Then and Now: a Memoir
Barbara Cook with Tom Santopietro
New York, NY: Harper, 2016
The word “legend” is applied with casual abandon these days. A recent New York Times ad hailed Idina Menzel as a “legend” with all of two Broadway shows under her belt. Taking nothing away from the estimable Ms. Menzel, true Broadway “legends” are rare, but there is still one among us: Barbara Cook. At age eighty-eight, Cook has published a memoir and, like her singing, it is direct, rhapsodic, and deeply felt. She unwraps a storied career and a turbulent life, reminding readers of the true application of the word “legend.”
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Cook found her way to New York at a very young age and, thanks to her astonishing voice, landed fruitful work almost immediately. She built an enviable Broadway career beginning with Flahooley (1951) and Plain and Fancy (1955), continuing through the classic Candide (1956), the blockbuster The Music Man (1957), the failed The Gay Life (1961), the cherishable She Loves Me (1963), the “collector’s item” The Grass Harp (1971), and numerous on- and off-Broadway revivals including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I, among many others, not to mention the acclaimed Follies in Concert (1985). Her resume of celebrated performance in musical theatre classics established her as an iconic figure.
Cook’s personal story is an all-too familiar one in which career and personal happiness collided. Marriage to actor David LeGrant, whom she credits with helping create some of her earliest characters, and the birth of a son, Adam, lead to a loss of balance. Cook slid into alcoholism following the break-up of her marriage, and her career seemed over by the late 1960s. In the the mid-1970s, however, she gave up drinking and returned to the spotlight as a concert and recording artist, beginning with an acclaimed Carnegie Hall appearance in 1975, accompanied by musical director and pianist Wally Harper, a significant force in shaping her concert and recording career. Performing her stage hits, along with both classic and obscure American popular songs, Cook, whose voice remains a powerful and pliable instrument in her eighties, rejuvenated her career. Continuing to her most recent album, Loverman in 2012, Cook conquered a legion of new fans via new recordings and appearances. Harper’s death in 2004 slowed Cook’s recording work, but she continues to perform, aiming for a one-woman biographical Broadway show in the near future.
The book goes down easily. Cook’s generous (and frank) comments on peers and various shows, and her revealing discussion of her problems in alcohol, obesity, and aging, make Then and Now: A Memoir a page-turner. Written in an easy-going conversational style, it is divided up into short chronological chapters that permit the reader to find Cook’s memories of favorite shows easily; for example, The Music Man is allotted an entire chapter and Cook’s recollections of its triumph and her working relationship with Robert Preston are a true treat. The book is frustrating in its lack of an index, but there are many illustrations. Cook reintroduces the reader to the theatrical greats she encountered across her long career, a proverbial “Who’s Who” of the post-World War II American stage – and her recollections range from poignant to comic, sometimes for the same individual, as with her friend and occasional annoyance, Elaine Stritch.
Cook’s unparalleled career deserves a thorough critical study and well-researched biography, but in the meantime her easy-going memories will serve. For readers interested in musical theatre and the great American songbook (the rich source of Cook’s later-day discography), Then and Now: A Memoir is a pure joy ride.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro