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Death Defying Divas

Barbara & Gwen

A pair of legendary Broadway divas.

By New York City
As Tony week begins, it seems fitting to check in with two of Broadway's greatest leading ladies: Barbara Cook, the original Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, and Gwen Verdon, a four-time Tony winner in the 1950s and mastermind behind last season's Best Musical, Fosse. In separate telephone interviews, the ladies recalled their winning nights.

Barbara CookPhoto courtesy of www.BroadwayArchive.com
Barbara Cook
Photo courtesy of www.BroadwayArchive.com
Barbara Cook won a Best Actress Tony Award in the spring of 1958 for one of her most memorable performances, as Marian Paroo in the original Broadway production of The Music Man. Her competition that year was Susan Johnson and Jacqueline McKeever, both for Oh, Captain; Carol Lawrence for West Side Story; and Josephine Premice for Jamaica. Cook's Broadway career essentially ended in 1971, except for a Broadway concert show in the '80s. Since then, she has become New York's leading cabaret singer; in her annual engagement at Café Carlyle, she continues to explore the Broadway repertory.

TM: Everyone talks about how the Tony ceremony was different at the time you won yours for The Music Man.

COOK: Well, first of all, it wasn't televised.

TM: Was it exciting to win?

COOK: Oh gosh, yes. In those days, there were leaks about who won. I was sitting at the table with...oh God, what the hell's the name? I can never think of this actress' name. She was in Look Homeward Angel.

TM: Jo Van Fleet?

COOK: Jo Van Fleet. When I sat down, she said, "Well, we know we're at the table with one winner." She said she'd heard that I was going to win. [Note: Jo Van Fleet was nominated that same year, but lost to Helen Hayes, for Time Remembered]. I don't think she was just being prescient. She made me feel like she had some sort of inside knowledge. I don't think they do that anymore.

TM: They certainly don't.

COOK: Well, I was thrilled [to win the Tony]. I don't even remember what I said. I think, "Thank you, thank you, thank you" a few times.

TM: In the years before The Music Man, did you go to the Tony Awards?

COOK: No, I didn't. I won't say it wasn't a big deal to win--it was. But it wasn't the big event that it is now, with television. Also, I think I didn't go because it was expensive. (Laughs) I just didn't pay the money. Of course--expensive then, expensive now--it's a whole different thing. During the run of Music Man, my husband and I went to Le Chambord, the top French restaurant at the time. I remember very clearly that the two of us had a complete blowout dinner for $25 each. That gives you some idea of what I mean when I said the Tonys were expensive--it was probably ten dollars a plate! (Laughs).

TM: Did you really hope to win a Tony for any other role?

COOK: Candide. I hoped I would win it that year. I wasn't even nominated. But, you know, it's different now. The competition was so much tougher in those days. Seriously! (Laughs) I'm not saying that my Tony means more than somebody's Tony today. But there was tremendous competition, because there were so many more shows. [The year Cook was in Candide, the best actress nominees were Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady, Judy Holliday for Bells Are Ringing, and Ethel Merman for Happy Hunting. Holliday won.]

TM: Nowadays, they sometimes have trouble filling each category with nominees.

COOK: Well, when you think that Music Man won over West Side Story--come on, that's pretty amazing, isn't it?

TM: I'm a very big fan of The Music Man.

COOK: Oh, I am too. I didn't mean it in that respect. It's a wonderful show, just wonderful.

TM: Have you seen the current Music Man revival yet?

COOK: I've only seen the first act. I went on opening night, but I had to leave to go do my show at the Carlyle. I have to go back.

TM: Did you like the first act?

COOK: It was fun! Oh, my God, it certainly brought a lot of memories back. Did it ever!

TM: It must be strange to see a major revival like that.

COOK: It was very, very odd, I tell you.

TM: Have you seen many Broadway shows this season?

COOK: (Pause) Name one. (Laughs)

TM: Contact.

COOK: I want to see Contact. I just made a list the other day of things I want to see. There are 13 on the list. I want to see The Wild Party. I'm sorry I missed The Dead. I heard it was quite wonderful. I wanted to see Blair [Brown] and of course I wanted to see...oh, Christ, what's his name?

TM: Christopher Walken.

COOK: Yes. (Laughs) The brain is not doing it this morning! And I haven't seen Kiss Me, Kate?

COOK: No, but Dame Edna came to see me. He came with his wife and his son. God, he's a darling man.

TM: He didn't come as Dame Edna?

COOK: (laughing reproachfully) No...I didn't realize that he's a big fan. He's been to see me many times when I played London. I've got to go to his show--my son said, "You've never seen anything like it." What are the new musicals nominated?

TM: The Dead, The Wild Party, Swing--

COOK: And Contact. I haven't seen any of them!

TM: You have your work cut out for you.

COOK: I know. Ay-yi-yi...

TM: Well, you've been busy.

COOK: This year, particularly.


TM: Do you have a new project in the works?

COOK: Yes, I'm doing a Christmas album. I've wanted to do one forever, so finally, finally, we're doing one. I'm going to sing "Silent Night," "The First Noel," a few hymn-like ones. And some fun ones. We're in the midst of choosing songs right now.

TM: Have you attended the Tonys in recent years?

COOK: No. Nobody invites me, so I don't go.

TM: Did you ever do any Tony broadcasts?

COOK: I was on a couple of times. The last time I was on--oh, it's a few years ago--they were doing some sort of salute to different shows that had won, so I sang "Till There Was You." One reason I wasn't on [more frequently] is because I gained weight. That's absolutely true. Alexander Cohen's wife--what was her name?

TM: Hildy Parks.

COOK: Yes. She literally told somebody that she didn't want me on, because I had gained weight.

TM: That's awful.

COOK: That's correct! (Laughs) But there it is. So I was not presentable for the Tonys. It's amazing, isn't it? Somebody who was managing me called and was told, point blank, "Sorry, we don't want her."

TM: That is just the saddest thing.

COOK: Well, what can I tell you? You know, one thing that's changed [at the Tonys] and I think they should put it back: There's no category for conductors. And they're very important.

TM: They used to have a category.

COOK: Absolutely. Herbert Greene won for The Music Man. For some reason, they dropped it. Isn't it strange that they don't honor the conductors? I wonder why.

TM: One thing about the televised broadcast--they already have that first hour on PBS, where they put designers and composers-

COOK: But they don't even do it [for conductors] there. They could do it off-camera, even, and then print it in the paper, at least. But they don't even have the category. That seems strange to me.

TM: Well, you know, sound designers are unhappy that they don't have a Tony category, either. There have been a lot of complaints, most often from reviewers in the Times, about sound design in the theater. Do you dislike it, too?

COOK: If it's well done, I don't mind. A lot of people are purists, but I don't feel that way, particularly. When we started out, of course, there was no amplification at all. Then when we did The Music Man, there were a few microphones in the footlights. That's very different from having body mics--it's a whole different ballgame. But the last book show I did on Broadway in 1971--

TM: The Grass Harp?

COOK: Yes. We had no amplification at all. None. On purpose. A lot of people loved that. There were a lot of good singers in that show. Now, of course, they put the microphone up in your hair. Who was it--somebody, who's really quite sophisticated, said, "What is that mole on the top of your forehead?" I said, "That's the microphone!" (Laughs). They never realized! That was just a few weeks ago. [Changing the subject] You know, there's a new revival of The King and I in London. It just opened with Elaine Paige. It's enormously successful. They had something like a seven-million-pound advance, before they even opened. I just a got a note from Elaine; she says that people are standing every night-that's very unusual for London. She's thrilled.

TM: You did The King and I, didn't you?

COOK: A couple of times. I did it at City Center with Farley Granger. He was sensational. One reason we were so successful is that nobody expected either of us to be good in those roles-and we were wonderful together. We had a terrific chemistry, so it was a very sexy show. That was not true with Yul Brynner and..what the hell's her name?

TM: Gertrude Lawrence?

COOK: Yes. (Laughs).

TM: I think you'd be perfect as Anna. Why didn't anyone expect you to be good?

COOK: Because I was thought of this little girl. I had never done a role that was so womanly before. It was a real leading lady role.

TM: You know, it has been written that you brought great complexity to ingenue roles.

COOK: The truth is, I didn't play a lot of ingenues. But because of the way I looked and the way I sounded, people thought of me as this quintessential ingenue. If you really, really look at the roles I played--Marian [in The Music Man] is not an ingenue. Her mother's afraid she's not going to get married. She's getting up there; she's probably in her 30s.

TM: Amalia in She Loves Me is like that, too.

COOK: Yeah. She's not an ingenue. Even in Candide--Cunegonde was a kind of cartoon of an ingenue. In the production we did, I ended up as an old crone with a hump on my back. Interesting, isn't it? And yet, I'm thought of as this ingenue.

TM: Well, I suppose it's the tendency of people to try and put everyone in categories.

COOK: Ain't it the truth! (Laughs)


In the 1950s, Gwen Verdon was Tony's favorite lady. She grabbed the featured actress in a musical award for Can-Can in 1954, followed by best actress awards for Damn Yankees (1956), New Girl in Town (1958), and Redhead (1959). (For New Girl in Town, she tied with her co-star, Thelma Ritter). Verdon was also nominated for Sweet Charity (1966) and Chicago (1976).

Gwen Verdon at a recording sessionfor Redhead in 1959
Gwen Verdon at a recording session
for Redhead in 1959
TM: Do you remember your first Tony Awards ceremony?

VERDON: Oh, sure. I won a Tony. It was held in a little room at the Gotham Hotel.

TM: That was for Can-Can?

VERDON: Yes. And Audrey Hepburn won that year, I think, for Ondine.

TM: Ondine. There's a title you don't hear every day.

VERDON: No! (Laughs)

TM: So the awards ceremony was very different in those days.

VERDON: Oh, yes. It was just a little...I don't even think it was a cocktail party. It wasn't lunch. It wasn't anything!

TM: Was it exciting to win?

VERDON: Oh, yes. But the awards are much better looking now.

TM: Do you mean because they're produced on television?

VERDON: No, I mean the award itself is much better looking.

TM: What did it look like back then?

VERDON: It was just a little disk.

TM: Once you won for Can-Can, there were several years where you seemed to win the Tony quite regularly.

VERDON: Every year I did a show, I got one, until Sweet Charity. I did not get one for Sweet Charity.

TM: That was the year Angela Lansbury won for Mame. Did it ever get a little dull to keep winning like that?

VERDON: Oh, it never gets dull! It's amazing, but never dull!

TM: You were nominated again in 1976 for Chicago, but lost that year as well [to Donna McKechnie, for A Chorus Line]. Did you mind losing for Chicago?

VERDON: No. I always liked the shows I did. That was the only thing that was really important to me. You know, I think I was nominated for every show that I did, but I never talk about nominations. I mean, I've seen people whose walls are covered with the nominating certificates. And I didn't even know you got those things. If I did, I have no idea where mine are!

TM: But then, not everyone has as many awards as you do. For some people, the nominations are everything.

VERDON: (bemused) I guess so.

TM: Have you seen many of the nominated shows this year?

VERDON: No, I've been in London.

TM: Of course, you were working on [the West End production of] Fosse.

VERDON: Yes. And the touring company and replacing people in New York.

TM: You must be a very busy woman.

VERDON: Yes, I've escaped to California right now. I'm either out here visiting my son and daughter-in-law, or up in Vermont with my daughter and her husband and my three grandkids.

TM: One show that's a big success is Contact.

VERDON: I know, and I haven't seen it.

TM: There's a controversy about it. Some people say it's not a musical because it's an evening made up entirely of dance, performed to recorded music.

VERDON: Well, Fosse has no book. And Dancin', well, it sort of had a book. Actually, Fosse sort of has a book.

TM: Of the awards that you won, was any one the most exciting?

VERDON: I received a Tony Award [for Redhead] from Ingrid Bergman, and that was truly exciting, because she had not been allowed back in the country. They felt there was too much controversy [over her romance with director Roberto Rossellini]. The American Legion was protesting. But, to me, it was most exciting getting it from her--and I said so, when I got it.

TM: Will you be attending the Tonys this year?

VERDON: I think so. When exactly do they take place?

TM: The first Sunday in June. June 4.

VERDON: Yes, I can make that!


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