NEW YORK — Iwanted to sing like Judy Garland, so bad!" songstress Barbara Cook recalls. Like many women who grew up in the 1940s, Cook was determined to perform like the legendary screen star.
Her voice teacher convinced her it wouldn't happen, though. "You're a soprano. There's no way," she said.
Now, 50 years later, a whole generation of young women wants to sing like Barbara Cook.
She forged a Broadway career during its heyday, from 1950 through the mid-'60s, creating memorable starring roles in "She Loves Me," "Plain and Fancy," "Candide;" acclaimed revivals of "Oklahoma" and "Carousel;" and winning a Tony award for her Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson's "The Music Man."
Now Cook is at the peak of a second career, doing sold-out concerts and cabaret shows around the world. Her current show, "Mostly Sondheim," at New York CIty's Lincoln Center, features songs by Stephen Sondheim, as well as others the composer selected because he wishes he had written them.
Cook says that during her childhood in Atlanta she had "a pretty voice, very sweet," which delighted audiences as she sang between shows at movie houses.
But it wasn't until she moved to New York at age 20 that she came to terms with her talent.
She credits her music teacher, Robert Kovin, with helping to form "this kind of seamless style" that has become her trademark. Beyond that, "I didn't have any real classical training," she says.
But producers noticed the golden-voiced, golden-haired ingenue, and a series of leading roles turned her into Broadway's musical theater queen for a decade. And then, it stopped.
The traditional musical comedy form hit a drastic downturn, starting in the mid-'60s.
"I remember being on the way to a matinee, and ahead of me were two couples, talking," she says. "One person wanted to see a musical, but someone else said, 'I don't like musicals. When they talk, they should talk. When they sing, they should sing.' People want more reality when they see theater than they used to."
The change in audience taste left Cook without a stage career. In 1973, she toured with a concert honoring George Gershwin's 75th anniversary. Someone connected with that project proposed a New York concert.
"I had not sung in New York, at that point, for five years," she says, seated in her Upper West Side apartment, which overlooks Riverside Park. And although that plan failed, she and her new accompanist, Wally Harper, had been rehearsing for months. "Somebody heard about it, and we did one performance at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut."
That led to a two-week New York nightclub booking that stretched into six months, and finally an offer from Luciano Pavarotti's manager to arrange a Carnegie Hall concert for her. In January 1975, Cook returned to the New York stage and released an album, kicking off her second career, which has solidified her position as one of the great voices of the last 50 years.
Harper has been with her ever since. "We both had a theatrical background," she says. "He had classical training, and from the moment we started working together, we [were] interested in a theatrical, romantic way of presenting songs."
After her current New York run, she goes to London, Australia, and then back to Lincoln Center for a series in June.
Whether in a musical or in concert, Cook's reputation rests on her interpretation as much as on her singing ability.
She often discusses the importance of both attributes in her master classes, which she occasionally teaches at New York's Juilliard School. "Young singers just want to communicate that they can sing. I tell them, fine. What are you going to do with it? I want to be moved," she says. "When you sing something, [you should] make the strongest possible acting choice about the message of the lyrics."
The difficulty of conveying a deep emotion from singer to audience member means "no matter how strong your choice is, you're lucky if you get 10 percent of it out," she says. "I work from emotional memories to do that."
Her memories include not only Broadway successes, but also a marriage that ended in divorce, bouts with alcohol and weight gain, and a degree of personal anxiety about performing.
"But when I become involved in ... what the character is trying to say through that song, I forget about being nervous," she says. "You can't be nervous if you're inside something else."
With Broadway producers banking on revivals of classics in recent years, roles that Cook originated are finding new audiences. The Susan Stroman-directed revival of "The Music Man" enjoyed a nearly two-year run, with Rebecca Luker, whom Cook says "sings beautifully" as Marion. But when asked about seeing it again, she grows reticent.
"It was kind of hard to watch, not because it wasn't good, but it brought back so many memories, some of them painful," she says. "I miss Robert [Preston]," who played opposite her in the show and died in 1987.