4/1: Maureen McGovern Carries the Show

Chart-topping vocalist, stage actress, “Disaster Theme Queen” and “Stradivarius Voice” Maureen McGovern begins a three week stand in Red Bank, as her show CARRY IT ON takes the stage at Two River Theater. (Photo by Deborah Feingold)

Any performer who’s been in (and sometimes out of) the game for more than 40 years could be forgiven for treating some of those years like baggage best left at the dock. In the case of Maureen McGovern, however, not only does she bring it with her when she travels — she prefers to Carry It On.

The pop singer and stage actress, who hit the ground running in 1973 with the Number One hit “The Morning After,” will be unpacking her bags for an extended stay in Red Bank, where she brings her solo show to the stage of Two River Theater beginning with a first preview on Tuesday, April 3.

If you remember the “disaster film” craze of the 1970s, you’ll know McGovern as the crisp and clear voice of the aforementioned theme song from The Poseidon Adventure — a record that went gold, topped the Billboards, won an Academy Award and garnered a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for the hitherto unknown singer.

It’s an opening act that she followed up with “We May Never Love Like This Again” from 1974′s The Towering Inferno — and thus was branded the Disaster Theme Queen, a status she spoofed with her memorable role in 1980′s genre-killer Airplane!

There’ve been many more acts to Maureen McGovern’s career, of course — including a Broadway career that began when she was picked to succeed Linda Ronstadt in the smash 1980 production of The Pirates of Penzance. The neophyte actress would go on to co-star with Raul Julia (Nine) and Sting (in The Threepenny Opera) in addition to originating the role of Marmee in the musical adaptation of Little Women.

A run of acclaimed albums interpreting signature tunes from the likes of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen gained Maureen McGovern a couple more Grammy nods, and a landmark salute to Gershwin at Carnegie Hall gained her a whole new career as a sought-after concert performer. It was her most recent release, the 2008 Sixties songbook A Long and Winding Road, that led to the development of Carry It On — a musical exploration (co-authored with director Philip Himberg) that “brings her story to life with extraordinary interpretations of the songs of her generation.” That means everything from a very singerly take on Bob Dylan, to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Lennon-McCartney, Stephen Sondheim and the title tune, a Civil Rights anthem from folk artist Gil Turner.

Of course, you can’t have multiple acts without a few intermissions — including, in McGovern’s case, a curious stretch in which the financially strapped headliner took a secretarial job under the name Glenda Schwartz. The whole story of Maureen McGovern and her times is all in a night’s work for the singer that composer David Shire dubbed “The Stradivarius Voice” — a story told through words, music and vivd images in Carry It On.

UpperWETside spoke to this representative of the Top 100 Irish Americans back in March, as the green cardboard shamrocks of the Muscular Dystrophy Association‘s Shamrocks Against Dystrophy (a campaign that McGovern chaired for many years) bloomed at supermarkets and convenience stores coast to coast.

Clockwise from top left: as the singing nun in AIRPLANE!, as Marmee in Broadway’s LITTLE WOMEN, as a twentysomething singer at the top of the charts, at a Muscular Dystrophy Association gala, as a singer reborn in classic style.

upperWETside: Your show CARRY IT ON was formerly presented under the name A LONG AND WINDING ROAD…but I see on your website that you have a LONG AND WINDING ROAD event coming up (in March 2012), and I was wondering what the distinction was there between the two titles?

MAUREEN McGOVERN: The Long and Winding Road show that I continue to do is a concert of just songs from the album of that name, from that period. The show that would become Carry It On was first workshopped under the other name, and when we had a sit-down afterward, did a final rewrite, we decided that Carry It On was a more active title.

So what can we expect to see when CARRY IT ON makes its stand at the Two River Theater? 

I perform it on a minimal set,  with my music director Jeffrey Harris. There are rear projections; archival images of my family, my career — and of the markers in our lives, things like Vietnam, JFK, Martin Luther King, Kent State.

I understand that you touch upon the various aspects of your career over the course of the show, and one of the more interesting little intervals, which you haven’t been shy about mentioning, is that brief interlude when you quit music to work a regular job under an assumed name in California…

I had been pigeonholed as the Disaster Theme Queen; I had two Oscar gold records to my name, and yes, I moved to Marina Del Rey and went back to working as a secretary, for an oral surgeon and then the chairman of a trucking firm. I was able to take off from work every now and then to perform somewhere, to go from Glenda Schwartz back to Maureen McGovern and travel to the south of France or the Philippines. I was very lucky that way, and I was lucky in that I had practical experience in working regular jobs, so I didn’t have to wait tables.

Well, I’m sure you don’t dwell upon that time too long in your show…it probably wouldn’t be going out on a limb to guess that you accentuate the positive, as they say. But I do know that it wasn’t the last time that you took a hiatus from being a singer.

When I did Airplane! things started happening for me again, but I still wasn’t making the records that I wanted to make. On my first records, my producer picked the material; the instrumental tracks were usually pre-recorded by the time I came in to cut the vocal. I was told to shut up and sing; be glad you have a record deal.

What helped me make my decision was when The Manhattan Transfer came in to record their Bodies and Souls album at the studio that my manager owned. I watched them doing this amazing music, doing it their way, and I got to thinking ‘I’m doing what I love, but…when is it going to be my turn?’

So I walked away from music again. I made a choice not to record again until I could do it on my own terms.

But you weren’t out of show business, correct? This is about the time that you took to the stage as an actress. 

I explored theater, cabaret, radio commercials..and I went back to my roots as  folk singer. With Pirates of Penzance, Joe Papp hired me on the spot. I discovered that Broadway people are strange birds, who do eight shows a week and then go off and do a midnight cabaret for fun.

I love Gilbert and Sullivan, and what Linda (Ronstadt) did on Pirates was to make it legit for a pop singer to explore that canon.

I had fun doing things like Brownstone and the shows on Broadway, and then in 1986 I made the album Another Woman in Love, which I consider to be my first ‘real’ album…it was just me and Mike Rienzi on piano, which was called ‘so brave’ at the time, although a lot of singers returned to that sort of intimate setting after we did it.

So when you were finally able to release those Great American Songbook type albums, were you of the mindset that it was “your turn” at last, especially given the fact that you had dispensed with the overripe arrangements and let your projects stand or fall on your own voice?  

One of my favorite albums is (the George Gershwin tribute) Naughty Baby, which we recorded live in the studio; just put out some wine and cheese and let the tapes roll. We had members of the Gershwin family present, along with the Gershwins’ old rehearsal pianist, who was then in a nursing home in New Jersey.

Well, that had to add an extra little edge to the proceedings. 

I do take liberties here and there, as so many singers do when they take on the body of work of a composer, so I do get nervous if I know someone like that is in the audience.

I was happy to be doing that sort of music professionally, after having done so many different types of music over the years. When I was in school I sang folk; my ex-husband was a jazz drummer and he got me my first paying gig at Kent State. I was booked into lounges, doing covers of mindless Top 40 songs.

As regards the Great American Songbook, are you a “strict constitutionalist,” in that you think we’ve got things pretty well defined as to what belongs under that heading…or do you see it as a living, evolving thing that should encompass the work of songwriters from outside the old Tin Pan Alley scene? 

The songs that really made the biggest impression on me from when I first started singing are the sort of things that remain relevant today…things by Joni Mitchell, who’s a goddess; Jimmy Webb, who’s a national treasure. James Taylor, absolutely. It’s a different kind of song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein style, but there’s such an exquisite craft to the singer-songwriter music that emerged out of the 1960s.

So between pop, folk, Songbook, Gilbert and Sullivan, I got the reputation as something of a ‘schizophrenic’ singer. With a ‘Stradivarius’ voice.

You’ve been quoted as saying that music therapists are your heroes; is this something that you elaborate upon in your show? 

In Little Women, Marmee sings a song called ‘Days of Plenty,’ at a point where Jo is despondent over having lost so much in her life — the song says that you go on in your life, in honor of the ones you lost. We had a group of sixth graders attend one of the performances; it turned out that a little girl in the audience had lost her brother, and when I did the song I saw a light bulb go on over her head. That’s the power of music.

There are those who find your first big hit very inspirational as well. 

For twelve years I sang ‘The Morning After’ on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, and the MDA asked me to chair the Shamrocks Against Dystrophy, which is the most successful campaign they’ve ever done apart from the telethon. About twelve years into my volunteering, my youngest niece was diagnosed with a form of MD…she’s in her second remission now and thriving; graduated from LSU.

We did a run of this show in Palm Springs, and afterward men and women would come up to me in tears and tell me how much the song meant to them; they’d all lost someone or something in their lives and hearing this song helped them to put things into perspective.

A lot of performers who had this one tremendous hit song that forever gets linked to their name, tend to view that song as something of an albatross around their neck as they strive to get noticed for other things. Particularly when, as in your case, it happens right at the beginning of your career. But it sounds like you’ve managed to make peace with that song; to find something new there.

It’s a generic hope song — but you’re always able to find a new context to it!

Carry It On goes up in previews on Tuesday, April 3 (8 pm); official opening night is Saturday, April 7 (that performance is SOLD OUT), and the show continues with a schedule of evening and matinee performances, Wednesdays through Sundays until April 22. Tickets are $37 – $57 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability (tickets also available for In This House, which continues in the Marion Huber space at Two River Theater through April 8).

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