Though I had heard Maureen McGovern's beautiful vocal tones on various television programs, it was not until college — when the singing actress released her solo album "Another Woman in Love" — that I truly recognized her gifts as a performer. At the time I was hosting a radio program on my college station, and McGovern's versions of "I Remember," "Rainy Days" and "Some Other Time" got lots of air play. But I probably played no song from that album more than I did "I Could've Been a Sailor," the best rendition of the Peter Allen tune I've yet to hear.
Although McGovern has appeared on Broadway in three musicals — The Pirates of Penzance, Nine and the Sting revival of 3 Penny Opera — 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, opens at the Virginia Theatre Jan. 23, 2005, with McGovern in the role of family matriarch, Marmee. McGovern will bring her terrific, multi-octave voice to the role as well as her acting skills, which she has been honing this past decade in acclaimed productions of Dear World, The Lion in Winter and, most recently, the West Coast premiere of William Finn's Elegies. I recently had the chance to chat with the good-humored McGovern, who is currently offering an evening of "Sultry Songs on a Hot Summer's Night" at the new Manhattan hotspot, Le Jazz Au Bar. That interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with Little Women?
Maureen McGovern: Well, actually, [director] Susan Schulman has been a friend for 23 years since we first worked together. She directed me in my very first theatrical adventure, The Sound of Music, for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. We subsequently did South Pacific and Guys and Dolls at Pittsburgh CLO. I was hired to do The Sound of Music, never even having done a high school play! On my way to Pittsburgh I was asked to come audition for Joe Papp for Pirates of Penzance. He hired me on the spot, never even having done anything. [Laughs.] I was hired for Pirates, went and did my one week of summer stock with Susan, who gave me a master class in those two weeks there, and literally stepped foot on Broadway. And, so, I went back to Pittsburgh CLO on my vacation from Pirates. I did that show for a year and two months and did a week of South Pacific with Susan. We've wanted to do a project together for years, and Dani Davis, one of the producers, and Randall Wreghitt, had seen me in a workshop of Robin Hood that Martin Charnin and Tom Eyen were working on, [playing] the elder Lady Marian, and they said right then, "We have our Marmee." So, Susan and I started talking, and I said, "Oh God, I've loved this piece since I was a child." I read it as a very young child, a condensed version of it. And, of course, I've seen all four or five of the movies and have loved them. It's every young girl's dream — Jo is the great character to live out your dreams and keep your individuality and still have a glorious life. . . . I have not been able to participate [in the workshops] because of my working schedule. I was doing Elegies in Los Angeles at the time and had to honor a couple concerts that I had back East, [but] I took a red eye in time to see a reading last spring of Little Women, and oh my God, Sutton Foster is the definitive Jo. 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. Susan has cast the show beautifully. Every person, the minute they walk out on the stage, you know who they are.
Q: What's the score like for the musical?
MM: The score is absolutely gorgeous. I have two specific songs and then sing part of others with people. I absolutely adore the music that I'm doing. A beautiful piece called "Here Alone" — Marmee is trying to write a letter to her husband and be positive. She's struggling with trying to find the words to say to him that don't let him know how alone and how fragile she is. She's a very strong inventive woman, which is wonderful because Marmee informs all the other girls. You see pieces of her — she's their rock — in their personalities. This is a very vulnerable moment for her. "How will I make it through all this? And how can I not worry my husband about how difficult life is at home without him?" She's a very strong woman and compassionate and creative, so she's just a wonderful character to play. She's like everyone's dream for their mother.
The other song is called "Days of Plenty," which is a beautiful, wonderful anthem of courage and hope and belief in the future even though she sings it after Beth has died. Jo says to her, "How do you go on? How do you keep going — you don't fall apart." And she says, "I don't have the choice. If I fell apart, I would take away from what her life meant. I have to keep going." She'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. 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. It's been delayed many times and just kind of in the offing, and I'm so thrilled that it's finally going to happen.
Q: And you're having out-of-town tryouts at Duke?
MM: Yes, at Duke — September rehearsal and October performances.
Q: And then you'll come to Broadway, and you'll finally get your Broadway opening night.
MM: Yes! [Laughs.] Your words to God's ears. Knock word.
Q: With 3 Penny, I remember seeing you on television talking about missing your opening night. What happened?
MM: What happened was the [Kurt] Weill estate and the musical director insisted — this is what I understood anyway — that the only way the Weill estate would allow it to be done was if the score and the book and everything was done in the original order and the original key. They must have had some wonderfully freakish soprano — that's what Michael Tilson Thomas said to me. It must have been some freakish soprano who could sing the score in the keys that it was in — because basically they wanted soprano roles belted. And 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 to them, "This is painful. This is very painful." [Director] John Dexter was fine with him to change anything, but the music end of the production refused. A week before we opened, I kept vocal silence and went at six o'clock to the theatre 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. [Laughs.] I had to go on that night — my understudy's costumes weren't ready and she wasn't ready — so I kind of talk-sang around that area. I went to Dr. Gould the next day and his associate, Gwen Corovan, she came in and literally saved my life. She said, "No way [you can perform]. You have got a ruptured blood vessel on the right vocal chord." She conferred with Dr. Gould and said if I kept silence for the next week — Dr. Gould said, "My opera divas have never missed a performance!" — if you keep total silence and write notes, perhaps by the following Friday you'll be able to open. . . . [But] by the day before, it wasn't any better, so I missed the opening, which was devastating. It's like preparing for the wedding and no honeymoon. [Laughs.] So I missed 22 shows, and when I came back, I think we just had a week-and-a-half, and it closed. So it was frustrating.
So I'm very much looking forward to this [opening night]. The keys are wonderful, the part is just a delicious role to play, and Susan, aside from being a dear friend, she is just one of my favorite directors. She bonds the cast in a way that is just wonderful. It's just a wonderful experience, and she has a perfect eye for this period. She's the consummate person to direct this piece. And Janet Carroll, a friend from California, she's playing Aunt March, and she's wonderful. But, seriously, every single person they've cast is wonderful.
Q: You mentioned a little about Pirates of Penzance. What was it like making your Broadway debut with so little stage experience?
MM: It was just one of those nights you bring your whole life to, and 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. [Laughs.] I was terrified, absolutely, but I didn't know the enormity of it. It was great fun. That show was such a valentine, and it could have gone on for years and years. I guess it was hard to cast everybody. It was just a joy to come to work every night.
Q: And after that you replaced Karen Akers . . .
MM: Yes, Karen Akers in Nine with Raul Julia. I loved that piece. I did not get to see the revival, and I heard Antonio [Banderas] was wonderful. Tommy Tune's vision of that piece, the stark black and white. I actually watched Nine on my day off from Pirates for weeks before going into it. And every single time I'd think, "Oh my God, they've added something," which they hadn't. It was just so multi-layered. It was a show you could see a million times and still catch something new. It was an exquisite piece.
Q: And you got to sing two of the best songs in the show.
MM: Yes, "Be On Your Own" and "My Husband Makes Movies." I think it's Maury Yeston's finest score.
Q: Your career has had so many twists and turns, but I guess it all started with "The Morning After." Did you think at the time that that would be such a big hit, and how does the song resonate for you now?
MM: You know, it's interesting. At the time I thought it was a nice song, and I was grateful for it — being an unknown artist — to have an Oscar-winning song. The song almost did not happen. They wrote it for Barbra Streisand, and she turned it down. My producer had sent a tape to all the record companies, and everybody had turned me down except for Twentieth Century Records, and Russ Regan, who was head of the label at the time, heard something in my voice and literally signed me sight unseen and said, "We'll look for something." This was October of '72, and so in November they sent me this song and said, "This is going to be a huge movie. You're an unknown artist, this will be a great vehicle." So, we recorded it in Cleveland. I had a cold at the time. I had flown in from Canada — they had prerecorded the tracks, and I just put my voice on there.
The song was released in December along with the movie. The movie took off, and the song did nothing, so they dropped it. And then it was nominated for an Oscar in the spring of '73 and subsequently won the Oscar, so radio stations all across the country were playing it, and this huge groundswell of song requests happened all across the country that forced Twentieth Century Records to rerelease it, and by August of '73 it was a gold record. So it was kind of a Cinderella story for the first time out.
At the time I was going through [many things] — my mother had colon cancer, we'd gone through her first series of operations for that, I was going through a divorce, a lawsuit with my first manager. My life was falling apart, and so it was ironic that I'm singing the hopeful anthem. I think what people heard in that was my desperate need to believe it. It's kind of the generic hope song. I still get letters today from people who had a death in the family or are going through illness or trying times or depression and how the song still resonates and still means things to people. It really didn't come full circle to me until my [experience with my] youngest niece. I've done the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon — this will be my 25th year, and I've sung "The Morning After" umteen times on the show. And, about ten years ago, my youngest niece [Carolyn] was diagnosed with Dermatomyositis, which is one of the neuromuscular diseases. And we were just devastated, and I had to go on the telethon and sing "The Morning After" that year, and I could barely get through the song. It was like my "ah-ha" moment as to what people really got from this song for years and years and years. And, gratefully she's in her second remission, and [is involved in] swimming team championship, she rides horses, and she's doing exquisitely well. So we're very grateful, but it brought home the real message of "The Morning After" to me, personally.
So I've started the Maureen McGovern Works of Heart Foundation for Music and Healing. All the letters that I've gotten from people through the years, and I know how I personally respond to music in times of joy, in times of triumph, in times of terror and depression. Music has really been a touchstone in my life. And I started working with the American Music Therapy Association. I'm one of the national spokespersons. And music therapists are these wonderful folks who have a music degree plus a clinical degree on top of that, and they have one-on-one consultations with patients, and I've gone on rounds with them around the country, and it's just extraordinary how music — it's not the cure to cancer — but it really aids in the healing process, and so it's a real passion of mine. End of my soapbox [laughs], but it's a real passion for me.
Q: You're also about to do two weeks in Manhattan at Le Jazz Au Bar. What type of music will you be doing there?
MM: The show is called "Sultry Songs on a Hot Summer's Night," so they'll be sensual, playful, summer thematic things. I did Elegies in the West Coast premiere of Bill Finn's piece, which I absolutely loved. And I'm doing one of his pieces from A New Brain, "I'd Rather Be Sailing." Jeff Harris, my musical director, and James Harris wrote a wonderful piece called "Humidity." You couldn't do "Sultry Songs" without doing "Fever," the sultry song anthem. [Laughs.] And some Gershwin, one little Rodgers and Hart gem, a Cole Porter piece, some Jule Styne. I do a very deliciously bizarre piece by the classical composer William Bolcom called "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." I met him on a previous occasion, and I can't wait to ask him what inspired that [song], but it's something from my childhood. It's a universal song. [Laughs.] Bobby Troup's "The Meaning of the Blues." I just did a Peggy Lee tribute in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl and the Ravinia Festival, and I was shocked at the amount of lyrics that she had written, and she even composed some things. I do a piece called "The Shining Sea" that she wrote with Johnny Mandel from "The Russians are Coming" and "The Island."
Q: Final question: When people hear the name Maureen McGovern, what would you like them to think?
MM: In three words or less? [Laughs.] Well, obviously, she sings. But, you know, I used to think of myself as a singer who acts. But over the years I've been fortunate to do work with Philip Himberg at Sundance and different places, doing Dear World and doing The Lion in Winter, and I'm really an actor who sings. That's what I've been working on in my middle life. [Laughs.]
[Maureen McGovern is currently playing Manhattan's Le Jazz Au Bar through Aug. 22. The new jazz club is located at 41 East 58th Street; call (212) 308 9455 for reservations.] DIVA TIDBITS
I was very happy to learn that LML Music, which was founded by Lee Lessack, and David Friedman's Midder Music have inked a deal that will allow LML to distribute the recordings of the late, great singer Nancy LaMott. LaMott, who lost her battle with cancer in 1995 at the age of 44, was blessed with one of, if not the, most beautiful voices in the cabaret world: a rich, lush, honey-toned sound that could be soft, sweet and creamy one minute and big and belty the next. She also possessed a remarkable ability to find the emotional center of any song, bringing a lyric to life as honestly as possible. Beginning in January 2005, LML will begin selling LaMott's recordings, which have mostly been unavailable for the past few years. Those recordings, all originally released on the Midder label, include “Beautiful Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercer,” “My Foolish Heart,” “Just in Time for Christmas” and “Listen to My Heart” as well as the posthumously issued “What’s Good About Goodbye?" LML will also distribute compilation and live recordings of LaMott that have never before been released. I've heard that the first "new" recording may be a live Tavern on the Green concert or a compilation of the unreleased tunes Jonathan Schwartz plays on his radio program. Stay tuned for more.
Elaine Paige, London's greatest musical theatre star, will host a new talk show for BBC Radio 2 this fall. Paige, in fact, is just one of several big names who will host new radio programs for the British station. Dermot O'Leary, Lulu, Mark Lamarr, Bob Harris, Helen Mayhew and Desmond Carrington will all be part of BBC Radio 2's new season, which commences Sept. 4. Paige's program will begin airing Sept. 5 at 1 PM and will feature music from the stage and screen. The program will feature a "weekly competition, listener requests and Elaine in conversation with some of the people who have created and starred in the greatest musicals of all time." About the new program, Paige said, "I am so excited to be joining BBC Radio 2. I'm really looking forward to this new challenge . . . and all without having to put on lots of make up and a hot and heavy costume!" For more information visit www.bbc.co.uk/radio2.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!
(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)