught of disco. During its seven-year life, Reno Sweeney offered a platform for a new generation of performers, including Peter Allen, Melissa Manchester and the Manhattan Transfer.

        • Ernest Endevor

          West 13the Street. So I did see her with Wally H in Brothers and Sisters. I think it’s possible that B Cook made her first re-appearance at Reno’s.

          • TuuxKabin

            While visiting Manhattan in 1948 with her mother, Cook decided to stay and try to find work as an actress.[4] She began to sing at clubs and resorts, eventually procuring an engagement at the Blue Angel club in 1950. She made her Broadway debut a year later, as Sandy in the short-lived 1951 musical Flahooley.[1] She landed another role quickly, portraying Ado Annie in the 1951 City Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma![5] and stayed with the production when it went on its national tour the following year.


      • JoyZeeBoy

        126 W. 13th.

  • Ernest Endevor

    With the terrible sadness brought by this death I’m also remembering her accompanist and arranger; the man who found her in a bar, overweight and drunk, and said “What the hell are you doing with yourself”? Who got her back to a piano and back to singing. And then arranged and conducted for her like no one else till his, way too early, death. The late, and very great Wally Harper. If there’s a cabaret in heaven I know where Barbara Cook is now.

  • JWC

    another great one gone

  • TuuxKabin

    Glad we got to see her at WolfTrapp, even if it was long ago.

    Vanilla ice cream for dessert this evening and an evening of her wonderful voice.

    Thank you Barbara Cook. So great you are. Rest in Love and Eternal Peace.

  • She performed at Yankee Stadium for the closing ceremonies of Gay Games ’94. Also saw her in the concourse where she was nothing but gracious.
    FYI – LOVE telling my straight friends how I walked on the field of Yankee Stadium during the parade of teams.

  • Hank

    Before I left DC, there was a Summer of Sondheim. They had various of his musicals at the Kennedy Center, and I managed to see at least four. I also managed to see Mandy Patankin in concert, as well as Barbara Cook. She was, of course, phenomenal!!! I also saw a TV presentation years earlier of Follies in Concert, in which she was one of the main leads.
    Here are my 2 favorite songs, that she performed:
    Losing My Mind

    • Hank
      • David Walker

        One of the things I love about these two songs is that she complained…I think in the documentary…that there was no time in the 3-day rehearsal to get inside and look around to see what was in the songs. That she nailed both is obvious. I think, though, that was her first time singing Sondheim. From there she became one of his chief interpreters.

        Someone called her “a song’s best friend.” Indeed.

        • Hank

          Which is probably why I have 8 of her albums as well as the Follies in Concert.

    • Ken

      This has always been my favourite clip of Cook singing. She just nails this song.

  • when i was a terrified little closeted teenager, living with depression and anxiety every day, i came across Barbara Cook’s live rendition of “Anyone Can Whistle” – it’s not exaggeration to say that that recording literally changed and saved my life, as it pulled me out of a horrible spiral of loneliness; i felt less alone, i felt understood, i felt as if someone out there understood what it meant to feel like how i felt. Thank you Barbara Cook.

  • The Professor

    This loss is especially sad. She was a treasure.

  • CharlestonDave

    Barbara Cook was the voice giving me confidence during my childhood. I am teary-eyed to hear of her passing. She had a hopefulness in her singing that made me believe there was something beautiful in life. Once I could finally afford it, I made my way to NYC just to hear her perform at the Café Carlyle. That evening was the defining performance of what intimate cabaret could be. I hope they dim the lights on Broadway tonight.

  • Piet

    I fell in love with her as a gayby when I first heard the Music Man original cast, carried a Candide around with me for years until a careless roomie broke the disk. It’s a great grief for me that I never saw her live. She was an artist of magic and wisdom.

  • GayOldLady

    She had great talent and great presence. She had admirers, friends and family. She had a full and exciting life. She lived well and long. Who could ask for anything more?

  • JCF

    She will be profoundly missed (thankfully, her recordings will live on!). RIP.

  • David Walker

    A song’s best friend.

    This one hurts. I was in college in the mid-’60s, and while I usually took songs at face value, there were a few that I translated to gay. It was obvious that I’d never hear a man sing this (I actually did, though, last year), but I always had the feeling that she was singing it with us in mind, too. I sang it every time I went out on “a date”…in college and right up through Jack’s and my “courtship.” We both knew the song and both admitted to singing it just before the first time we met.

    Jack was editor of the Philadelphia Gay News at the time, so he got lots of free tickets. Ms. Cook sang her Carnegie Hall concert at the Academy of Music. Of course, there was a reception after and I was scared shitless of being introduced to her. Her smile put me at ease and we had actually had a nice little talk, which included how I loved “Will He Like Me?”

    What I’ve enjoyed reading these tributes is that so many of us heard her when we were young…not just those of us who remember “The Music Man,” but those younger than us. I’m very pleased about that.

  • One of the great singer/actors of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. Anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with her work is in for a treat.

  • barryearle

    Many years ago, there was a wonderful concert hall in Pasadena called the Ambassador Auditorium which was part of a church-based college. As I remember it, the first event there was a concert by Barbara Cook. This was the beginning of her second career. She had a problem with stage fright and used alcohol to deal with it, becoming an alcoholic. In time, it ended her stage career. With the encouragement of her friend and accompanist, she found the courage to stand in front of an audience again. I feel very fortunate to have attended her “coming out” concert. A remarkable talent. And to think she was never able to read music! (By the way, neither can Mandy Patinkin.) Absolutely amazing.