The final song stylist of the week is Barbara Cook. I had never heard of her until one of my mentors in New York, Bob Borod, let me stay in his rambling apartment at 40 Fifth Avenue for a bit while he was at his house on Martha’s Vineyard. Bob was one of the sweetest men in New York and was beloved in the Broadway community as a production stage manager. We bonded when he was the PSM for Equus. The first time I ever met him, in fact, was for a few fleeting moments on the backstage stairwell of the then Plymouth Theatre where I had detoured after seeing the play from one of its seats onstage during a trip to New York. I was eighteen or nineteen. Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth were still starring in it. i had fallen instantly in love with Firth when I read all the press about him and the show while I was in college and that trip to New York was all about seeing him and this production. I was at that fearless part of my life – but fleeting moments themselves I know now – when everything seemed possible except the thought of ever losing my beauty. I knew the effect my longhaired, rather odd yet enticing presence had on people. It opened lots of doors to lots of rooms. I learned early on as well that beauty wasn’t enough to get you invited back. But beauty early on helped me belong. I could tell Bob was instantly struck by my belong-there beauty then wondered if such beauty really did. His professionalism kicked in and he asked what I was doing backstage. I told him I was looking for Peter Firth’s dressing room. He paused. Asked no other questions. Then pointed me toward another door and another room in my life. I knocked. Peter didn’t even ask who it was. Maybe he was expecting someone else. “Come on in. I’m just getting out of the shower,” he called. He was naked. No big deal to either of us. I had already seen him so onstage. At first he seemed a bit shocked that I was a stranger but then he, too, I could tell, was curious about this odd alluring man-child since he was such an odd and alluring one himself. We hung out the rest of the week. Sometimes with his girlfriend in tow. Often at The Haymarket which he had come to like instead of the usual theatre bars and restaurants. The Haymarket was a hustler a bar on Eighth Avenue. “Bob told me Gielgud loved it here,” Peter said the first time he took me there with my fake ID I had brought along for that trip.
I write about a lot of this in my second memoir, I Left It on the Mountain. When I got to Juilliard the next year, I went to an open call to play Peter’s part opposite Richard Burton when he took over roll of Dr. Dysart before making the film.. When I walked out on the Plymouth Theatre stage, Bob was out there in the darkened seats with the playwright Peter Shaffer and the director John Dexter. “I know you,” he said. “You’re the boy on the stairwell.” That should be the title of my next memoir: The Boy on the Stairwell. I made it to several callbacks but my experiences with Dexter at Sardi’s for dinner and his home in Atlantic Highlands in New Jersey were cliched and awful. A brilliant director but not a nice man – which was finally the fact over which Bob and I bonded. He told me when he had a chance to cast the role, he would hire me. He did. And a lovely friendship resulted.
The last thing Bob did before handing me the extra set of keys to his apartment at 40 Fifth Avenue that month was handing me the Barbara Cook album As Of Today. “Play this a lot,” he told me. I did. I’d sit at his desk listening to it in his study where he kept his stereo and the answering machine that that would pick up while I stayed there that month. Bob was the PSM for the musical Coco and Katharine Hepburn, its star, had as a lark made the answering machine message for him. Hers is the voice I remember from that month on 40 Fifth as well as Barbara Cook’s, each echoing over and over in those rambling rooms.
Later I would discover Barbara Cook anew each night when I sat at the bar at Reno Sweeney and watched her cabaret act through the opened double doors and had a new made Peter-Firth-like crush on a bartender there, a square-jawed young gay Mormon from Utah. Reno Sweeney during its last months became my hangout. One night during a Barbara Cook run, I asked another bartender where my crush was. Tears came to his eyes. “Oh, Kevin. You haven’t heard. He killed himself last night. He jumped off the roof of his building.” I sat crying at the bar that night listening to Barbara Cook. I can never listen to her and not think about that night and that boy and why some of us can’t take our pain and some of us can. Some of us jump off buildings and some of us linger on backstage stairwells. But we’re all just trying to find a place where the pain is not invited. That is what I hear in the odd enticing allure of Barbara Cook’s voice , the clarion clarity of it. This is where pain is known so pain has been invited, but pain has finally RSVP’d it regrets.
Cook singing “Losing My Mind” and “In Buddy’s Eyes” from the concert version of Follies held on consecutive nights at the then Avery Fisher Hall in 1985. There is also footage of many of the rest of those in this concert watchning raptly in the rehearsal studio of her rehearsing the latter. Sondheim has said it was her version of “In Buddy’s Eyes” that was the triumph of that concert.
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
Stephen Holden in Conversation with Barbara Cook and Stephen Sondheim