Maureen McGovern really wants you to come see Little Women, the new Broadway musical adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel that begins a two-week run at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday. "It's funny, it's romantic, it's inspiring and very life-affirming," she says by phone from Chicago, another of the 32 cities on the current national tour. Clearly, this is not the first time McGovern has rattled off her laundry list of reasons to attend the show, nor will it be the last.
Perhaps modesty precludes her mentioning the most prized reason of all: herself. McGovern is at the top of the short list of performers who can sing jazz and legitimate theater music with equal ease. George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim she has recorded them all and made their songs sound as if they were written especially for her. McGovern's four-octave range is, to borrow the title of her CD devoted to Harold Arlen, "out of this world."
As a child growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, McGovern loved to attend movie musicals like South Pacific, The Music Man and West Side Story, but she didn't rush off to New York to seek Broadway stardom. In the early '70s she was a part-time folk singer living in Los Angeles when the head of 20th Century Records heard her demo tape and, on a hunch, chose the totally unknown McGovern to record "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure. It won the Academy Award as the Best Song of 1972, and then hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Lightning struck again two years later when her recording of the theme from The Towering Inferno won the Oscar.
"I'll always be grateful for those early hits," McGovern says. "But for the first ten years of my career, the albums I recorded had absolutely nothing to do with me. All the songs were producers' choices, and I really felt like a background singer on my own records."
In the early 1980s she took charge of her life. Putting the pop career behind her, she made her Broadway debut as Linda Ronstadt's replacement in The Pirates of Penzance , then developed a cabaret act. "Cabaret is the antithesis of hits, so I got to explore jazz and classical and theater," says McGovern. "That's when I really discovered what was musically at the heart of me."
It was during that same period that she began to work with jazz legend Mel Tormé, who died in 1999: "He became my mentor and a great champion of mine, for which I will be eternally grateful. Mel was a lesson in every breath. When we toured, I was his opening act. Then I would stand in the wings and watch him, and my jaw would drop to the floor. He still had the jazz chops, but he was also a master showman. He could read a lyric in a line and tell a story. He had flawless pitch and great scat ability. One of his few regrets was never recording with Ella [Fitzgerald], and one of my regrets is that he and I talked many times about doing an album together and unfortunately never did."
In recent years McGovern has turned ever more to theater. Now as Marmee, the reassuring mother in Little Women, she resurrects the almost-forgotten tradition of a star taking a production on tour after it has completed its Broadway run. "I think audiences embrace Little Women more on the road," she says. "In New York they're always looking for something edgy. Edgy we ain't. But it's a beautiful show. It's funny, romantic, inspiring...."
As she begins to repeat that familiar litany, it's best to cut to the chase and say what she never would: Any time you get the opportunity to see Maureen McGovern onstage, it's an event.