Diva 5+1: Maureen McGovern

Maureen McGovern in A Long and Winding Road - Arena Stage

I got to talk to one of the true greats in the cabaret world today!

Maureen McGovern was, of course, noted in the 70’s for pop songs such as There’s Got to Be a Morning After and We May Never Love Like This Again. 

But she really zoomed off the chart artistically with two major recordings that are (along with the early Feinstien albums and the Julie Wilson songbooks) the most important cabaret recordings of the late 1980s.   Another Woman in Love is a brilliantly selected, amazingly performed set of songs with piano accompaniment and her CD, Naughty Baby, is still in my opinion, the best Gershwin CD that has ever been recorded.  (Ella who? Michael who?)

McGovern has also appeared in a number of theatrical productions, notably Pirates of Penzance , the highly problematic Sting revival of The Threepenny Opera, and most recently on Broadway and on tour with Little Women.  I still have memories of seeing her at the phenomenal-for-eighteen-months Anton’s on Pennsylvania Avenue and having my terrific parents take me to see her Styne/Comden/Greene show at Rainbow and Stars for a birthday celebration.

McGovern will be opening at Arena-Stage-in-Exile/Crystal City later this month in  A Long and Winding Road, a theatricalization of her cabaret show presented last year at the Metropolitan Room. 

Here’s the interview:

1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.

Well, I’ve always loved my Rogers show because I love, love the music of Richard Rodgers and I think A Long and Winding Road show we just did at the Metropolitan Room last year was a breakthrough in many ways because it was a different kind of show for me which ultimately is leading me to this theatrical expanded version of … that concert.  So it was a joy to work with Philip Himberg and just go back and re-live my life in tandem with the boomer experience.  I mean go back and relive all that.  And my Gershwin show, too.  Just talking about my personal experiences, those shows were always great fun.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet? 

A song that I’ve been struggling with?  Well hang up and I will think, “Oh, it was that!”

Actually, if you’re talking about Threepenny Opera, within my show I actually, finally get to do Pirate Jenny the way I wanted to do it many years ago when it was insisted it would be belted in some freakishly high soprano key which ultimately almost destroyed my voice for good.  So it’s kind of a coming full circle, coming back to DC where Threepenny started and actually getting to sing Pirate Jenny the way I always wanted to sing it.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?   

If I’m working with someone new, I instinctively know whether we’re on the same page or not.  Sometimes you get there and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes it takes longer to get there. 

I’m so blessed to work with Jeff Harris.  He’s the musical director for our show and I’ve known him since he graduated from college — years ago.  I hired him out of college and he’s kind of come and gone through other projects and whatever working with me through the years… He’s a brilliant songwriter as well.  The first time I heard Jeff play, even as a young man, I was so taken by the sensitivity and inventiveness of the way he plays.  And you know I happened to say, “Gee, do you do any arrangements?” and he said, “Well yes, I arrange, and I also write songs,” and I said, “Oh! So play something for me!” and he played this most incredible song that he had written about grandfather.  And I was just in tears.  And you know, so through the years that started what has been a very long collaboration with him writing songs for me specifically. 

You mentioned Another Woman in Love.  That to me is my very first album, you know!  Grateful to the hits from the ’70s – but that was the first album from my heart, and several of his songs are on that.  And working with Mike Renzi, too, for all those years.  There’s like a shorthand that happens when you’re both on the same page.  It’s like one mind thinking and that’s kind of really important to me.  There are a lot of wonderful pianists and musical directors out there, but I’ve been blessed to work with Mike and Jeff and it doesn’t get any better

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

You have to take each song and each story that you’re telling and, you know, being open and going back to that time and really actually living it.  Living the song.  I mean whatever context I put a song into… inhabiting that space and really living it.  You know, everybody gets tired at times or distracted or whatever — so you just bring the focus back.  But I have a friend who —  if you have an audience where it’s “are you really with me, guys?” —  I project him in that audience because he loves everything I do …. And he’s just a wonderful audience.  And so I project him out there.  (I would preface, he loves everything I do and he GETS everything I do.)

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

Well, I think … these dire times.  You know all the arts are perilously having all their funding… cut back or eliminated and the arts, …particularly in times of crisis, have always been the glue that has held us all together. …

Cabaret to me has been an incredible learning experience.  I continue to learn and explore thorugh cabaret.  Because … cabaret is the antithesis of your hits or whatever you’re known for.  Tell me more!  Tell me something else about you and yourself.  And the material you can choose from in the world of cabaret!  You can find the most eccentric, you know, eclectic material, and someone out there is going to know it!  Which I love!  And I think it’s important.  You know, I’m a champion of the Great American Songbook be it from the first half of the Twentieth Century or the second half of the Twentiety Century which I’m exploring with Long and Winding Road.  Just that it’s important that those great songs continue to be heard.  That’s why I think Cabaret (is important) …  to allow an artist to explore and experiment but also to continue that great tradition of keeping these great songs alive in world that is written for the feet rather than the heart.  I think it’s really important that cabaret (exist) for that very reason.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

+1  From what I understand “A Long and Winding Road” is a theatrical translation of the cabaret show you did last season.  What insights has the experience of adapating it theatrically given you?

It’s been an incredible journey from the beginning when Philip Himberg and I talked about doing (it)…  He directed me in two pieces at Sundance – Umbrellas of Cherbourg and a revival of Jerry Herman’s Dear World…. So I did those two and Elegies, the Bill Finn musical, with Philip in L.A.  So we’ve always talked about doing a project from scratch, …something new.  So when I came to him with the idea of exploring music of my generation, of me going back to those coming of age songs, musical coming of age songs for me on the way to The Morning After, and all the great singer/songwriters, more folk influences (which I started out playing guitar and singing folk music) came to the fore.  So we envisioned… a theater piece.  So we started, again using cabaret as kind of the workshop at the Metropolitan Room a year ago with A Long and Winding Road just prior to recording the album,  And so it’s been a whole birthing process of this which I love: …to take something to that step and then to the cabaret and then to the recording and to expand this.  ….

As a singer, I’m a storyteller and so this is an expanded version of that which includes much storytelling connecting the evening together.  And as well as audio-visual components to the piece…. There’s just something wonderful about a piano and a person singing and talking.  You know, you don’t need a chandelier falling, … it’s just pure, pure theater and I really love that. So it kind of brings together the singer side of me, the actor side of me into a piece that’s very cathartic for me.  Telling my story every night and taking the Boomer generation and hopefully other generations, younger generations, as well on this journey with me.  And the Boomers will, of course, have their life pass before them through mine.

Photo by Deborah Feingold

One Response to Diva 5+1: Maureen McGovern

  1. Matt Howe says:

    Oooh!! I *love* ANOTHER WOMAN IN LOVE. I bought that album back in 1988-ish when I lived in Los Angeles. Her song selection, the arrangements … Perfection. “Something I Thought I’d Never Do” is BRILLIANT!!! And “Could Have Been a Sailor” is the best.

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