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On the Road with Maureen McGovern

If you visit McGovern’s website, the first thing you’ll see is a header in huge, red, loopy script, “THE STRADIVARIUS VOICE.” At about the same moment, you will will be hit with the sound of that instantly recognizable voice ringing out—her cover of a Bob Dylan tune, “The Times They are a-Changin’.”

That song is part of McGovern’s latest show, “A Long and Winding Road,” which is named after her latest CD; she’s been touring the show following that recording’s release last summer. The songs are some of McGovern’s early favorites from her years growing up, including songs by Joni Mitchell (“The Circle Game, “The Fiddle and the Drum”) Lennon & McCartney (“Let It Be,” “Rocky Raccoon”), Jimmy Webb (“MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress”) and Carole King/Gerry Goffin (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”). These represent her roots as a folk singer; the songs are what she listened to as a girl and teenager before she rocketed to fame as the “Morning After” singer from The Poseidon Adventure. The photo on the CD cover is current, but inside there’s a photo of a 20-year-old McGovern, with long hair and guitar, taken in 1969.

This winter, McGovern chatted during a New York visit about life at her own pace—she lives full-time in her home state of Ohio, when she’s not on the road. This March she spent in Boston at the Huntington Theatre with her Long and Winding Road show, which she takes in April to Washington D.C., in May to Palm Beach, Florida, and then London.

The voice is in great shape—at “59 and 7/12ths” as McGovern put it, it is definitely a Stradivarius. On her 2003 CD Works of Heart, she sails up to a high D in the intro to “Amazing Grace” and manages to sound sweet and effortless. She insists that she’s lost some range at the top, but she had so much more to start with than most singers, that it’s still quite impressive. The other end of her range is on display most movingly in her wistful “The Moon’s Harsh Mistress” medley (on the Long and Winding Road CD), with piano and strings. In person, she seems less wistful than simply contented. As she said, “I’ve sung with Placido Domingo, Mel Torme, and Sting. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Jennifer Melick: How long have you been touring your show A Long and Winding Road?

Maureen McGovernMaureen McGovern: Since February of 2008. I also do a whole bunch of concerts, from Gershwin to this show—in Miami. My musical director is Jeff Harris, who arranged all of this. Actually, we expanded the concert version into a whole show. The show is somewhat biographical, and we have all the visuals and it’s a much larger show.

Melick: You’ve done everything from pop to cabaret and Broadway. Do you ever feel that you almost have to remake yourself with each new show or presentation?

McGovern: No. Personally, people are kind of shocked at this album, and this show, but for me it was a coming home, it’s where I started. It’s all those great writers that influenced me on the way to where I ended up. When I was twenty I was listening to folk music and those kind of very intimate things, before I became the disaster-movie queen! So people have other visions of what I should be, and then I break from that, and the album has songs about people’s choices. It took me walking away from the music business—twice—once, because I had no money.

Everybody kept saying to me, “You have to do this first before you can do that thing that you want to do.” And I could see my life passing before me without doing what I wanted to do. And in the business if you don’t … if something succeeds, then there are plenty of people to take credit for it, but if it fails, it’s dumped right back in your lap. So I decided that I had to make those choices on my own, and walk away if I had to. Which I did. I did theater—first in Pirates of Penzance on Broadway—then cabaret. Walking away and changing direction at various points has allowed me to explore the many musical selves inside me … jazz and classical and theater and various songs and pop. So I could do anything I wanted to with cabaret. It’s the antithesis of the hits: what else are you about? And so, that was the first time in my life where I wasn’t having to create a show around whatever hopeful hit record—follow-up to “The Morning After”—that the record company wanted to do. So it was an epiphany to, and joyous, to be able to do something longer. I’ve always had a passion for the Great American Songbook. As a child, my dad listened to big-band records, I belonged to the Columbia Record Club, and I listened to West Side Story and various Hollywood musicals.

Melick: Your father was a barbershop quartet singer. Was he a tenor?

McGovern: He sang lead.

Melick: That’s the second line down from the top?

McGovern: Right. He had a beautiful, beautiful voice.

Melick: Did he sing all his life?

McGovern: Yes. And it as such fun at five years old, to see rehearsals around the table. The living room was full of voices and music. It was basic barbershop harmony. And we listened to Gershwin, and Bernstein, and stuff from the Columbia Record Club, The Music Man

Melick: And The Sound of Music, did you listen to that, too? Wasn’t that a show a really early part for you?

McGovern: That was my very first performance, in a high school play. Then I was signed to do two weeks—a week of rehearsal and a week of performances—at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and I was asked, you know, if I was interested in this. And it was a musical I was interested in. And on my way to Pittsburgh, I was asked to come to New York and audition for Joe Papp. So, I had only done a high school play, flew to Pittsburgh and did my one week of summer stock with Susan Schulman, and two weeks later I was on Broadway playing Mabel in Pirates of Penzance. It was very heady.

Melick: That can be great, or it can be …

McGovern: It was really scary. I didn’t know enough to be scared—I was terrified but had a great deal of fun. In the show, there was this huge cadenza that goes up to notes infinitely higher than I can reach now, but it stopped the show. And so Robby Benson, my Frederick, who was on his knees, holding his hand and there was so much applause, and we were thinking, we should keep it moving here!

Melick: Pirates was miked, right? That was around the cusp of when everything started being miked on Broadway.

McGovern: It was miked. The show was in the park in the summer of ’80, I think, and then it moved to Broadway in ’81 [at first with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt]. I came in, I think, in September of ’81. It’s hard to cast the pirate, the Pirate King.

Melick: I wanted to ask about your father—you’ve talked about how in the ‘60s you used to battle with him about the Vietnam War, and debating about that. And then when he got much older, and the Iraq war had started, that suddenly it was a different sort of a discussion. When you were recording the songs on the Long and Winding Road album, was he alive?

McGovern: He had passed. It’s interesting, I come from Democratic stock, but to my father’s way of thinking, you didn’t question the government, you were a “good soldier,” and he didn’t approve of the way that our generation was publicly questioning and protesting the Vietnam War. But in his later life, when our country entered the Iraq war, he felt that we had been misled and was very vocal about that. I think he really would have enjoyed this album, because these were songs that we played over and over when I was a kid—tortured him with!

With so many things in the concerts of A Long and Winding Road, my audience is every age, and that’s a good age. The kids love these songs, they really listen. Back when I was growing up, it was kid music at the time. Those Jimmy Webb songs are just gems that should not be overlooked. To me, “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” one of the songs I sing on A Long and Winding Road, is just as great as “All the Things You Are”—it’s an American art song. Jeff and I had a great time musically putting this together. We looked at more than 400 songs.

And a label had approached me, PS Classics, with an idea to do a Broadway album. I was thinking, if I could find the right hook with the right take … and so Jeff and I went through 400 songs, and everybody, friends and so forth, who was of that age, I’d ask, right off the top of your head, name me a song. So I filed all that away. And there was a point with Jimmy Webb … so I’m driving in my car, and I’m listening to a compilation album that has “It’s My Party,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Wooly Bully”—fun type songs—and then he comes to Richard Harris singing “McArthur Park” and his album The Tramp Shining. When I was a kid, I listened to those albums, which were so exquisite.

“McArthur Park”—I’d heard it a zillion times, with Donna Summer, and Glen Campbell, and everyone else—it was a song that became lounged to death. And I’m listening to this while I’m driving, and I was so struck by how brave it was, and how extraordinarily unusual it was. I’ve always loved the middle section, the adagio section … and when Harris got to the middle section, tears just started streaming down, and I had to pull over in my car. So I knew I had to use that section, so we took the middle section of “McArthur Park” and put it together with “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” so that it can tell a story. And “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” has Glen Campbell’s version of it, it’s rarely if ever sung by a woman, so it gave the song a whole different meaning.

So after that whole experience listening to “McArthur Park,” I got excited and I started looking for more songs, and the album began to get a spine, to focus on these great singer-songwriters from the sixties. And again, it gets back to my folk roots. You know, the reaction I had to “McArthur Park,” with the tears streaming down my cheeks—by and large that’s the same reaction I get from the audience. It’s a lot of fun, because the dialogue in the concert version takes us back to the times, and the important things that were accomplished, and … it’s all about change, and the journey of change, and how we kind of lost our way, along the way, and what was so inspiring about Obama’s message. It was so in tune with what we were singing in the sixties, I mean, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a’Changin’”! It was so inspiring for me to see this country so galvanized—times for Barack Obama are incredible, and I don’t know any president in history who has had on his plate what he will face when he walks in the door on that first day. But he has such strong leadership—and I trust that calmness that everybody talks about. He is fiercely intelligent, and I just believe if anybody can do something, he can. I don’t say that lightly. In the midst of the despair now, that if we all pull together, his message is that we all must … there is no left, right, Democratic, or Republican, we have to pull together. And sometimes the worst circumstances bring out the best in people.

I think Barack Obama going to the White House is the best thing this country has had in a long, long time. And so, all of that influenced me. And all these things, it’s just like the song, “We are stardust, we are golden, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Back to the garden. And that’s where we are. We either do it, or we absolutely won’t. I think it’s my generation—I speak for myself—we had such promise, and that’s the thing, the regrets that we have, that we only took our promise so far, and young people today realize that we pushed only so far in the sixties and seventies. It’s a choice that we made, but now we have no choice. I think now the stakes are so high, and humanity has to get to that point sometimes before where fear and inertia and whatever stops people from making change … those things always come out of fear.

Our children and our grandchildren, it’s our on our watch, we have to make these changes.

Melick: Could you talk a little about your vocal technique, how you keep it so strong, how you’ve changed over time. What are some of your influences and vocal training, and how do you warm up now versus when you were younger? For a lot of people the voice goes down over time.

McGovern: Oh, it goes down, yes it does! [laughs]

Melick: But there are great voices like Barbara Cook, who still sounds amazing, even at 81.

McGovern: Well, as far as the voice is concerned, I try to keep healthy and exercise, and I drink lots of water. Water and sleep are the big things. Because the voice is the first place you feel it, if you don’t get enough water or sleep.

I never really studied until I was 30 and I was in the Pirates of Penzance. And I used to listen like a sponge to Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and Jo Stafford and Judi Collins and Dusty Springfield. I listened to all of those singers, and just kind of absorbed it. I mean, with those Streisand records, in high school I would be listening along and singing at the top of my lungs and in order to sort of force me to breathe right in a way, or else I couldn’t accomplish what she was doing, so I just kind of instinctively learned how to do that. I learned my own way, which is not necessarily what an opera singer would learn to do. I did study with Marge Rivingston, who I still see once or twice a year; she’s retired, living out in California. She has a new book out on singing and coaching, with warm-ups on it—it comes with a CD—and the book talks about her life and who she’s coached. I have several CDs that we’ve made over the years together. I still work on technique … but the high end of the coloratura has moved on! But actually, the voice has … I don’t have frequent use for the high high high high notes, but I still have some high notes left, and the voice, the richness of the bottom … what you lose up there, you gain below.

Melick: Your lower range was pretty rich, all along.

McGovern: Well, I always considered myself to be a low voice for most of my life. I didn’t know I was a coloratura until I came to Pirates, and I had never sang the lyrics until I started singing up there. In fact, in the early seventies I had been listening to Cleo Laine, and thought, how can she be singing up there? I wouldn’t force it, and one of the reasons I was able to open up, to expand the top, was I would listen to the sax player, and let my voice sit on air and have the feeling of the sax, without pushing it. And it just sort of gradually opened up that way. Marge Rivingston help me expand the range, and protect the range, for 8 shows a week … and I only missed only one show during the entire run of Pirates—I did the show for a year and two months—I had a migraine headache and was just flattened. I sang through colds and whatever, and I got through it all.

Melick: When you come to New York, what do you do here?

McGovern: Well, I’m here right now for a corporate event. I have a pied-a-terre, which I use when I come here. I moved back to Ohio, near where I grew up, not far from my family. My house looks out on a river, it’s beautiful. But I spend most of my life on the road. As long as I can get to New York, I‘ve got my New York place … I opted for peace and quiet, when I’m not working.

Melick: Where do you go when you’re visiting—to the Oak Room, Lincoln Center, the Village?

McGovern: What’s hard about just coming to town for a few days, is all the business stuff I’ve got to get done, so it’s hard for playtime, which is sad, since that’s what I love about the city. I try to find a balance of that. I’m gone pretty much until June. I have two puppies. The bigger one is a Yorkie/Silkie/Cairn mix, she’s a rescue dog. And Rocky is 14, as a matter of fact, he still has more energy than you and I put together!

Melick: When you’re touring and performing one of you shows, do you have someone you picture in the audience, that you’re aiming your songs to?

McGovern: Yes, of course. You try to make it as natural and personal as possible. You want to create the perfect person that you’ve got to be singing to. Sometimes I have a person who loves everything that I do, no matter what. So if it’s the first time you’re doing something, and I’m bound to screw something up, I’m singing it to him!

Melick: Have you mentored younger performers at all?

McGovern: I do masterclasses. And I do them in a combination, which is part lecture and part music. And then I do a masterclass which is for groups after that. I’m starting to do some individual masterclasses. It’s very rewarding! I never thought of myself as a “teacher,” because so much of what I do is intuitive, rater than learned in classes. So I’ve read about or seen a couple of masterclasses where people were absolutely brutal to students. I just feel you have to love rather than fear. I think you get more out of people that way.

Melick: You’ve done stage acting, children’s musicals, multiple recordings, and also classical.

McGovern: I was asked to do something with Plácido Domingo. We did an album with the Philharmonia Virtuosi of New York with Richard Kapp. I did “Cara Selve” of Handel, and I recorded Handel’s Imeneo, a rare Handel opera. That was interesting. There is a huge discipline necessary for opera singers, I like doing a take on that, something new, maybe a combination of classical and jazz, using the voice like that. I’ve sung with Plácido Domingo, Mel Tormé, and Sting. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Melick: Are you already plotting for your next recording?

McGovern: Oh yes. But right now I’m working on the theater version of Long and Winding Road. There are plenty of songs for a follow-up to that album.

Melick: When you say you had 400-plus songs to choose from for Long and Winding Road, presumably there are quite a few good ones you had to drop.

McGovern: We had done arrangements for other songs that aren’t on the album. I’d still love to do a theater album, and we’ll see.

Melick: In the meantime, the whole recording world—the way people purchase and obtain music—continues to change.

McGovern: I don’t know where it ultimately will be. I miss the “holding the album.” I just got used to the CD, and I accepted that, and now I miss that. I remember Paul Simon saying, an album is 67 minutes on a CD, and that’s as long as an English class. So the concentration span has been shrinking, and now we’re down to one song. An album is a whole emotional experience.

Melick: There’s concentration span, and there are other preferences as well—there’s the whole issue issue of a generation that grew up not expecting ever to pay for a recording of music. So now it’s hard to get some people to buy anything.

McGovern: I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I think in hard times like this, people do tend to gravitate to affordable arts. But where things will go taste-wise … I love the Great American Songbook, and exploring the music of a single composer, like Richard Rodgers. I had done this concert in Youngstown, Ohio, where I grew up. And a young man interviewed me from the paper there, and he asked me what I was doing, and I said, the first half would be just piano all Richard Rodgers, and that the second half would be with my jazz quartet, a swing show. And he said, what did you say the first part would be? And I said, the music of Richard Rodgers. And he had no idea… Later, he came backstage and said, “I loved the show! And especially, what was that song about déja vu”? And I said, “You mean ‘Where or When’?” And he said, “Awesome!” He had never heard it before, his tastes are vastly different, but Richard Rodgers’ music just spoke. If people are exposed to something, they do have a very wide range of tastes.

Music—it reaches inside us and it stays. With older people, you can’t always carry on a conversation, but if you sing something from World War II, they’re right with you.

Melick: Can you tell me about the show you were in around the time of 9/11, Letters from ‘Nam?

McGovern: Let me tell you, that week, first of all the show, we opened on a Sunday in Boston. The director thought, on Tuesday, it would be irrelevant—and first of all, who is going to want to come to this place—I’m talking about Vietnam—right after 9/11 has happened. So we didn’t perform the show that night. So on Wednesday, I get a call about 40 minutes before the show, from the director, and he says “Are you okay? You do know we have a matinee?” And I was 20 minutes away, hadn’t taken a shower or anything, danced to the raindrops, got in the car, Jennifer [Maureen’s assistant] drove me, I put my makeup on in the car, I got to the theater, I ripped my clothes off, put the clothes on, and we went up at 7 minutes after.

But this whole week, we thought, who is going to want to go to that place, and that’s one of my favorite roles, Eleanor Bridges, a mother who lost her son who is going on his last mission and gets killed. This woman—based on a real woman who goes to the Vietnam Memorial for the dead [in Washington]—I read this letter that she writes. The theater was very quiet—I mean, it’s funny, too, and ultimately inspiring. They were very quiet all through the show… By Friday of that week, we called up anyone who had served in any of the wears, onstage. It really is a beautiful healing piece. It’s a musical based on a book of letters from Vietnam. I will never forget that. We had soldiers come up to us—soldiers from Vietnam …

Melick: The timing was so uncanny.

McGovern: Historically, my dad being a D-day vet — people who have experienced war firsthand don’t talk about it. My dad didn’t talk about it for 25 years. I didn’t know my dad was a D-day vet until the 50th anniversary, and he was invited to sit when I performed with the National Symphony and he was invited to sit with the dignitaries and the vets from D-day. And he never talked about it. I mean, I knew generally speaking where he had been, in Germany and Italy and France, but I had no idea he was a D-day vet. And the same is true for other vets—when I was in this show, it’s one of those things that helps start the conversation. And a lot of these guys finally started opening up. I’ve done it at the Kennedy Center, I’ve done it several times in L.A., we just did it in Ventura… It’s not anti-war per se, it shows all sides, the loss and the futility of war in general.

Melick: It’s interesting that with this show, and with your new CD, in some ways it’s as if we’ve come full circle to those songwriters and singers that inspired you in the Sixties.

McGovern: There’s a lot that’s parallel to our time.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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