Barbara Cook
Photo: Dan Chavkin
Barbara Cook is teaching a master class. I'm in the first row. We are at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, a California town world famous for its mall. Klieg lights focus on where Ms. Cook will stand. The theater is packed with college students. Not one was born when Barbara Cook was Broadway's beloved ingenue Marian the librarian in The Music Man.

Ms. Cook will be 79 in a few days. The first 78 were the hardest. Her baby sister died when Barbara was 3. That same week, her mother's brother was murdered. Then her parents divorced. Cook's mother clung to her remaining daughter. They shared the same bed until 1948 when, after a visit to New York, Barbara waved goodbye at the station. Success came quickly. So did marriage, motherhood, divorce, depression, alcoholism, and a weight gain that led to starring offers in Tugboat Annie. Two years ago, Wally Harper, Ms. Cook's accompanist of almost 31 years, died.

At 2:05 P.M. a door opens. The auditorium goes silent. Ms. Cook sweeps in. She gets a standing ovation.

“Now, who's going to sing for me?” She takes in the house.

Hands shoot up.

“This is not a performance,” Ms. Cook cautions. “This is a class. What this is about, what I respond to most, is someone being their authentic self.”

"Authentic self?" I thought her publicist told me she loves imitations. I'm having a private class with her tomorrow. Will she like my imitations?

A tall cherub starts to sing “Smile”: "Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it's breaking / When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by / If you smile...."

He sings as if he's already absorbed the advice in that last stanza. Ms. Cook interrupts. “You're showing us the result, not the process. Put yourself back to when the loss occurred.”