Obits and Pieces

Barbara Cook on Life Before and After Sobriety *PIC*

The singer Barbara Cook has a copy of her autobiography, “Then and Now: A Memoir,” propped up near her bed so she can look at it when she wakes up in the morning and marvel at its existence.

“I can’t believe it’s an actual book,” she said recently. Her collaborator on the memoir, Tom Santopietro, helped her organize the material, but she insists that she wrote every word, mostly by hand.

In its pages, she is frank about the steep ups and downs of a career that in her mind has had two acts: before and after recovery from alcoholism.

Sitting in a wheelchair near the piano in the living room of her elegant Upper West Side apartment, Ms. Cook, 88, said in a recent interview that she has been unable to walk for about a year. Wearing a black baseball cap, a loosefitting white shirt and no makeup, she was nonetheless a radiant presence, with twinkling blue eyes. What she conveys as powerfully as any other singer alive is empathy.

“My voice is fine,” she said. “My spirits are mostly fine. But nobody likes to be physically in a situation like this. There are days when I get down about it, but I don’t seem to stay down for long.”

On Tuesday, the book’s release date, Ms. Cook will perform at Feinstein’s/54 Below with the accompanist and arranger Lee Musiker. Two more dates, July 21 and 23, are also scheduled as part of the book promotion.

Earlier this year plans were scrapped for an Off Broadway show built around the memoir that was to be directed by Tommy Tune, with Ms. Cook singing songs and reading excerpts adapted for the stage by James Lapine.

Mr. Lapine, a Tony-winning book writer and director of musicals, described Ms. Cook as “a genuinely good person but also a tough cookie.”

“We discovered we just couldn’t do it in time,” he explained. “I think Barbara in her heart didn’t want to get up and read from her book.”

“Then and Now” (HarperCollins) is narrated with the same homey bonhomie that has informed Ms. Cook’s stage patter in recent years as she has grown more talkative in her concerts. When she speaks, there are traces of a down-home Southern accent. Ms. Cook grew up in Atlanta in relative poverty: There were nights, she recalled, when dinner consisted of white bread and ketchup.

From an early age, she knew she wanted to sing and that her destiny lay in New York City. As a girl, entranced by the films of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, she idolized MacDonald. She arrived in New York in 1948 and made her Broadway debut in the 1951 musical “Flahooley,” then went on to star in such shows as “Plain and Fancy,” “The Music Man,” “Candide,” “She Loves Me” and revivals of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”

During these early golden years on Broadway, Ms. Cook said, she had no problems with alcohol, an addiction that runs in her family. As her drinking crept up on her in the late 1960s and 70s, she recounts, she was in denial because her preference was for wine, not liquor. At the peak of her alcoholism, she consumed jugs of Chablis. The last time she drank, in 1977, she recalled, she had been sober for six months and had gone to a club to celebrate the completion of a studio album when she slipped.

“I had a lot of wine, and then I passed out,” she recalled. “When I woke up I was having a panic attack. They usually lasted about 20 minutes, and there’s always a moment when you think you’re dying. I had already got to the point where I thought I would do anything to avoid a panic attack. The next morning when I looked at the glass by my bed, I knew I was never going to drink again.”

Outgrowing her early idols, Ms. Cook embraced Judy Garland, and the cabaret chanteuse Mabel Mercer — who showed the next generation of nightclub singers how to personalize song lyrics in a talk-sing style known as parlando — as role models for the intimate, intensely emotional style of her mature years. A lowering of keys has allowed for a greater expressive depth.

An instrumental figure in this period was the composer and arranger Wally Harper, who over 30 years, beginning in 1974, helped her reinvent herself from a soprano ingénue into a sophisticated cabaret and concert artist who could swing. Mr. Harper died in 2004.

Comparing the high coloratura soprano of her best-known early signature song, “Glitter and Be Gay” from “Candide,” with the lower, richer alto singing of her autumnal signature song, “Here’s to Life,” it’s difficult to believe they are emanating from the same voice.

In the memoir, Ms. Cook recalls being so intimidated by “Glitter and Be Gay” that she resorted to self-hypnosis to conquer her fear of singing that number, one of the most technically challenging arias in the soprano repertory. Her role model for enunciating the words was Fay Bainter, playing Lady Macbeth on a vintage recording of “Macbeth,” opposite Orson Welles.

Her still-definitive performance of “Glitter” has prompted many to suggest she might have had a career as an opera singer, a possibility she says she never entertained seriously.

“I only wanted to do it if I could sing ‘Tosca,’’’ she said. “But my voice was too light. I’d be singing Barbarina for the rest of my life,” she said, referring to that role in “The Marriage of Figaro,” “and I wasn’t interested.”

If Ms. Cook sees her career has having two acts — before and after sobriety — her son, Adam LeGrant, 56, on whom she dotes, sees it a little differently. A sometime performer, director and teacher who recently moved back from Los Angeles to be close to her, he discerns a third phase, beginning with the 1985 production “Follies in Concert,” when she began singing the music of Stephen Sondheim. The concert and its offshoots, he says, “turbocharged” her career.

“Barbara Cook and my mother are two separate people who inhabit the same body,” Mr. LeGrant said. “My mom is my mom. And there’s Barbara Cook, who does this thing. She’s smart enough to get out of the way and allow the conduit to open.”

Like many singers of advanced age, Ms. Cook has problems remembering song lyrics. Worried about her memory loss, she consulted her doctor, who asked, “If Queen Elizabeth were standing in front of you would you know who she was?” When she said yes, he declared, “Then you’re fine.”

“I feel that I must sing because it feels so good to get all that out,” she said. “I need to do it. My life has had its ups and downs like everybody else’s. And I thought that if I write this and it’s compelling, maybe people who are in trouble, who were drinkers, or whatever, will see that you can have a whole second life.”