Actress and singer Barbara Cook, who died Tuesday, sang on one of the first albums I remember as a child. She was the voice of Marian Paroo, the River City librarian, on the original cast soundtrack of "The Music Man" and while her silvery soprano made an impression, I probably was more focused on learning the patter of Robert Preston as Harold Hill on "Trouble In River City."
As I grew older, she became one of the examples I often used on Why Hollywood Can't Be Trusted With A Broadway Musical. Barbara was passed over in the casting of the film adaptation of "The Music Man," losing the role she debuted to Shirley Jones, no slouch as a singer, but still. Cook had the better voice, Jones the marquee appeal. (Case B: the non-singing Audrey Hepburn cast over Julie Andrews for "My Fair Lady." Don't get me started.)
The light came on when I was in college and got a copy of "Barbara Cook: Live At Carnegie Hall," performed with her longtime collaborator and accompanist Wally Harper.
On songs like "Dear Friend" and "Will He Like Me?" (from "She Loves Me"), "Who Are You Now," "He Was Too Good To Me" and "Time Heals Everything," I found her a master of song interpretation, shading that silver soprano with an emotional nuance that took the listener into the heart, if not soul, of the character.
That 1975 concert, it turned out, was a comeback of sorts for Cook, who had dropped out of the limelight while battling alcoholism, depression and weight issues. She found her niche as a cabaret and concert singer in New York, which she would do for another four decades, winding up with a shelf dotted with Tony Awards, Grammys, Drama Desks and more.
Her song choice — well, hers and Wally's — was often exquisite in marrying lyric to melody and her gift of communicating the story of a song proved a rare talent in an age — our own — where too many measure vocal ability in terms of volume or melismas per minute.
Her vocal palette contained far more than primary colors (check out Seth Rudetsky's insightful YouTube deconstruction of her "Glitter And Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide") and when she sang, it felt like she was singing to you.
I was lucky to see her in person when my wife and I visited New York some years ago. We were near the back row of her solo show at Lincoln Center (lucky to get those tickets, too) and her charm, grace and that lovely voice reached all the way back there. She was eighty years old at the time.
The human voice contains so much and Barbara was a singular talent who knew how to use hers. The lights of Broadway will be dimmed at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday night in her honor, but they glow whenever I hear her sing.