Long before she wowed Broadway audiences as an Iowa librarian who falls in love with a traveling salesman, Tony-winner Barbara Cook played for an audience of one.
One traveling salesman. Her father.
That’s right. Barbara Cook, the woman who created the role of Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” in 1957 is the daughter of a traveling salesman. Cook’s father, Charles Bunyan, paid the bills by selling women’s hats across the South.
“I adored my father,” Cook says, sitting on a comfy couch in her Riverside Drive apartment. “He’d sell women’s millinery around Atlanta and into Alabama and sometimes travel as far as Texas. He’d bring me back little Texas boots.”
Wherever he was, Bunyan’s favorite singer was just a phone call away.
“He used to call home two or three times a week and always ask me to sing to him on the phone. He loved the song ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.’ It came from a movie.”
She hums a few lines, then concedes “I can’t remember it now.”
The years have slowed Barbara Cook.
Her knees ache. Her back aches. She uses a cane to get around.
But the Tony-winning soprano is still singing at age 86.
Her soprano voice is as clear as ever; her eyes twinkle as they always have. Her only concession to age is that she now sits while she performs.
On June 14, she’ll bring her new concert — “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” — to the Tarrytown Music Hall. On June 23, she’ll be back in Westchester, in Armonk receive a lifetime achievement award from the Music Conservatory of Westchester at a benefit that will raise money for music scholarships for kids.
The new set list she’ll sing in Tarrytown includes 90 minutes of “a lot of really really good songs that have been around awhile,” from “I Remember You” and “More Than You Know” to “Last Night When We Were Young” and “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Sprinkled in among the songs will be Cook’s stories from her 66-year career, from her Broadway break in “Flahooley” through to work Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” (she created the role of Cunegonde) in 1956, “The Music Man” in 1957 and “She Loves Me” in 1963.
That last musical is based on Miklós László’s play, which was also the source material for three films: “The Shop Around the Corner” in 1940 with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, “In the Good Old Summertime” in 1949 with Van Johnson and Judy Garland and, eventually, “You’ve Got Mail” in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Cook created the role of the shopgirl Amalia who is in love with her penpal.
Cook triumphed with stories and songs from her career in her 2004 concert “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” and she was last seen on Broadway in “Sondheim on Sondheim,” the 2010 revue in which the composer looked back on his career, aided and abetted by singers of considerable talent, including Cook, Westchester’s Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat.
In 2011, Cook was named a Kennedy Center honoree, in a class that included cellist Yo-Yo Ma, actress Meryl Streep, singer Neil Diamond, and saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
“I’m very proud of that,” she says. “Of all the honors I’ve been given, that’s the one that means the most to me. The main thing I felt was understood. I felt, that night, that people got it. And that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Sitting up in the box on that night, a few feet from President Obama, Cook recalls she had a strange sort of monologue going on inside her head.
“I was looking around and saying to myself, ‘Barbara, this is real. Take it in. This is real.’ And I’d reply: ‘There’s no way this is real.’ To which I’d reply: ‘This is real. Take it in.’ And then I’d come back with: ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ And back and forth.”
Years later, she knows it’s real. She has the ceremonial ribbon to prove it, although she has no occasion to wear it.
“Meryl Streep is adorable,” Cook says with a laugh. “She says she sleeps in hers.”
Dropping names with Barbara Cook
Sitting with a Broadway legend soon led to a game of free association, with Cook responding to names dropped. Here’s the lightning-round version.
Leonard Bernstein (“Candide” composer): “Extraordinary man. Very sexy. Oh, man. And very easy to work with. He was so good to me. I had never sung anything remotely that high or that difficult before. Ever. He was so protective and he made me feel as if I could do anything.”
Stephen Sondheim: “Stephen. Interesting guy in a lot of ways. I’ve known him so long. I must have met him in the ‘50s, sometime. We knew each other before he was ‘Stephen Sondheim.’ He would laugh if he heard me say this but his work is kind of like Shakespeare in that you can go back to it again and again and again and find something new every time. It’s so dense. There’s so much there.”
E.Y. “Yip” Harburg (“Finian’s Rainbow” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” lyricist, among others): Fascinating man. My God, the talent! There are so many many things. They’re not just clever. They’re so good. I do his ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ in my show. The first time I met him was when I auditioned for ‘Flahooley,’ my first Broadway show, which he wrote. Sixty-three years ago. I sang ‘My Funny Valentine’ at the audition and they had a bridge they put in over the orchestra pit so that you could come on to the stage right from the house. And he came running toward me as I was finishing and he gave me a big hug. He was like this jolly, adorable Santa Claus of a person.”
Hal Prince: Talk about feeling that you’re in good hands. I certainly felt that in ‘She Loves Me.’ In that show, we had a little problem. We needed to denote the passage of time without making a big fuss about it. So what Hal came up with was that, every now and then, Arpad, the little messenger boy, would just ride his bike on stage and say ‘Look! Spring!’ It’s that simple. Then, he’d come in later and say ‘Look! Autumn!’ and ‘Look! Winter!’ It couldn’t be more simple.”
Meredith Willson: “Adorable. He was so happy to have his show going on. At one point in rehearsals, he turned to me and said ‘Now I know who you are. You’re my mother.’
Robert Preston: “He had such energy and he really fed the whole company energy. He was a very private person. Every performance, he was on before I was, and he’d come in to my dressing room and talk about the day, politics or whatever, and we did that however many shows we did together. And he’d say, ‘Oh, so and so is out front,’ and yet you don’t feel like you really know him. Very affable. Very open seeming, but afterward you wonder if you really knew him at all.”
What: “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” an evening with Barbara Cook
Where: Tarrytown Music Hall, 13 Main St., Tarrytown.
When: 8 p.m., June 14.
Tickets: $38 to $90.
What: Music Conservatory of Westchester presents Lifetime Achievement Award to Barbara Cook and John Mauceri
When: 5:30 p.m., June 23.
Where: Whippoorwill Club, 150 Whippoorwill Road, Armonk.
Who: Tony-winner Alice Ripley (“Next to Normal”), Drama Desk winner Laura Osnes (“Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella”), Tony nominee Montego Glover (“Memphis”) and Westchester’s Craig Schulman (“Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera”). Emcee is Westchester’s John Treacy Egan (“The Producers,” “Sister Act”).
Tickets: To the cocktail hour, dinner and show: $175. (It’s a benefit.)
Call: 914-761-3900, ext. 106