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Backstage moment with Little Women cast. Maureen McGovern, fourth from
left, portrays Marmee, with Sutton Foster, to her right, as Jo
[Photo: Aubrey Reuben]

Little Women marks Maureen McGovern's return to Broadway for the first time since 1989's Threepenny Opera revival*. Known as a twice-Grammy Award-nominated singer and concert artist, she has actually never been far away. Her show-stopping solos about loss and longing and moving on leave audiences wanting more. Maybe it's because McGovern has experienced all those emotions in what began as a rocky career.

The musical, with book by Allan Knee and music and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein and Jason Howland, is adapted from Louisa May Alcott's classic novel set during the American Civil War and based on her experiences and dreams [romantic and otherwise] as seen through the eyes of Jo March, an independent woman of her day, her sisters Amy, Beth and Meg and mother Marmee [New Englandeze for mother].

The wait to re-experience McGovern's amazing voice and acting warmth has been a long one. And since we've waited so long, the consensus is that she should have more to sing in addition to her solos, "Home Alone" and "Days of Plenty." [She participates in Act One's "I'd Be Delighted" with the March sisters and an Act Two company number.]

Her notices have been raves. Critics have termed her performance "warm and gifted"; "controlled, maternal, all-encompassing"; written that she possesses a "soaring," "strong, lovely alto" voice of "unexpected force"; and noted she "invests her musical numbers with a real emotional and vocal intensity."

Now that she's been blessed with stardom and recording fame, she finds it a bit easier to look back and discuss her darkest days - a time when she thought she was on the fast track to fame and fortune and ended up a "has been."

"I so love the theater experience," insists McGovern. "There's this wonderful dynamic that you only find in theater, where everyone supports each other. I always look at the company as a chamber group. In Little Women we all work so beautifully well together. I have so much respect for the great actors and great voices onstage. We only have ten actors, but everybody has strong moments. It's a beautiful way to tell the story."

Don't get McGovern wrong. She loves her concert dates. "It's the thirty-two years of traveling, packing and unpacking and never knowing what you're going to find, which I don't enjoy. I love it when I get there and walk onstage, but I hate what you have to go through travelling to get there these days! And it's gotten a lot harder since September 11th. I understand the necessity, but the road is just not fun anymore."

She adds that when you play the road a great portion of the year, you pay a price. "It's a joke, a hard life. Not fun. It robs you of a personal life. It's not so easy for a fifty-five-year-old woman to find a single guy to date. I have a house [in Beverly Hills], but I'm rarely home home. People don't realize the price you pay physically and emotionally when you live on the road; and keep paying, paying, paying."

There're many things she loves about L.A., says McGovern - the weather, having more space and lots of room for her two faithful companions, two Yorkshire Terriers, to roam, but it's so great to be back in New York for an extended stay.

Though originally from Youngstown, Ohio, McGovern claims she's really a New Yorker "through and through. When you come back, it doesn't take long to fall under its spell. I've always said, ëIn L.A., people talk about who they know. In New York, they talk about ideas.'"

One of the joys of being back in the city is the part she's playing. "I love Marmee, her strength, her compassion - and her wonderful sense of humor. She's the trunk of the tree that these beautiful children came from. Even in the face of war and incredible obstacles, she's a comforting presence. You see bits and pieces of Marmee in the girls, too."

Maureen McGovern and Sutton Foster
[Photo: Paul Kolnik]

She's happy to be working with such a strong cast and particularly proud of her "other" girls: Amy McAlexander as Amy; Jenny Powers as Meg; and Megan McGinnis as Beth. Happily, McGovern notes, "We all work off each other so easily and so well. I'm in awe of their talents."

McGovern's committed to Little Women through mid-June, when she'll pick up her concert and recording career - "unless the gods of theater are with us with an offer to stay longer." Right now, she's focused on protecting her voice for the eight-show-a-week schedule. "You have to approach your theater life as if you're an athlete in training. I stay on a very sensible diet and, most importantly, drink as much water as possible. The hardest part has been trying to get more sleep time."

The singer/actress, who's celebrating over 30 years in show business [recordings, concerts, theater (Broadway, Off Broadway, regional), films, TV and radio], became famous early on for her her seemingly limitless range and jazz-tinged pop register which enabled her to glide easily into a crystalline coloratura. "I've always had a four octave range," she explains. "Now, it's a few notes shy. As you get older, you lose a little of the higher register, but my bottom register has opened up."

To quote her musical mentor, the legendary Mel Torme: "Maureen's quite simply the most glorious singer to come down the pike in a long while. Possessed of one of the finest vocal instruments in the world, she has a range that hasn't been matched since Yma Sumac stunned us decades ago. Her greatest quality is the ability to softly breathe into a lyric or ëread' the words in a clear, strong voice, perfectly in tune."

In Little Women, it's easy to see why she's known as a world-class performer. Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster of Thoroughly Modern Millie fame, as Jo, is a born stage presence and scene-stealer, but when McGovern enters she immediately commands the stage and the audience's attention with her heart and humanity.

It's no secret that the show has had its ups and downs enroute to Broadway - a change in composers, delays in getting to New York, during which time actors came and went and the inevitable trial by fire of disagreements between the book writer and director and revisions and cuts.

Director Susan H. Schulman, McGovern's first director in 1981 in a production of The Sound of Music at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, first contacted her two years ago. "The show was supposed to go up last Spring," she points out. "However, Sutton wasn't available. They decided to wait, and by that time, I had, unfortunately for me, canceled a great deal of work. That was tough to absorb. I book a year to a year and a half in advance. We waited for Sutton to finish Millie and have a breather in-between."

When rehearsals finally started, states McGovern, "It was hard work, but well worth the wait. It's been a charmed experience. I can't picture anyone besides Sutton as Jo. In fact, I think Louisa May Alcott had her in mind! Talk about laser sharp! She's always present. The train takes off with her, so the energy she has to have is amazing. She's the engine. I don't care how tired she is, how sick she is, Sutton's always there. She's a force of nature who's inspired all of us."

Of Schulman, she says, "She has an incredible vision, as she certainly showed us with The Secret Garden and her revival of Sweeney Todd. She held everything together. When you're taking something brand new and creating, there'll be a million points of view. Some things worked and some didn't, and you have to learn to let go of what doesn't and move on. I'm not saying it's always easy. In fact, it's hard. Because some things that helped shape your character are no longer there, you have to continue to find your way. Until things settled, we were all deer in the headlights. But you bounce back when you realize the subtext is in your bones."

After Duke, during the nearly two months of Broadway previews, Shulman cut another fifteen minutes. "Good stuff had to go," reports McGovern. "A word here, a line there, a bridge [of a song] here. My first song, ëHere Alone,' went through a lot of changes - all wonderful each step of the way. It had four melodies and nine sets of lyrics before the final version. Each time Jason and Mindi changed it, it was like ëOhhhh, that's wonderful!' When they finally arrived at the version I'm singing, everybody went ëYeah, yeah! That's the right one.'"

The show, with its themes of overcoming obstacles and loss and moving on, has also been cathartic for McGovern. "In the summer, I lost two dear friends and then my father passed away; but, show business being show business, two days following his funeral I was onstage at the Hollywood Bowl. Then, immediately after, I was here breaking in my show here at Le Jazz Au Bar [in the East 50s]. I never let myself stop to grieve."

With learning the script and rehearsals, there was no time. It was non-stop until the company arrived at Duke for their out-of-town tryout. "That's when I let go of all I'd been holding in," reports McGovern. "The power of this show hit me and I released everything. I call Little Women a three-hankie show, but for the first month, I went through a lot more than that. All I did was weep. Usually, in a show, you have to dig deep to find something emotional. If anything, with Little Women, I've had to keep it at bay. I don't know what the company thought was wrong with me. They probably thought I was a little insane. Their support and being busy every day helped me keep going, which you have to do after any kind of loss."

McGovern was last to be cast. "I didn't do it Off Off Broadway or any of the readings or the workshop. When Susan approached me, I was working in L.A. I took the red-eye in to catch a workshop performance. When I came aboard, I was the new kid on the block and had a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully, everyone was extremely patient. Almost everyone here had been involved a year or two."

In fact, Danny Gurwin, who portrays Laurie, has been with the project three years; Robert Stattel, who plays Mr. Laurence, five.

Tapping her troubles away at age five; What was she thinking,
in her blonde period, in shoot for 1974 LP cover?; Classic look
for 1979 LP; Not only flying as Sister Angelina in 1980's
Airplane!, but also a singing and guitar-playing nun; Cropped
8Os do; Mabel in 1981's The Pirates of Penzance; and on
recent Grammy-nominated CD,
The Music Never Ends: The
Lyrics of Alan & Marilyn Bergman
, which ranges from jazz
and torch songs to lush romantic ballads.

Even after all these years on various world stages, McGovern admits to having "pre-show nerves like almost every actor I know. But once I get out there the built-up energy takes over. In the lights, in the moment, I'm fine. And now that everything has been set, I'm more comfortable because I've found my way. It's good nerves, not panic nerves. We've been fortunate to have packed houses with audiences cheering and screaming at the end. We have a story to tell and we're excited about telling it. We know we're doing our jobs because word-of- mouth is good. Things look solid for the coming months."

McGovern says Little Women has broad appeal. "It appeals to more than just young women. The beauty of it is we're seeing a great cross section of audiences: CPAs, attorneys, doctors, executives in suits. And they've got their hankies out, wiping tears away. There are pieces of everyone's family onstage, which I think is one of the reasons it's such a timeless piece. It appeals to anyone who's has a dream and had obstacles in the way or anyone who's lost someone and thought they'd give up. But somehow they find the strength to overcome the hard times and plow on."

When she left New York in 1995, after 17 years, McGovern's goal was to get right back into theater. In between concerts and recordings, she did musicals in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and numerous regional theatres. During the aftershock of September 11th, she originated the role of Eleanor Bridges in the world premiere of Paris Barclay's Letters From 'Nam, based on the 1988 book Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, at Boston's North Shore Music Theatre; and the West Coast premiere of William Finn's Elegies - A Song Cycle in Los Angeles, directed by Philip Himberg, who's the artistic director of the Sundance Institute's Theatre Program**.

At a recent Drama Desk panel McGovern attended, a speaker was Edward Albee, who stated that the most interesting theater is being produced outside New York. One reason, says McGovern, "is that to bring a show to New York costs so much. As a result, the stakes are so supremely high that great material is bypassed. Great theater material is not usually mainstream. The only thing that can make it is something considered very commercial, which is the antithesis of what theater in New York used to be. So New York does miss some good theater. Our duty is to open people's eyes, even with a traditional piece such as Little Women. It's our job to reach people on some profound level."

At a Little Women post show discussion two weeks ago, Janet Carroll, who plays Aunt March, spoke to a group of seventh graders. "Afterward," relates McGovern, "one of the teachers came up to her and pointed to one of her students. She told her, ëShe just lost her brother. These past few weeks, she's been aimless and despondent. I was watching her throughout the show and, in Act Two, when Marmee sang ëDays of Plenty,' she was in the moment. She got the message.'

"It's why we do what we do," adds McGovern. "A moment like that makes all we put up with in this business worth it. It's music therapy in motion. The message of ëDays of Plenty' is that you go on with your life in honor of the person missing from it. You don't give up. If you do, that life's been wasted."

McGovern is a national board member for Jerry's Kids/Muscular Dystrophy Association and has performed on the Labor Day telethons for 25 years. Now, she has established a foundation of her own to explore using music for therapy and healing.

"Intuitively, I knew music was therapeutic," she explains. "For years, I've received letters telling me how ëThe Morning After' and some of my other songs were used during surgery or from people telling me how they got them through a depression. If there was something healing about my voice, I felt it should be used for good. Music has power. It reaches us inside at a deep and profound level where nothing else does."

What made her dedicated to this type of healing was a request from a hospital after a Christmas Eve concert to sing for their severely sick and critically ill kids. "I had my flight booked to go home and spend the holiday with my family," she relates, "but I took my guitar and sang for the kids. These were the ones who weren't able to be home with their families. When they brought them in, I was more than a bit startled. They were hooked to IVs and all sorts of tubes. As I started to sing, I thought they were so out of it they wouldn't be responsive. Was I in for a surprise!

"I don't know what happened," she continues, her voice cracking and breaking into tears at the still vivid memory of that night. "Maybe they took it in by osmosis but, one by one, they responded. Afterward, the parents came up and hugged me. One mother told me the songs had made her daughter smile for the first time in months - and that smile gave her heart a smile, something she hadn't been able to do in over a year. I nearly collapsed in tears. It was just for a moment, but, oh, what a moment."

The Maureen McGovern Works of Heart Foundation, based in Beverly Hills, provides a musical library of life-affirming, positive music for patients and caregivers. "Another goal," says McGovern, "is to educate the public regarding the power of music to aid in the healing process."

McGovern's newest CD, Works Of Heart, contains "The Morning After," Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific, the Bergman's and Marvin Hamlisch's exquisite "Ordinary Miracles" [originally written for Streisand's concerts] and eight other songs of comfort, with all royalties donated to the American Music Therapy Association.

According to family lore, before Maureen McGovern could put words together to make sentences, she was singing. "Whatever my parents listened to on the radio, I'd sing it back to them," she recalls. "Dad sang in barbershop quartets and I'd sing all of the parts right along with them. "I was five and that was my first lesson in harmony. When I was singing, nothing else mattered."

But it wasn't exactly smooth sailing. Her dyslexia made it difficult for her to read music. And it was quite a blow in the fifth grade when her piano teacher told her her parents were just wasting their money on lessons. But she persevered, believing that it's not the smartest or most talent who make it in life, but the ones who don't give up.

In high school, she took up playing guitar and sang in the choir. "I never studied voice," notes McGovern, "but I listened to great singers. Ella, Garland, Mel Torme, Jo Stafford, Streisand, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins - all different styles."

In 1967, at 18, singing led to romance when she was hired to sing and play guitar between sets of a jazz trio at Eddie's Stag Bar on the campus of Ohio's Kent State University. It didn't take long for her to be smitten by the band's drummer. They married the following year.

One of those accident-of-fate stories eventually brought McGovern stardom, "but it was far, far from being an overnight sensation."

She was singing Top-40 and rock in lounges. One Cleveland audience member she impressed was a barber who told one of his customers, a local record producer, about what a great voice he'd heard. He had McGovern record some sides, which were sent to producer Russ Regan, who ran the record division of Twentieth Century-Fox studios.

In 1972, she was signed, sight unseen, and told they'd soon find some suitable material. A month later, she was in the studio recording what has become her anthem, "The Morning After" by Joel Hirschorn and Al Kasha, which was sung by the Carol Lynley character [lip syncing to the voice of Renee Amand] in the upside down thriller The Poseidon Adventure. As a result, it was submitted to the Motion Picture Academy as a Best Song candidate and accepted.

"We recorded the theme in November, 1972. The movie was released the following month and became a huge box office hit, but the song did nothing. The label dropped their promotion efforts and they dropped me. I was back playing lounges and clubs. Then, when the song won the Academy Award, stations started playing my record. Suddenly, a year later, it was zooming up the charts, and not just in the U.S."

An excerpt from "The Morning After":
"There's got to be a morning after.
If we can hold on through the night,
We have a chance to find the sunshine.
Let's keep on looking for the light.

Oh, can't you see the morning after?
It's waiting right outside the storm.
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm? Ö"

In 1974, she recorded Hirschorn and Kasha's "We May Never Love This Way Again," the theme for Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno. It was Oscar-nominated for and won Best Song. Unfortunately, McGovern, even with a record that had gone Gold, didn't get to sing it on the Oscars. "Howard Koch, who was producing the show, refused because I was an unknown." It also won and became a hit [but never reached the Top 40].

When success happened, says McGovern, she was young and naÔve. "My manager convinced me to sign a contract. What I didn't realize was that it gave him a guaranteed percentage of up to forty percent of my earnings. He figured the more I made, the more he should make! Math not being my strong suit, I signed. He also paid my band a salary whether they worked or not. The beginning of my career was a mess. I let a lot of people make my decisions for me. Whoever spoke the loudest could shut me up. I had to learn that by not making a choice, I was making a choice."

She attempted to get her life and career back on track. In 1974, she obtained a divorce. She also sued to void her contract with the manager. But just as she was beginning to cope, her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Even two years after having hits with two Oscar-winning songs, a series of miscues and bad advice threatened to make her a washed-up, one-hit wonder. "My records were selling around the world and I was in demand for concerts," she recounts, "but I couldn't get arrested in the United States."

McGovern found herself "flat broke." She relocated to Los Angeles and began working as a secretary for a PR firm under the assumed name of Glenda Schwartz. When she got overseas bookings, "My boss' wonderful wife would fill in for me. When I'd return a few days after having audiences cheering for me, I was back behind the typewriter."

She did occasional radio jingles to help pay the bills. Then the winds changed. In 1978 when John Williams and Leslie Bricusse choose her to record the main theme from Superman, "Can You Read My Mind." It was a Number One Adult Contemporary single. Ironically, because it wasn't sung in the film, it wasn't eligible for Oscar consideration, but McGovern was on her way again.

Thanks, in no small way, to legendary crooner Mel Torme. "As much as George Rose was my theater mentor," states McGovern, "Mel was my music mentor. We became dear friends and I learned so much about styling from him. He was amazingly generous, even taking me on the road and featuring me in his TV specials."

McGovern made her Broadway debut in 1981, replacing Linda Ronstadt as Mabel in Joe Papp's production of The Pirates of Penzance. "I didn't know enough to be as frightened as I should have been," she laughs. "I had the goal, but I didn't have the plan. George Rose put me on the right path. I learned so much from just watching him. I never knew a star who was as supportive of other actors as George was. The best advice he gave me was to trust my instincts." As a result, she got very serious about theater, studying voice and acting.

Later, she replaced Karen Akers for six months as Luisa Contini in the Tony-winning Best Musical Nine opposite Raul Julia. Later came playing Polly Peachum in Threepenny. She's written children's musicals and, of course, there've been dozens of recordings. Three of her CDs salute the Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen songbooks.

Now there will be another. Foster, McGovern and the Little Women will "march" into the recording studio February 28th to record the original cast CD for Ghostlight Records/Sh-k-boom Records. Product is expected in stores in early April.

For much more on McGovern, including information on her charity work and an extensive photo gallery, visit www.maureenmcgovern.com.


[*when she co-starred with Sting, Georgia Brown and Kim Criswell. You may have missed McGovern, as she almost missed the entire run, thanks to a ruptured blood vessel on her right vocal chord a week before the opening. "I missed twenty-one performances," she recalls, "and returned for the last ten days before it closed. It was Georgia's last show. I missed that opening night altogether. That's why Little Women has been so meaningful." ]

[**where McGovern has done several shows, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Jerry Herman's revised Dear World. "Two gorgeous experiences," she says. "It's this outdoor theatre, with the moon hanging brilliantly over the mountains. God's country! You hear the coyotes howling and, once, a moose came down to watch the show. In Dear World, I played Countess Aurelia, working with a new book and orchestrations. In Los Angeles, I was able to work with Jerry on some new songs. This is one of his most unappreciated, and has one of his best scores. He intended it as a chamber piece, but it was done on Broadway at the Hellinger, this humongous theatre, with a large chorus, dance numbers and big orchestrations. That was never his intention. He came to our opening and was so extremely pleased with the results. I'd love to see it come back.]


Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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