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In Barbara Cook’s Final Days, Her Friends Came to Sing at Her Bedside

For some of Ms. Cook’s friends, lyrics simply came easier than words as they sat in her bedroom alongside her son, Adam LeGrant; her longtime manager, Jeff Berger; and her assistant of nearly three decades, Louise Martzinek. Singing, after all, defined Ms. Cook’s life, from her success on Broadway as the original Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” to her later concerts and cabaret shows after years struggling with alcoholism and depression.


Ms. Cook’s son, Adam LeGrant, in her apartment in Manhattan on Thursday, two days after her death at age 89.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

For 45 minutes at Ms. Cook’s side, Mr. Pizzarelli played whatever sprung to mind. He strummed the opening chords to “The Way You Look Tonight,” a song that appeared on her 1993 album, “Close as Pages in a Book,” a collection of songs by Dorothy Fields. Then came “More Than You Know,” which Ms. Cook featured on the 2012 album “Loverman” and which Mr. Pizzarelli recalled hearing her sing at a party once. He went through “I Got Rhythm,” the George Gershwin staple, because Ms. Cook used to close shows with the song.

“I never know what to say in general,” Mr. Pizzarelli said. “But I thought the only thing that I can do is go and play and sing.”

Ms. Molaskey sang “Goodnight, My Someone,” which Ms. Cook performed in “The Music Man.”

“It’s so interesting how life is — that you could adore someone so much when you were a kid in your basement, and there you are invited to the most personal thing that could ever happen, to say goodbye to somebody,” Ms. Molaskey said. “She was unconscious but the doctors had said that they thought she could hear people talking.”

In at least one moment, Ms. Cook seemed to signal that she was hearing them, according to Ms. Molaskey.

“We started singing and she lifted her finger up to her mouth,” Ms. Molaskey said. “She tapped her lips twice and I thought she was singing with us.”

Ms. Williams visited a few days later, shortly before Mr. Lewis arrived, and repeatedly sang “Send in the Clowns” from 1973’s “A Little Night Music.”

“She kept singing it,” Mr. Lewis said. “And then when I came in, we just started singing Sondheim tunes.”

They spontaneously sang Sondheim’s “Old Friends” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “In Buddy’s Eyes,” the song from “Follies” that Ms. Cook memorably performed at Lincoln Center in 1985.

“There was one response where she opened her eyes a little bit and we kind of interpreted it like, ‘Enough of that; you’re messing up my song,’” Mr. Lewis said with a laugh.

Mr. LeGrant, Ms. Cook’s son and an actor himself, described the bedside singing as “a beautiful moment.”

“I hesitate to say that it was something that only performers would understand,” he said. “It’s the giving of a gift that is very special because it’s how we communicate. To a fellow communicator, to give her something that they had all shared together, that was very special to them personally.”


Ms. Cook and her son, Adam, in 1963.

via Adam LeGrant

Several Broadway luminaries sent recordings after Ms. Martzinek sent word about Ms. Cook’s health. In Mr. Groban’s message, he sang snippets of “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd,” a number he performed at Ms. Cook’s behest at her concert at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.

That song was special to both of them, he said, but he wasn’t necessarily thinking about an ending in making his recording.

“I didn’t think of it necessarily as so much a goodbye,” he said, “as just wanting to show her my love and to give her some sense that I was there with her in spirit, at least, and in thought.”

Ms. McDonald, in a telephone interview, said she sent a recording “just to tell her that I loved her.”

“Once I started working with her, I was able to see that there had been not necessarily an easy way to do it, but an ultimately truthful way to perform in concert,” Ms. McDonald said. “And that truth means not only telling the story not only in the most truthful way you can through song, but being as truthful with the audience as you possibly can.”


Hugh Jackman and Kelli O’Hara were among the Broadway stars who sent audio and video recordings to say goodbye to Ms. Cook.

Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times, Elizabeth Bick for The New York Times

Ms. O’Hara said in an email that Ms. Cook “showed us all what was possible” and that “her talent, wit, her honesty and her lasting power were all things I will always aspire to,” sentiments that she tried to express to Ms. Cook in her recording.

“I told her I would always hold her in my heart and sing with her in my heart,” Ms. O’Hara said. “And then, before thinking it through, I actually said goodbye. I’m so glad I did.”

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