At 83, Sondheim on Sondheim’s Barbara Cook is one of the crown jewels of Broadway, one of those names cited whenever anyone—from History of Musical Theater students to Stephen Sondheim himself—talks about the golden age of musical theater. She’s even got her own mythology: a Georgia peach who made her way to New York City in 1948 unable to read a note of music, then went on to make famous roles like Cunegonde in Candide, Marian in The Music Man (winning a Tony Award) and Amalia in She Loves Me. Midlife, she morphed into a cabaret and concert artist so successful that many felt she’d never return to a full Broadway production. With the new musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim, however, Cook’s first new show on the Rialto since 1972, she’s reminding everyone what true star power is all about. We talked to this 2010 Tony Award nominee (for Best Featured Actress in a Musical) about her storied career, and what it’s like to be back where she feels most comfortable.
Let’s go way back. How did you get started in musical theater?
I don’t remember not being able to sing—I breathed and sang. So it was an obvious choice to come to New York and see if I could do something professionally with my singing. I came here in 1948, and in about three years I had my first Broadway show [the now-famous flop Flahooley]. That really isn’t very long, but it felt long at the time. I was fortunate. I came in a really good package. I looked right and sounded right—everything was right for the sort of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that were being done then.
By “right,” do you mean being a classic ingenue?
People have put that tag on me, but actually I didn’t play ingenues. In Plain and Fancy, [Hilda] was a hoyden, really—an energetic little Amish girl, a character role. The next part was Cunegonde in Candide, which is a cartoon. By the end of the production I was an old crone with a hump on my back! In Music Man, Marian was a character who was getting older and afraid she would be a spinster who never married—again, no ingenue. Even when I toured, as in Oklahoma!, I was Ado Annie, the comedy role. So, to me, I never really played ingenue roles.
How has theater changed in the years since you got your start?
It was easier then because there was more work available. There’s always been great competition, of course, but during the early years there might be 60 productions, plays and musicals, announced a season. Not all of them would come in, and we’d almost always go out of town for tryouts, but there was so much work, you could sort of jump around.
What was one of your first gigs?
In the summer of 1950 I went to the Poconos, a place people would go before airfare became less expensive. One of the actors with me the first season was [future She Loves Me co-star] Jack Cassidy. He’d already done 21 Broadway shows at the time we met, because the work was available. I really feel sad for young people who want to do theater now.
What’s the best piece of advice you got early in your career?
“Don’t interrupt so much.” But I think the best advice I can give is: Be absolutely sure this is something that you wouldn’t just like to do. It needs to be something that you must do. People always say, “How do I get started?” If this is something you must do, you’ll find your way. There’s no formula. Each person has found his or her own way, I believe.
What credits made you feel you’d found your way?
The first real job that I had in this part of the country was in Boston at a little club called The Darby Room. We honored the work of a particular composer for a month, but it wasn’t the usual supper club fare. I had the opportunity to sing all sorts of songs that one wouldn’t necessarily expect the sopranos to do. To tell you the truth, I never quite realized how good I was. That’s an important thing. I’m really good, and I didn’t know that early on. Of course, I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on. But it would have been good for me if I had realized earlier how good I was at this.
You were insecure? Was it a stage-fright thing?
Oh gosh, yes. I still have stage fright. I did not have a hell of a lot of ego strength. My very first show, I was afraid I was going to be fired every day.
Your first Tony Award nomination must have helped a little.
Oh, I was pleased, of course. Quite pleased. It’s impossible to know what will happen, [but] it would be nice to win this one! If I should, it will be 52 years between winning Tony Awards. So that would be interesting.
Did winning do anything to help the confidence you felt you needed?
I don’t remember feeling that particularly. Many people thought that I would get it the season before for doing Cunegonde in Candide. I wasn’t even nominated for that, which surprised me at the time. The show didn’t last very long; that may have something to do with it.
What have been your most challenging roles?
Well, Cunegonde, of course. There’s one song that’s extremely difficult for me in [Sondheim on Sondheim], because I don’t read music. It’s a song from Passion ["I Read"], a very, very difficult song.
As someone who doesn’t read music, why have you been drawn to difficult songs?
[The music is] put before me and [collaborators] say, “Do it!” I was scared to death when I was asked to do Candide. I was surrounded by opera singers, and I thought, “What have I put my foot in this time?” But it worked out very well, thank goodness.
What made you transition out of full productions and into cabaret?
Several things. During that time there were fewer shows to do. I was getting older and I’d begun to gain weight. It’s hard to explain this, but I remember thinking I didn’t know where to aim myself. It was kind of like adolescence—call it mid-olescence. I think I needed to not work for a little while, to step back and sort of try to reconfigure things. During that time I was offered a few things but turned them down. You know, I came across those scripts years later and thought, “This isn’t so bad. Why did I turn this down?” But it’s because I just unconsciously decided that I needed not to work for a little while. However, singing the way that I do in cabaret and in concerts was something I had done all my life, so just singing for people wasn’t difficult.
When you say you weren’t working, what were you doing to fill your time?
I was reading the newspaper. Seriously. I would read The Times from cover to cover. I did a lot of reading. Not having gone to college, I was always like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t go to college!’ I set about educating myself. Of course I don’t feel that way anymore—that it’s a problem I didn’t go to college. That’s just ridiculous! But at the time, I believed people thought I wasn’t smart because of that.
Getting back to performing: What are three of all of your all-time favorite songs to sing?
“He Was Too Good to Me,” by Rodgers and Hart. “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen [Sondheim]. And gosh, what else? Well, the first one that comes to mind is again by Stephen: “So Many People” from his show Saturday Night.
When you think about your career overall, who were the mentors that shaped you?
There are two people whose worked I admired so much and learned from. One is Judy Garland, to a lesser degree; and to a much greater degree, Mabel Mercer.
How did they help you?
Mabel taught me the use of consonants and the importance of really thinking about what you’re saying in the song. As far as Garland goes, I never had a coach—I had a wonderful technique teacher, but I never had a coach—and I learned from Judy about a song having a structure, a beginning, middle and an end.
You’re one of those performers people will drop everything to come see. Who is the performer you will drop everything to see?
Rolando Villazon, the opera singer, and Judi Dench. Oh, and Hugh Jackman!
I’m thinking he’d be really excited to hear you said that.
He knows I feel that way. We’re friends.
I wish could say I’m friends with Hugh Jackman.
He’s a good man. I mean that, seriously. He’s extraordinarily spiritual man. He is a good, good human being. He’s gorgeous and all of that, but that’s not what drew me to his work. I’m thinking mainly about Boy from Oz; for me, it was just like an enormously spiritual experience every time I saw it. Not many men in our culture have the ability to appear so vulnerable and to give so much of their soul on stage. God, he’s just wonderful at that.
What’s your favorite part of Sondheim on Sondheim?
This may sound strange, but moment when we get the signal that we’re beginning and I stand up and say, “Well, the train’s about to leave!” That’s the best moment for me.
Now that you’re back, do you want to continue with full productions?
I’ll tell you, eight shows a week is difficult. Eight shows a week and whatever ancillary publicity things go along with it, it’s hard. So I don’t know. It would depend very much on what I’m offered.
Will you ever be happy just reading The New York Times again?
No—I’d find some way to be more active than that!
See Barbara Cook in Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54.