Til There Was You: A Tribute to Barbara Cook

Til There Was You: A Tribute to Barbara Cook

Kelli Butler

Today, the music world lost a legend. That term is often tossed around rather lightly, but in the case of Barbara Cook, it is supremely fitting. No one who has the claim of originating Cunegonde in Candide, Marian in The Music Man, & Amalia in She Loves Me; who has given fantastic, award-winning performances as Julie in Carousel, Anna in The King and I, as well as untold amazing concert appearances and recordings including a stellar turn in Follies with the NY Philharmonic, Sondheim on Sondheim...well, you get the idea - no one who has done all she did is anything less than legend. She gave us joy and wonder in every performance, with her final appearance at age 88, just last year.     

The first time I heard the name Barbara Cook, I was 16 years old. I’d just completed a run of Meet Me in St Louis at my arts high school, and a man name RC Thor came up to me and said, “There is a singer I think you need to hear.” He gave me a folder with the sheet music for Vanilla Ice Cream and the original Broadway cast recording of She Loves Me. I was hooked. With the help of my director Todd James I took that piece - with a heavy dose of Barbara - to the Texas statewide meeting of the International Thespian Society, and won their musical theatre division. It was the first time I’d won anything for singing, and that was me set on my way. (I did, however, have to promise Todd very solemnly that I wouldn’t touch Glitter and be Gay til I was older. And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I came to New York to go to college not long after, attending the opera conservatory at SUNY Purchase. One day, halfway through my freshman year, I got a call from RC - Barbara was going to be performing at my college. He flew up, bought me the first of six (!) tickets to a Barbara Cook concert, and I was introduced to the magic that was Barbara Cook and Wally Harper. For anyone who didn’t have the great joy to see her live, the best way I can describe it is magical; she had a way of making everything she said and sang so personal that you may as well have been sitting in a room, just the two of you and Wally. She had a gift that all performers strive for and not many achieve - the ability to completely and utterly make herself vulnerable and emotionally open in her singing. 

After the performance, my star-struck self was taken backstage with RC and some of the other members of Barbara’s fan society to actually meet her. I’m fairly sure I stammered like an idiot when RC introduced me and told her I was covering the Queen of the Night in the conservatory’s production of The Magic Flute. I’ll never forget this; she smiled, looked right at me and said: “Oh honey, I don’t think you’ll be just covering that for long.” (I ended up taking over the role, and have sung Queen many times since, including next year in Florida.)

Me and Ms. Cook

Me and Ms. Cook

I saw her five more times in performance; once more at Purchase, once at Cafe Carlyle, TWICE at Carnegie Hall, and in the phenomenal revue Sondheim on Sondheim. Three of those times, RC was with me again, the final two also including his husband Gary. Once as a junior I saw her sitting five rows ahead of me at the Metropolitan Opera at a performance of Madama Butterfly; against all my better judgment, I approached her at the interval and (stammering again), asked her if I could have a hug (come on, you would too). Not only did she say of course and give me a huge hug, she then looked at me and said, “Aren’t you that girl from Purchase? Did you get to sing the Queen?” I’m fairly sure I became a puddle on the floor at that point.

Her final Carnegie Hall concert, RC & Gary - newly married - and myself were in the very front row. It was her 85th birthday concert, and it felt even more personal than anything I’d seen prior. She never shied away from speaking about her history of depression, alcoholism, and eating issues; rather, she celebrated the life that led her to where she was. At one point, the bane of every singer - dust - caught her out with a coughing fit. She looked at us all, said “Can you believe this s---?”, called for some water, and started over. She laughed it off, we laughed it off, and it was a lesson in handling the unexpected.

For any singer who was privileged enough to see her perform live, you received a true masterclass in wit, emotional involvement, and very importantly, doing all that without compromising the sound you made. Very famously, she never used a microphone for encores, and she didn’t need one; that classically trained sound could be heard at the back of the hall. Don’t ask her to sing Candide, though; as one person found out, she would pull out a kazoo and play the overture.

Today, there have been many obituaries, I’m sure some pre-written, listing her amazing and storied achievements. Some even talk about her personal life, and how she overcame her divorce, alcoholism, depression, and so many other struggles to shine again when she was never expected to. For many of us - I’d say all of us - who loved her, it is a loss that feels so very personal because she always brought so much of herself to every performance. 

When the Kennedy Center honored her (in my personal opinion, far overdue!) in 2011, she was greeted by a star studded cast to sing hits from many of her shows such as Music Man, She Loves Me, Follies, & Plain and Fancy - though no one touched Glitter and be Gay, they ended with a stirring, joyous chorus of Make Our Garden Grow from Candide. Barbara mouthed the words to all of the performances, tears in her eyes. A career spanning six decades, countless lives touched; what artist could ask for anything more?

For those of us who love you, I can honestly say this loss feels deeply personal; for 17 years, she has been an integral role model and part of my life as a singer. For her close friends and family, I can’t even imagine; for the music world as a whole, the loss is incalculable - we can only be grateful we had her as long as we did.

Farewell, Barbara. The sun comes up...we’ll think about you.  

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