Barbara Cook: Toast Of Broadway

<B>Mike Wallace</B> Interviews Legendary Broadway Singer

Here is what the toughest - some will say the meanest - theater critic in New York wrote recently about Barbara Cook's current show at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York.

"Cook is 76 and overweight," wrote critic John Simon, "but the instant she starts to sing, she is the slender ingénue of yore. It's something as close to bliss as we'll ever know in the theater."

When 60 Minutes first broadcast this profile in Dec. 2001, we told the unhappy tale of a young Broadway star who lost her way, hit bottom hard, and stayed there awhile before she bravely turned her life around. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.
At the age of 74, Cook still has, in the words of a New York Times critic, "The most magnificent voice in popular music."

Forty-four years ago, Cook was the toast of Broadway, originating the role of Marian the librarian in the hit show "The Music Man." She was the hometown girl who won the heart of the fast-talking con man, played by Robert Preston, and she won a Tony Award for it.

She also appeared in productions of "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "Plain and Fancy," "Candide," and "She Loves Me." It was glorious fulfillment for her, because as a youngster growing up in Atlanta, that was all she ever wanted to do.

"I can't remember when I didn't sing. I sang for my family. And I think probably the first time I sang and got paid for it, I was about 6 or 7," recalls Cook. "On Saturday afternoons, there was a film, of course, and then we did about four shows between the films. And I would do a tap dance, a little military tap."

In 1948, on a visit to New York City with her mother, she made her big move. She was 20, and she told her mother that she was going to stay in the city. She paid her bills by working as a typist, and she kept on trying, auditioning.

And finally, within just three years, she got herself a lead role in a Broadway show, which got great reviews, but turned out to be a flop.

Back then, Cook says she didn't consider herself slim, blonde, pretty or attractive. "I look back at photographs and I remember at the time I thought I was not very attractive," says Cook. "And I'd look and I'd think, 'You must have been out of your mind. You know, you looked great.'"

Along the way, she married a comedian, David Legrant, and they had a son. But she and Legrant divorced in 1965 and it was around this time when her career began to slow almost to a halt. And that, it turns out, was when she began to gain a lot of weight.

"If you're happy, you eat. If you're sad, you eat. You lose a job, you eat. You get a job, you eat. It's, you know, it's addiction," says Cook, who admits that drinking was also a big part of her life.

"I did that for years. I stopped drinking because my body simply would not do it anymore. And fortunately, when I saw that I might not be able to work, that did it for me."

In the mid-'60s, Cook said: "Here I am, the quintessential ingénue, but past her prime, overweight, and I didn't know where to aim myself."

"I remember feeling that. I couldn't do, nor did I want to do, the kinds of roles I'd been doing," says Cook. "And another thing was, 'Oh, well, I can't work until I lose weight,' and so forth and so on. It's a good thing I didn't wait for that."
On Jan. 26, 1975, Cook was suddenly reborn during a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall. And when the recording of that concert was released, her fans lined up to take home what they'd been missing.

The accompanist who helped her put together that Carnegie Hall concert, and all that followed, was veteran Broadway music arranger Wally Harper. For 27 years, she's been coming to Harper's Manhattan apartment to rehearse.

They say it's not unlike a marriage. "We won't fight now like we do sometimes, but we'll behave and get -- no, we don't fight a lot, but, you know, sometimes," says Harper.

With Cook no longer in demand for Broadway musicals, Harper has guided her in what has turned out to be her second career, as a cabaret and concert performer.

If you've begun to see why people fall in love with her, you're in good company. Actor Anthony Hopkins, who acknowledges that he too had his problems with alcohol, is a big fan.

"We had a lot of stuff in common and we both had been through the mill, and been through our particular bad times. And she talked, I think, quite freely about it," says Hopkins. "And then it was my 60th birthday and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if I had a singer to come and entertain us all?' And the first person came to my mind was Barbara Cook."

So what's so extraordinary about Cook's voice?

"When I saw her in London, it was in a big space, I remember, but she seemed to touch you directly. And that's what happened in the party that I had. She's singing directly to you," says Hopkins.

"It's a weird, strange technique, or magic, whatever you want to call it. I think all the great artists have that. They have a personal effect on you. You think that they're singing to you."
At the root of her appeal is her willingness to lay bare her emotions.

"What actors need to do is to find a way to show people their despair, their joy, their pain, their exhilaration," says Cook. "All of these deep, deep emotional things, good and bad, so that if you're able to do that, then there's a kind of resonance that happens."

For some 20 years now, she's been trying to help young singers find their core by teaching master classes. She admonishes them to 'Simply be yourself.'

"Young people who are just starting out somehow need to let you know they know how to sing," says Cook. "So the message becomes, 'Look, I can sing.' And--' Fine. OK. So you can sing. What are you going to do with it?'"

At Juilliard, Cook tries to get the young students to reach the deep, genuine feeling behind the lyrics. "The very place where safety lies for us is the thing that seems most dangerous," says Cook. "And that is having the courage to let people really, really into what life has done to us."

So, at 74, is she thinking about retiring? "I have absolutely no desire and no thought of quitting ever," says Cook. "Even within the last three or four years, I have a greater ability to communicate, I think. I have more courage to show the stuff. … And it does take courage."
  • Rebecca Leung

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes