I Love the Eighties: Barbara Cook

Photo: Richard Termine/The New York Times/Redux

Musical-theater matriarch Barbara Cook is celebrating her 80th birthday this week in vigorous fashion, with two concerts at the Philharmonic. She spoke to Emma Rosenblum about the ways her voice has changed in 60 years onstage, and recalled a night when audience noise went far beyond the usual coughs.

Well, first off, happy birthday!
Why, thank you, honey. Eighty certainly got my attention, I’ll tell you. For me, it’s an acceptance of the way things are.

People say your voice has hardly changed since you were a young woman—do you agree?
Of course I think it’s changed. I think what people are saying is that they still find satisfaction in listening to my singing. They’re trying to find a way to describe what they’re hearing right now, and fortunately, they think it’s still good. I don’t have the top of my voice like I used to. But my God, I’m 80.

So is your high range gone, then?
I find that I have to take better care of myself, and when I do, I sing better. When I start eating sugar and the wrong carbohydrates, it takes a toll. When I eat what I’m supposed to, the notes are clearer.

What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
I once broke out in hives during The Music Man, but that’s not very funny. Let me think … Oh, there was one time someone farted in the audience, but I wouldn’t want to talk about that.

Come on!
Well, what the hell. Florence Henderson and I were touring together in Oklahoma! many years ago, maybe 1953. Florence is a very bawdy lady, which you wouldn’t know from her work as Mrs. … um, what’s the show she did forever, for Christ’s sake? The Brady Bunch. Right! So she was playing Laurey, and I was Ado Annie, and we were in a scene where she would say something, we’d pause, and then came a punch line. We were in one of these pauses when somebody farted very loudly in the audience! I mean, there was no mistaking it. We didn’t dare look at each other, and the moment we got into the wings we absolutely literally fell on the floor laughing. That’s certainly only happened to me just once.

It’s better than a cell phone going off, I guess. Do you have one of those, or an iPod?
I do! I’ve got an iPod—a Nano; I’ve got an iPhone. Listen, I’m right in there. I don’t want to miss out. I thought, I want to know what everybody’s talking about. And doesn’t it bother you when you’re working with someone who doesn’t have a computer? It’s like, Get a bloody computer!

In Concert with The New York Philharmonic
November 19 And 20 at Avery Fisher Hall

I Love the Eighties: Barbara Cook