There truly very few memoirs that I can say that I "wished were longer." Substandard memoirs, especially by celebrities, fall into one of two warring camps: the ones that are catty, overly-gossipy, and sermonic, and the ones that are dull as dishwater, with the personality of the woman at church that falls asleep during mass and smells like Clove Gum.
Barbara Cook's memoir Then & Now thankfully does not fall into either. Her memoir is frank, spicy, and layered with emotion and honesty. At 237 pages, 88-year-old Cook's memoir is fast and furiously entertaining. Cook, for those of you who have been living under a rock since the 1940's, was a stalwart performer in the Golden Age of Musical Theatre. She was in the original casts of some of the world's most iconic musicals: Candide, She Loves Me, and The Music Man, to name just a few. In 2011 she was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for her work.
Cook tells of her tortured family life: blamed by her mother for both the death of her 3-year-old sister (who died of Pneumonia) and for her father asking for a divorce, she was faced with tragedy and the crippling agony of guilt from an early age. Escaping to New York City, she had a tough uphill climb, filled with flops and summers in The Poconos. After enduring the flop that was Flahooely in 1951, and being turned down for the title role of Peter Pan, Cook struck it big in her first hit, Plain and Fancy in 1954. From there she graduated to Leonard Bernstein's Candide, originating the coloratura showstopper "Glitter and Be Gay", and Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, introducing the world to classic songs that would be forever etched into the celebrated history of the American Musical Theatre.
During this time, and while enduring a painful marriage (which brought her only child, son Adam) and bitter divorce, Cook began to drink heavily and became an alcoholic. But, embodying the words of the immortal Jerome Kern, Cook decided to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again, banishing drink from her life and surviving possible diabetes and death. (Cook's longtime accompanist and great friend Wally Harper was also an alcoholic who couldn't give up the habit and died at the age of 63.)
Cook's memoir doesn't gloss over the difficult moments, like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman's autobiographies. Cook accepts the mistakes she has made in her life and learns from the constantly. I do have a question, though: who knew that Barbara Cook, whom my old professor once dubbed "The Grand Matron of The Stage," had a mouth like a longshoreman? It was actually refreshing, to be honest, and saved the book from being a prim and proper diatribe to the dangers of swearing and hard liquor.
Speaking of prim and proper diatribes, I went into this book hoping she would talk about one particular subject, the ill-fated musical Carrie (based on Stephen King's novel), and she most certainly didn't disappoint! Lawrence Cohen, who wrote the book for the 1988 musical, was supposed to publish a book about the Carrie debacle in 2013 entitled What Were They Thinking?, but it disappeared from Amazon's website without a trace, forever dashing my hope to reading the inside story of this fabled flop. Cook interjects some wonderful insight into her involvement in the musical and was lucky enough to have a contract loophole that allowed her to jump ship before moving to Broadway from England. She took the job because she thought some of the music she had to sing was gorgeous, but didn't feel the concept as a whole worked. I enjoyed the entire memoir, don't get me wrong, but hearing her side of this fascinating story piqued by interest greatly.
Along the way, we get a fascinating look at some of Broadway's elite: Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch, and Vanessa William (who Cook confesses to losing her place during a performance of the hit 2010 Broadway Revue Sondheim on Sondheim because she couldn't stop staring at her cleavage.
Cook's memoir is light, with real meat at the center, and filled with warmth, frank emotion, and a spunk that belies her numeric age. Cook, at 88, still has the relevance and honor that she deserves from the Broadway community, as she holds a special place in all of our hearts. She is still as gorgeous as ever, with a smile that lights up a room and hair that, frankly, looks eternally immaculately coiffed.
Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies, which Cook performed in 1985, includes a song that perfectly embodies the image that Cook evokes in this book:
Filed under: Book Reviews
Tags: barbara cook, barbara cook memoir, candide, carrie, celebrity memoir, elaine stritch, ethel merman, follies, glitter and be gay, jerome kern, kennedy center honors, lawrence cohen, leonard bernstein, meredith wilson, musical theatre, stephen king, stephen sondheim, the music man, then & now, vanessa williams