Broadway legend Barbara Cook: A voice as sweet as vanilla ice cream


Chase Ballas

In musical theater, one irrefutable voice soars out from the pack.  With a range that soared from the highest C, and dipped to the lowest of expression and emotion, the voice has filled the largest of theaters to the most intimate of cabaret and concert halls since the 1950s.  On Aug. 8, that voice was lost. 

Barbara Cook was undeniably the greatest pure vocal talent to ever grace the Broadway stage.  With a voice whose aching expression could go from joy to sorrow on the turn of a dime, she set the standard by which all sopranos are judged.  She entered stage right as the aristocratic Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” (in which she introduced the thrilling standard “Glitter and Be Gay,” which rocketed her into stardom), Marian the Librarian in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” (for which she won a Tony Award), and the stern yet frightened clerk Amalia Balash in Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Boch’s “She Loves Me” (introducing her signature number “Vanilla Ice Cream”). Her legendary turns in these roles helped set a new precedent for women in theater: her characters were always written so that they have one foot in the past of the swooning, virtuous days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the other into the future of fully-realized, liberated women with their own voices, opinions and thoughts. 

Plagued by the demands of playing beautiful, young, and thin leads, a depressed and overweight Cook turned to alcohol in the 1960s.  After befriending composer Wally Harper, Cook reinvented herself as a cabaret star in the mid-1970s, playing an iconic engagement at Carnegie Hall as well as other venues in New York City and all over the world.  She helped revive and redefine the one-person show, creating themed plays and musicals with Harper that played on her personal struggles, a standard that other playwrights and talents still use to this day.  With depth and emotion that match her voice, Cook’s notable interpretations of Stephen Sondheim’s music lead to her involvement in a famed 1985 concert production of Sondheim’s “Follies” at Lincoln Center. 

There has never been—and, arguably, never again will be—an artist that has interpreted the works of the Great American Songbook in the same way that Barbara Cook has. Her ability to switch effortlessly between characters who are strong and brave to those who are frail and shattered was legendary. She was the epitome of a Broadway star: versatile and completely original. 

The marquee lights of Broadway will be dimmed for one minute at 7:45pm on Aug. 9 in her memory. 


Photo courtesy of Playbill