By Walker Joyce
As I write, I’m mourning the death of the great Barbara Cook, who passed away on August 8th. Another favorite, Glen Campbell, succumbed the same Tuesday.
I thought of paying tribute to both, but then I pondered how influential celebrities can be, even if we never meet them. And that, dear readers, is my theme. I may return to Glen at some time, but now I’d like to focus on how one of Miss Cook’s most famous projects helped decide my future.
Her long standing as a revered cabaret singer eclipsed her beginnings on Broadway. During 1950s she was the most sought-after leading lady in the Musical Theatre, yet as she didn’t repeat her roles on film (as was then customary), she’s most remembered for appearing in nightclubs.
For me, she’ll forever be “Marion the Librarian” in the original production of The Music Man.
I never got to see this classic as it ended its run when I was seven, a tad young to attend a New York show. I wouldn’t do that until I was a 5th grader, but that’s another story.
My first exposure to the Man was its cast album, which I discovered amid my grandparents’ collection one rainy summer day in 1965. (The disc was also a mammoth hit, winning the first Grammy in its category and staying on the Billboard charts for nearly a year.) I played it out of boredom, and was immediately struck by the overture.
Afterward the first number began, a spoken piece called “Rock Island,” set in a railway car. Recited by the male cast, it mimicked the rhythm and sounds of a train. This also grabbed me, and now I think of it as the original Rap song. Go to YouTube and I think you’ll agree!
The third tune, similar in nature, was what really knocked me out. “Ya Got Trouble,” was another rap-anticipator delivered by the star, the immortal Robert Preston. I played it over and over until I memorized it. The lyrics never erased and I can do it today, over 50 years later.
Then came Barbara Cook’s shimmering soprano, the show’s most famous song “76 Trombones,” a flawless barbershop quartet and other treats.
On the album’s flip side was a wonderful surprise—a Beatles song! Sort of.
A year earlier, on their 2nd American LP, Paul McCartney crooned a lovely cover of Barb and Bob’s love duet, “Till There Was You.” It was the only Broadway tune the band ever recorded, a great piece of trivia that’s won me more than a few bar bets.
The summer of 1966 brought great news: Man’s acclaimed cinema version would make its network debut on The CBS Thursday Night Movie. Before cable or home videos, showing famous flicks on TV was a big deal.
When it finally aired that September my whole family watched, turning that evening into a party.
Later the local high school did the show, and I finally saw it live. Watching kids about my age having so much fun with it triggered my first ambitions to perform.
It reflected in other ways too. I wore 76 as a football player. The next Broadway show to claim me was 1776 (yet another tale), and I graduated from college in 1976, our Bicentennial. As it brimmed with Americana, The Music Man was revived plenty back then--including a version in the late 70s at Neil’s New Yorker, a dinner theatre in Mountain Lakes. (Many up-and-comers worked there, including Nathan Lane.) I played a duel role, as the cheapskate producer put “Mayor Shinn” in the quartet.
In the early 80s, I did Man in stock, playing “Charlie Cowell,” the closest thing to a villain in the script. Now a member of Actors Equity, I signed on for a third production and played “Charlie” in Ohio for several months.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the sun had been shining that long-ago July day. What I do know is if I ever meet Cook and Preston in Heaven, I’ll thank them.