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Book Reviews

Then & Now: A Memoir by Barbara Cook

A STORIED CAREER

By MATT WINDMAN

Singer and actress Barbara Cook looks back at her long and erratic career.

Singer and actress Barbara Cook looks back at her long and erratic career in the breezy and informative Then & Now: A Memoir, which was co-written with Tom Santopietro (The Sound of Music Story) and published by HarperCollins. Now 88 years old, Cook went from growing up in the Deep South to scoring lead ingénue roles in several classic musicals (The Music ManCandideShe Loves Me) and interesting flops and rarities (Flahooley,Plain and FancyThe Gay Life) during Broadway’s Golden Age, to falling victim to alcoholism, depression, and obesity, to making a major comeback as a cabaret artist and leading interpreter of the Great American Songbook.

As Cook herself acknowledges, over the years her soprano voice has lowered in key and lost much of its dynamism. I remember how during her 2004 show Barbara Cook’s Broadway, she compared her current rendition of the ultra-challenging comic aria “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide with her performance a half century earlier on the original cast album. Her physical abilities are also increasingly limited. At recent concerts, she has remained sitting in a wheelchair.  

All that said, people continue to admire Cook and attend her performances, and it has a lot to do with how respectful she is towards her material and the importance she places on fully inhabiting and properly interpreting songs by the likes of Sondheim, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. Her concerts are, in effect, masterclasses in musical theater acting. She heeds the advice given to her personally by Judy Garland to treat a song as an “emotional journey.” One could argue that Cook led the way for many of today’s leading actresses such as Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara, who have won acclaim for their nuanced performances and intelligent acting choices.

The book is an enjoyable read for those who have followed Cook’s career and are interested in learning more about the musicals that she has been associated with. The conversational tone makes it seem as if she is informally sharing her stories with the reader over drinks. She is open about how her mother traumatized her emotionally as a child and her personal challenges as an adult, and how they hurt her family and finances and almost destroyed her career. Were it not for those difficulties, can you imagine what roles she may have landed during the 1970s and 1980s?

She includes some great behind-the-scenes anecdotes (including about Elaine Stritch and her involvement in the London premiere of the mega-flop Carrie), but she does not overindulge in gossip, and she does not speak ill of her colleagues. (If you’re looking for that sort of thing, I recommend checking out the memoirs of the notorious Arthur Laurents.) Just like at her shows, Cook is classy. However, she does confess that she found Robert Preston, her co-star from The Music Man, to be thoroughly sexy. Maybe you had to be there…

Earlier this year, plans were underway for Cook to appear Off-Broadway in a one-woman show (to be directed by no less than Tommy Tune) based on the book, but the project has been indefinitely postponed. As an alternative, I recommend reading the book alongside a playlist of her cast albums and concert recordings (including her 1975 Carnegie Hall concert and 2002 Broadway show Mostly Sondheim).