Barbara Cook, who is now 88 years old – the exact number of keys on a piano – has three distinct stories to tell in her new memoir, “Then and Now” (HarperCollins.)
The first is about a poor, unschooled and seriously naive Southern belle from Atlanta with a sad and weird childhood who escaped to New York at 20 and soon became the reigning soprano ingénue on Broadway, originating roles in several celebrated musicals, including The Music Man.
The second describes her descent into alcoholism, depression and over-eating, which, she writes, made her unemployable for years.
The third rejoices in her overcoming her alcoholism (she’s been sober 40 years) and coming back as a sophisticated cabaret, concert and recording artist, a premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook plus Stephen Sondheim. For nearly four decades now, Cook has been playing intimate clubs and performing in prestigious concert halls to great critical and popular acclaim. She has recorded 45 albums, she tells us, nine of them original cast recordings.
There is a fourth story about Barbara Cook between the lines – how an 88-year-old woman is not only still performing; she’s just written her first book. Yes, she worked with a collaborator, Tom Santopietro, but she’s told interviewers that he just helped organize it; she wrote every word. If she likes to consider herself “a work in progress,” the accolades make her sound like an institution. The New York Landmarks Conservancy even designated her a “living landmark.” (“A living landmark? I just want to keep working.”) Still, a landmark deserves respect, even if it may not be what it used to be.
The reverence with which the theater community treats this Tony-winning veteran of 19 Broadway shows will surely allow her to get away with some of the irreverence in her book. She was disappointed, she writes, by both Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and Ethel Merman in “Gypsy,” who were both, Cook implies, sleep-walking through their performances. Of Elaine Stritch, she writes: “It was all Elaine all the time. Me me me me.” Cook even enumerates what Cook considers the inappropriate times when Stritch, who had diabetes, gave herself an insulin shot in public. Cook is especially direct and hilarious in recounting her involvement with the notorious flop Carrie. The original producer told the director she wanted the show to resemble Grease. The director misunderstood, thinking the producer meant Greece, and presented it as a Greek tragedy, complete with costumes “with all kinds of classical era drapery.”
Her assessments usually come off as less catty than frank — in part because they are surrounded with encomiums to the talents of the people she’s criticizing, and in part because Cook herself is her most frequent target. Her bluntness extends to a surprising surfeit of four-letter words from this self-declared “dirty-mouthed old lady.”
“Then and Now” would have benefited from some more diligent editing. Any number of facts, comments and trite phrases are repeated again and again. The book also would have proven more generally useful had the author included brief overviews of the musicals she discusses, rather than apparently assuming that all her readers already knew all about them.
On the other hand, professional or would-be professional performers might find some gems scattered about, such as her description of how she mastered the technically demanding aria “Glitter and Be Gay” in the original production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”: She used self-hypnosis to calm her nerves, and unconsciously (she realized later) relied on her memory of listening as a teenager to a recording of Fay Bainter as Lady Macbeth opposite Orson Welles: “It was real yet highly emotive.”
“Concentrate on what you’re trying to say with this song; the words have to matter,” she says to the students of her master classes at schools like Juilliard. In a couple of pages in which she recounts the advice she gives, she observes “Oftentimes students come in and they just want you to know right away that they can SING in capital letters.They come on like singing machines. Then, slowly, slowly, slowly, I get them to be human beings again. It almost always works. It’s quite exciting and very moving.”
“Then and Now” is probably best appreciated as an accompaniment to the score of Barbara Cook’s life — her singing. Indeed, the plan was to build a one-woman show Off-Broadway around the memoir, directed by Tommy Tune, with Cook singing her signature songs and reading excerpts adapted by James Lapine. That show was canceled — the official and polite version is that it is being postponed. But there was a tacit acknowledgement that it’s unlikely ever to happen, when Cook agreed to a less taxing arrangement — three cabaret appearances at Feinstein’s/54 Below (on June 21, July 21 and July 23.) Barbara Cook hasn’t been able to walk unassisted for about a year now (something not mentioned in her memoir.) She has health issues that have slowed her down. But, as she says and the world knows, she can still sing.
The anecdotes that Cook recounts in the 2016 video below are almost verbatim in her memoir.