Barbara Cook Remembered by ‘Fiddler on the Roof’s’ Sheldon Harnick: More Than an Ingenue

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

When Barbara Cook had been hired to play the lead in “She Loves Me,” my image of her was based on the roles I had seen her play. I thought she was more or less an innocent ingénue. The first time I had a glimpse of her personality was when we were holding auditions for other roles in that show, and I was unprepared for the nature of the comments she made as she watched people auditioning, phrased in unexpectedly salty language!

One of my favorite memories has to do with a number Jerry Bock and I wrote for her during the out-of-town tryout of “She Loves Me.” We played the song for her one morning, and to our surprise, she said, “Why don’t we try to put it in tonight?” Jerry and I protested: This wouldn’t allow her enough time to learn the number. She replied: “The music is simple enough, and a fairly large part of the number consists of me writing a letter, so I’ll have the lyrics right in front of me on the page.” Against our better judgment, we allowed Barbara to put the number in that night. And not only did she perform it flawlessly — she stopped the show! That song was “Vanilla Ice Cream.”

I’ve tried to figure out what was special and distinctive about Barbara’s style of singing. When I listened closely to her performing her songs on the cast album of “She Loves Me,” I was surprised to find that she didn’t sing the notes exactly as written.

She took extremely subtle liberties with the note values, and those liberties not only helped to convey the meaning of the lyrics, they also invested the melodic line with a welcome tension. I doubt that this description captures Barbara’s magic — but then, magic may be impossible to capture in words!

Barbara Cook was a superb singer, a fine actress and, as a person, the soul of candor. I shall miss her in all three capacities.

Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof”) co-wrote the 1963 Broadway musical “She Loves Me,” which gave Cook one of her signature songs, “Vanilla Ice Cream.”