Bidding Adieu to That Wondrous Songbird Barbara Cook

Bidding Adieu to That Wondrous Songbird Barbara Cook


He recalled meeting Ms. Cook in 1982, when he was taking voice lessons from her longtime collaborator Wally Harper, in preparation for his planned Broadway debut as “a musical-comedy performer” (a career step that audiences were eventually spared, he assured us), and Ms. Cook stopped by the apartment.

The meeting was not a fortuitous one.

“Barbara was quite remote,” Mr. Langella told the audience, adding that she struck him as a “very sad, very lonely” woman, one who had “lost an exquisite young career to alcoholism and neuroses.”

He added, “What an old lady she was to my eyes: 55. ‘Finished and done,’ I thought, as I left Wally’s apartment.”

But Ms. Cook was not done. She was not finished.

As Mr. Langella recalled, just a few years later Ms. Cook was performing in a concert version of “Follies” at Lincoln Center, singing the role of Sally Durant, a performance that rebooted her career and began a decades-long association with Stephen Sondheim, including a return to Broadway in 2010 in her Tony-nominated role in “Sondheim on Sondheim.”

Mr. Langella was preceded by a video message in which Mr. Sondheim talked about that Lincoln Center production of “Follies,” and introduced a film clip of Ms. Cook in the rehearsal studio, singing a transformative rendition of “In Buddy’s Eyes.” Most of the other performers, including Lee Remick and a very young Mandy Patinkin, watched in rapt admiration. But the mood was broken — as Mr. Sondheim warned the memorial’s audience it would be — hilariously, by a scene-stealing, chain-smoking Elaine Stritch.

Ms. Cook and Mr. Langella later became close friends, sharing gossip in phone calls that might begin at 2 or 3 a.m. (“She was the only friend from whom I would get a cheery ‘hello’ when I called at that hour,” he said.)

That friendship was tested only once, Mr. Langella said: when he invited Ms. Cook to accompany him to a dinner party that Barbara Walters was holding at her apartment. Ms. Cook “nervously accepted,” he recalled, “but said, ‘Stay close to me. They’re not my crowd.’”

After dinner, Ms. Walters asked Ms. Cook to sing. She “politely refused,” said Mr. Langella. “But Barbara Walters is not an easy person to resist.” Eventually, Ms. Cook agreed to perform, huddling with the pianist for about 15 minutes, and then, with her eyes tightly closed and her hands balled into a fist, quietly sang, “You’ll Never Know.”

When she finished, Ms. Cook refused a request to do an encore, walked over to Mr. Langella, sat down next to him on the couch, her hands shaking, and whispered into his ear, “I’ll never forgive you for this,” adding a expletive for effect.

“Luckily,” Mr. Langella said, “she eventually did.”

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