Never mind "The Morning After" — it's a Broadway opening that Maureen McGovern desires.
Although the singing actress — who first shot to fame with "The Morning After," the Oscar-winning theme song from 1972's "The Poseidon Adventure" — has appeared on Broadway in three musicals, she has yet to enjoy an official, pop-the-cork-on-the-champagne opening night. That should all change this season, when Little Women, the new musical based on the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel, begins previews in December at the Virginia Theatre with McGovern in the role of the family matriarch, Marmee.
McGovern's Broadway career began in 1981 when she succeeded Linda Ronstadt and Karla DeVito as Major-General Stanley's daughter Mabel in the Public Theater's Tony-winning production of The Pirates of Penzance. Though she was already an admired concert artist, McGovern made her Broadway bow with next to no theatrical experience, save for one week of summer stock in The Sound of Music. About her first performance on The Great White Way, McGovern says, "It will always remain one of the most thrilling nights of my life. I didn't know enough to be as terrified as I should have been. I was terrified, absolutely, but I didn't know the enormity of it."
The performer, blessed with a soaring, multi-octave voice, followed that Gilbert and Sullivan run replacing Karen Akers as put-upon wife Luisa Contini in the original, Tommy Tune-directed production of Nine. "I loved Tommy Tune's vision of that piece, the stark black and white," says McGovern, who belted out the show's "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Be On Your Own," two of composer Maury Yeston's great tunes. "It was so multi-layered. It was a show you could see a million times and still catch something new. It was an exquisite piece." After two replacement gigs, McGovern was given the opportunity to open a Broadway production, the much-in-the-news 1989 staging of Kurt Weill's 3 Penny Opera that starred pop star Sting as Macheath, the head of the gang of crooks. A score that forced her to belt high into her soprano range, however, caused McGovern to miss her opening night and, subsequently, most of the show's short run. "The only way the Weill estate would allow [the show] to be done," McGovern explains, "was if the score and the book and everything were done in the original order and the original keys . . . [and] they wanted the soprano roles belted. I could get it out and sing it, but I knew for vocal health it was wrong for eight shows a week. I kept saying, 'This is painful.' A week before we opened, I went to the theatre at six o'clock to do my warm-ups, and I got to the beginning of my belt, and nothing but air and squeaks came out.
"I saw my whole life pass before me," McGovern says with a laugh. "I had ruptured a blood vessel on the right vocal chord. [The doctor said] if I kept silent for the next week, I'd be able to open, [but] the day before the opening, it wasn't any better, so I missed the opening, which was devastating. . . . I missed 22 shows, and when I came back, I think we had just a week-and-a-half and it closed. It was very frustrating."
Now, 15 years later — after a decade or so of earning raves in regional productions of Dear World, The Lion in Winter and William Finn's Elegies — McGovern is more than ready for her opening in Little Women. And it seems fitting that Susan H. Schulman, the woman who directed her in her very first stage production — the aforementioned summer-stock Sound of Music — should be at the helm of Little Women, which plays an out-of-town tryout at Duke University's Reynolds Theatre this month.
"Susan, aside from being a dear friend," says McGovern, "is one of my favorite directors. She bonds the cast in a way that is just wonderful. She has a perfect eye for this period; she's the consummate person to direct this piece." McGovern, whose stalwart Marmee guides her daughters through the Civil War while their preacher father is away, is part of a company that boasts Tony Award winner Sutton (Thoroughly Modern Millie) Foster as tomboy Josephine "Jo" March.
"Sutton Foster is the definitive Jo," McGovern raves. "The part is transcendent with her. It's a great part to begin with, and she has just taken it to new heights. She's astounding."
McGovern will no doubt astound audiences as well with her two solos, "Here Alone" and "Days of Plenty." About the former, she relates, "Marmee is trying to write a letter to her husband and be positive. She's struggling with trying to find the words that don't let him know how alone and how fragile she is. This is a very vulnerable moment for her." The latter song, an anthem of courage and hope, is sung following the devastating death of her youngest daughter Beth, when Jo asks Marmee how she is able to go on. "She says, 'I don't have the choice. If I fell apart, I would take away from what her life meant.' Marmee's the strength, she's the backbone and the rock for all of these girls.
"It's a delicious story, and the score is glorious," McGovern adds. "Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein have done a beautiful job, and Allan Knee's book is exquisite and very faithful to the story. I'm so excited. This has been a long process. I'm so thrilled it's finally going to happen."