Stephen Holden on Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart and Maureen McGovern

November 10, 2011

THe NYTimes on cabaret’s top mother/son team:“The singer Sandy Stewart is the queen of calm. In a world in which everyone is shouting to be heard, Ms. Stewart — appearing with her son, the world-class jazz pianist Bill Charlap, at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room — is a voice of reflection. As she and Mr. Charlap performed standards on Wednesday, you had the feeling of being in the presence of an empathic sibyl gently reminding you that life goes on.”

As to Maureen McGovern’s stand at Birdland: “Vocally Ms. McGovern, now 62, is a pop-jazz embodiment of that ideal. Unfailingly demure, unabashedly romantic, with a voice as strong and flexible as Barbra Streisand’s, she can go anywhere she pleases. It is a voice especially well suited to songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.”

At the Keys: Jeffrey D. Harris

April 11, 2009
Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris -- at the keys -- with Maureen McGovern

Jeffrey D. Harris is currently music directing for the show A Long and Winding Road starring Maureen McGovern at Arena.  (It plays through Sunday evening and is terrific!)

Like many, I was first introduced to Harris’s work on McGovern’s Another Woman in Love CD, arranging and playing.  He has also composed the music for a number of classic McGovern tunes including Why Can’t I Forget?, and The Same Moon.

1.      By nature music directors are multi-talented beings: musician, composer, arranger, performer, teacher and often business manager, travel agent, and shrink.  How do you primarily define yourself as an artist and what place does music directing have in your career?

I, primarily …, my head is the composer head.  And I’ve been composing a lot less over the last two years, which is a source of consternation for me, for a variety of reasons.  But I still see everything as more of a composer, and I trained more as a composer, but I’ve always worked as a pianist… I’ve always worked on everything.  And there was one point in my life where I had an agent who said “you’re getting to be too known as a musical director, you need to just be a composer if you want to get a show on Broadway.” 

And so I tried for a while just to be a composer, and it was the worst thing I ever did.  For some reason, I need all those things I did – all those things I do – exactly what you just mentioned (except the business part).  I need all those things to work together for me to get any of it done.  Even if I’m writing, I still need to be working as a pianist, I still need to be working as an orchestrator, I do a lot of conducting.  So I sort of come at things from a composer’s standpoint.  And I think it forms what I do as a pianist because there’s a lot of pianists who are very much “piano players” – they play all over the keys and it’s all about pianistics, and for me, the piano just happens to be the instrument I play to make the music.

2.      Who have your major musical influences been?

An eclectic bunch.  I wanted to be Burt Bachrach in the worst way – and so he was one of those people who did everything we just mentioned.  And when I was growing up and was ten, eleven years old – that was really the time he was at his height and I’d watch his special on TV and he’d sit at the piano, and he was conducting, and he was playing, and he had written the orchestrations of the song, and he would actually sing a little bit (which I also do).  And that to me, that was it!  So I also go toward those kind of people that do it all, the Andre Previns, the Leonard Bernsteins.

So I love those people, but aside from them I’ve also been influenced classically by the American 20th Century composers – Barber, Ned Rorem.  I was a composition major in college so I went through all that and was writing serious music for a little bit.  And I love Copeland, and I love a lot of the 20th Century British composers like Vaughn Williams and Finzi and some of those people.  But then in the pop music world, I loved Jimmy Webb; I love Michel LeGrand.  And then I have a big jazz influence.  So it’s really eclectic.  And I tend to go for really obscure people.  I always go for the really obscure ones, not the typical ones.  So instead of Oscar Peterson, I really like the pianist named Roger Kellaway.  I did love Bill Evans; he was a big influence on me as a pianist.  

(Later in the interview)

I also love Randy Newman, who you can put on that list.  And I didn’t list any theater composers like Sondheim and Richard Rodgers.

3.      What is a particularly memorable performance moment you have had?

I can think of two.  One’s very funny.  Actually two are very funny and I have one more serious moment.

The two really funny moments are I played at the White House twice and once was with Karen Akers.  We were playing and she was so nervous that she skipped over an entire section of the song.  And she skipped a section and modulated where there was no modulation.  And we’re playing for the president of the United States!  And I didn’t have what she was doing on the music.  I literally had to fly by the seat of my pants and start to go where it was that she was, and make up the new key.  And we got through it well enough that when I mentioned it to her afterwards, as we were meeting like the President of Poland and the President, and I said, “What happened?”  And she said… “There was no modulation and I just modulated with you,” and she just couldn’t believe it.  So that was fun… Always things like that, but when it happens at the White House on the White House Steinway piano!  That’s something.

And another that’s really silly, if you’ll indulge me, because I love to tell this story.  When I was first starting out in my career I was working … (with) Jack Jones and he used to tell this ridiculous joke.  He’d tell it every night.  And he recorded it on a live album, so already people have heard the joke.  For years, but he would still tell the joke… He’d say, “I was working in this club and I said to the club owner, ‘This piano is terrible. I can’t work on this piano. And my pianist is unhappy.’ And the club manager says, ‘Whaddaya mean, we just had it painted!'”  Right?  So, we’re working down in Puerto Rico and I’m like 22 years old with Jack and we’re with a big band and we’re playing and we just finish the end of the show and just as I cut off the band, he just starts to walk off.  I cut off the band, and the back leg of the grand piano collapses, and the piano comes crashing down – and you cannot believe how loud it is.  And he comes running back onstage after it happens and he goes, “How can that have happened – he just had it painted!”  That was one of my favorite moments – those are the two funny ones.  

And I actually think, to tell you the truth (I know this sounds like I’m selling the show), but I’m really having a wonderful time right now doing this show now with Maureen.  Because I have so much to do with it.  I’ve worked with Maureen since I graduated from college.  It was the first job I ever had and we worked together on and off…. And when I’ve worked with her, I’ve maybe done half the arrangements and Mike Renzi did the other half or someone else.  But now I suddenly have everything to do with this show, and it’s very much musically from my point of view.  So that’s very satisfying.

 4.      What can a performer do to establish rapport with you?  What do performers do that make you inwardly roll your eyes and sigh?

I don’t know quite how to answer that,… but the first thing I go to is that because I started working with Maureen McGovern right out of college, in a way it spoiled me for working with every other singer.  Because she is, as a musician, the perfect musician.  And she sings perfectly in tune, as you know.  And her time is perfect.  Her diction is perfect.  She’s not the kind of singer where she brings this very odd, quirky personality to the song (which I also appreciate in singers), but she is for me as a pianist and for me as a composer (because she’s recorded 15 or 16 of my songs), she’s the perfect instrument.  So whenever I deal with other singers, and I’ve worked with a lot of other singers, it’s always frustrating, because I literally can’t understand why can’t you do that ?  I get frustrated because I’m so used to that.  And because I’ve worked with Maureen so long, I haven’t worked with a lot of other singers, hand-holding them and teaching them note-by-note.  She literally comes in totally prepared, basically perfect from the get-go.

I mean her whole life is about singing.  So I was used to that.  I come in, she’s perfect, we find it, we’re done.  And then I’ll work with singers who are not such good musicians, and it’s frustrating and I’m not so good in that way.  I’m not a “coach” and so I’ve been very spoiled.  Lucky!  But very spoiled my whole life.

5.      Do you prefer to play from a binder or taped pages?

I do both.  It depends, it depends.  It really changes.  I don’t know if it’s on a whim.  Sometimes I’ll do taped pages, open accordion style with the (piano) rack down.  But then when I do more theatrical things – and you know I do a lot of shows.  A lot of Broadway shows, I was just the associate musical director of Gypsy with Patti LuPone – and on shows like that I’ll organize things.  Even at Gypsy, they had it accordion style, but I chose to do the hole punch, put it in a binder, and just do it that way.  For some reason, when I get in a show, and even now with Maureen it’s this one-woman show, it’s theatrical – I’m back to the binder.  When I’m doing something, more jazz oriented, I go back to the rack down, accordion style open flat.

6.      What is the greatest need in the world of cabaret today?

Greatest need in the world of cabaret? 

I think better musicianship.  When I go hear a lot of singers, when I go hear singers in cabarets and things I’m shocked sometimes not only of the quality of the singing but the quality of the piano, of the musical directing.  And I think musicians are getting so good these days – I mean we’re all spoiled with recordings and computers and all that that everything’s just getting to a higher level.

And sometimes it’s… Although I know cabaret is where you try out things so sometimes it’s a little, you’re going by the seat of your pants.  But sometimes cabaret – you know I hate to tell you this because you’re so into cabaret and I’m not, I’m not really into cabaret.  I much more enjoy concerts and I enjoy recordings and I enjoy theater.  And when I go to cabaret I’m often disappointed because I don’t think it’s on a very high level, and at least for me, I’m interested in the musicianship.  And maybe that’s not where you find it.  There are things in cabaret that are really fun but it doesn’t interest me like going to hear some great… like going to hear Keith Jarrett play piano.  But that’s just a quirky little thing… I have a very narrow, little world I live in, I’m afraid.

+1 Generally, when expanding a concert like this for a “theatrical” presentation, the instinct would be to add musicians and expand the band.  Could you please discuss the decision to keep the show to a piano, and how your work had to change, if at all, to go from a cabaret to a more theatrical interpretation?

It has.  Just tempo-wise. I’ve had to bump things up because theatrically things do not work as well when they’re at “concert” tempo.  I think you can luxuriate in a concert and just close your eyes and listen to the music, but in a theater piece, everything has to have that, that forward motion to it.  That’s why I think the greatest theater conductor is Paul Gemigniani, and … everything’s got a little push to it.  When you sit back too far on it, like a jazz musician would, on stage it does not work.  I tried it and it just doesn’t work.  So tempo-wise everything’s being pushed, just a little bit.

I think as far as the musicians largely it was financial.  I think Maureen’s hope, maybe, is that this could go to Off-Broadway or Broadway, or certainly Off-Broadway, and if there was a budget, certainly we could add musicians.  I think we’re still in the development stage here, and I think if we had orchestrations to worry about it would certainly be prohibitive.  And suddenly she’s got the right show at the right time, at a time when the economy is poor, and suddenly theaters seem to be very interested in a one-person show.  Particularly with just a pianist.  And … having said all that, I think there’s something very special that people seem to get from just Maureen and I together.  I think because we’ve spent thirty years together, almost. 

( Photo by Eric Antoniou)

Diva 5+1: Maureen McGovern

March 11, 2009

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


June 6, 2008

Ron and I finally made the trek to the new Gaylord National Harbor.  The main atrium is far less oppressived than Opryland in Nashville.  And I was reminded of Blake Pace, the pianist at the Flaming Pit.  There are moments when he cedes his act to an animated doll and comments, “isn’t it amazing what grown adults will stare at for three minutes?”  Well, the atrium of the hotel has a set of fountains synchronized to music and lights — a mini-Bellagio-on-the Potomac!  And it’s amazing how much one can enjoy watching 15 or so jets of water.

On another subject, I was a little mean to a telemarketer last night.  It was a rep from Arena Stage asking me to renew my subscription.  The telemarker was pressuring me to renew by June 13, so I would be sure “to keep my seats for next season.”  I couldn’t help myself and asked how I could possibly “keep my seats” for the shows at the Lincoln Theater next season — considering that it’s the first time Arena-in-Exile is presenting there.  I tried (unsuccessfully I think) to commiserate with her on the bad telemarketing script she was being asked to work with.  (Earlier this year when I got snarky with Arena on this blog, it afforded the Arena marketing director an opportunity to write a piece about managing perception in the blogosphere.) 

As for Arena, the cabaret audience in me is thrilled that they are bringing Maureen McGovern to town for a run.   

Maureen McGovern Goes Boomer

May 3, 2008

A Long and Winding RoadI tend to go back and forth on Maureen McGovern CDs becuase her sound and singing are so perfect, she almost sounds like a computer-generated automaton.

I’m pleased to say that this CD is terrific, and almost heartfelt.  Which is good since McGovern is slotted to do this show as part of Arena-Stage-in-Exile’s season next year.

Special praise has to go to McGovern’s long-time musical collaborator Jeff Harris for his arrangements that win the trifecta of making the songs sound contemporary, suiting McGoverns gifts, and sounding amazing!  The always terrific Jay Leonhart guests on The 59th Street Bridge Song.

Boomer cabaret is big*.  This disc takes a musical tour of the 60’s and 70’s with excursions into Joni Mitchell (a tender The Circle Game), Jimmy Webb (a beautiful suite of  By The Time I Get to Phoenix,  MacArthur Park, and The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress that in the wrong hands could have been such a wince-inducing venture into camp), and the Beatles (when was the last time you heard Rocky Raccoon?).  Her version of The Times They Are a-Changin’ made me think that in this era of an unpopular war, an imperialist Republican administration, and suicidal Democrats, perhaps there is a really good reason people need to sing these songs at this time.

Here are the tracks:

  1. All I Want/America
  2. The Times They Are a-Changin’
  3. The Circle Game
  4. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)
  5. Cowboy
  6. The Coming Of The Roads
  7. Will You Sill Love Me Tomorrow?
  8. Shed A Little Light/Carry It On
  9. The Fiddle And The Drum
  10. Fire And Rain
  11. Rocky Raccoon
  12. Let It Be
  13. By The Time I Get To Phoenix
  14. MacArthur Park
  15. The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress
  16. And When I Die
  17. Imagine
  18. The Long And Winding Road

*Note to DH — How long ago did I tell you to get on the Boomer Cabaret bandwagon?


Stephen Holden on Maureen McGovern

February 16, 2008

McGovern rides the wave of Boomer Cabaret: “Unfailingly demure, stalwartly upbeat and blessed with a vocal technique second to none, Maureen McGovern might be described as the Julie Andrews of the Love Generation. … This chronologically nonlinear musical scrapbook of baby boom music, from the 1960s to the early ’70s, begins with a fragment of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” attached to Paul Simon’s “America” and ends with a verse of Ms. Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” leading to John Lennon’s “Imagine.””

Maureen McGovern in Playbill

January 12, 2008

Playbill Online features an interesting interview with Maureen McGovern who will be at WolfTrap January 31st.  “It’s interesting because I approach my concerts in a very intimate way, so people are brought to me in a one-on-one situation as if I’m speaking to them individually. I think working in cabaret has actually made my concerts better, because I can translate that intimacy that you have with people literally two feet in front of you and bring an entire audience to you on the stage.”

Calendar: December 2007 – February 2008

December 13, 2007

December 2007 

  • Wednesday, 8:30pm – 12/12 December Divas (Signature Theater)
  • Thursday, 8:30pm – 12/13 December Divas (Signature Theater)
  • Friday, 7:00pm & 9:00pm  – 12/14 December Divas (Signature Theater)
  • Saturday, 7:00pm & 9:00pm – 12/15 December Divas (Signature Theater)
  • Saturday, 9:00pm, 12/15 — Holiday Classics (Atlas/INDIGO)
  • Friday, 9:00pm, 12/21 — Holiday Classics (Atlas/INDIGO)
  • Saturday, 8:30pm – 12/29  Doug Bowles and the Washington Conservatory Jazz Ensemble  32 Bars in One Night (Atlas/INDIGO)  

January 2008 

  • Sunday, 7:30pm — 1/13 Melissa Manchester (Barns of Wolf Trap)
  • Friday, 1/18 — Scott Bakula An Evening with Scott Bakula (Ford’s Theater)
  • Saturday, 6:30pm, 1/19 — Beverly Cosham (Reston Community Orchestra)
  • Thursday, 8:00pm, 1/24 — Faith Prince (Barns of Wolf Trap)
  • Saturday, 7:30pm, 1/26 — John Eaton (Barns of Wolf Trap)
  • Saturday, 7:30pm, 1/26 — Susan Werner (Birchmere)
  • Thursday, 8:00pm, 1/31 — Maureen McGovern (Barns of Wolf Trap) 

February 2008

  • Friday, 8:00pm, 2/1 — Primary Urges (Writer’s Center, Bethesda) 
  • Friday, 8:00pm, 2/1 — Michael Sazonov My Well Schooled Heart (Maggie’s Place / St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church)
  • Friday, 8:00pm, 2/1 — Maureen McGovern (Barns of Wolf Trap)
  • Saturday, 8:00pm, 2/2 — Cabaret Benefit (River Road Unitarian Church)
  • Sunday, 3:00pm, Primary Urges (Writer’s Center, Bethesda)
  • Saturday, 8:00pm, 2/9 — Beverly Cosham with the  McLean Symphony (Alden Theater)
  • Friday, 2/15 — Jennifer Blades My Funny Valentine (An Die Musik)
  • Saturday, 2/16 — Sally Martin (Corner Store)
  • Friday, 2/22 — Jennifer Blades My Funny Valentine (An Die Musik)
  • Saturday, 2/23 — Beverly Cosham (Atlas/INDIGO)
  • Saturday, 2/23, 7:30pm – Christine Lavin (Birchmere)
  • Thursday, 7:30pm, 2/28 — Diane Schuur (Birchemere)

And don’t forget Blake Place at the Flaming Pit!