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Barbara Cook

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 13, 2017
Category: Cabaret

I’m not a fan of musicals. Or cabaret singers. Or even the Great American Song Book. So I’m one of maybe three adults in this city who knew Barbara Cook’s name and reputation but never heard her sing.

Barbara Cook died last week, at 89. I read the New York Times obituary less for any interest in her artistic career than for the biography: early success in Broadway musicals, “alcoholism, depression and obesity,” and an even greater second career in concert halls and cabarets. She didn’t hide her personal struggles; she used them to create a stage persona that was no persona at all. “Authentic” and “transparent” were her base line. And by opening herself, she enabled her ever-growing legion of fans — many of them gay in a time when the government literally didn’t care of they lived or died — to open themselves to her. Her Carnegie Hall concert, recorded when she was 47, began with a 15-minute ovation. Note: began. Before she sang a note. [To buy the MP3 of “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” click here. Or consider “Loverman.” To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3, click here.]

What really made me more than casually interested in Barbara Cook was a second article in the Times, In Barbara Cook’s Final Days, Her Friends Came to Sing at Her Bedside. How often does that happen? And how amazing when it does. (And wouldn’t you like your friends to do something like that for you?)

A few years ago, she wrote a memoir. It wasn’t a vanity production: “My life has had its ups and downs like everybody else’s. And I thought that if I write this and it’s compelling, maybe people who are in trouble, who were drinkers, or whatever, will see that you can have a whole second life.” [To buy the book of “Then and Now” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And, finally, I listened to Barbara Cook. Her second-career was, of course, a Sondheim-fest, because those are the modern love songs of age and experience.

She had said, “The only way to be safe on stage is to take off all your clothes. If you are not hiding anything, you are safe.” So you may imagine the effect of her delivering lyrics like this: “Loving you is not a choice./ It’s who I am./ Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice./ But it gives me purpose, gives me voice/ to say to the world, this is why I live.” That’s from this song:

And these lyrics! “No fears, no tears — remember there’s always tomorrow./ So what if we have to part?/ We’ll be together again./ Your kiss, your smile, are memories I’ll treasure forever. So try thinking with your heart… Parting is not goodbye./ We’ll be together again.”

The song that’s most frequently cited as her signature is “In Buddy’s Eyes.” No matter where you are in a relationship, it’s an arrow to the heart.

Life is slow but it seems exciting
‘Cause Buddy’s there.
Gourmet cooking and letter-writing
And knowing Buddy’s there.
Every morning –don’t faint —
I tend the flowers. Can you believe it?
Every weekend I paint
For umpteen hours.
And yes, I miss a lot
Living like a shut-in.
No, I haven’t got
Cooks and cart and diamonds.
Yes, my clothes are not
Paris fashions, but in
Buddy’s eyes
I’m young, I’m beautiful.
In Buddy’s eyes
I don’t get older.
So life is ducky
And time goes flying
And I’m so lucky
I feel like crying,
And…in Buddy’s eyes
I’m young, I’m beautiful.
In Buddy’s eyes
I can’t get older.
I’m still the princess,
Still the prize.
In Buddy’s eyes
I’m young, I’m beautiful.
In Buddy’s arms,
On Buddy’s shoulder
I won’t get older.
Nothing dies.
And all I ever dreamed I’d be,
The best I ever thought of me,
Is every minute there to see
In Buddy’s eyes.

It’s like a master class in collaboration. Sondheim. Cook. From one of his songs: “What’s hard is simple/What’s natural comes hard.” Words to live by. But mostly, right now, puddles.


Barbara Cook, on “Fresh Air,” the taped interview with Terry Gross and transcript.

“An Evening with Barbara Cook,” broadcast on PBS in 1980