YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Of George Gershwin She Sings

Maureen McGovern has masterfully redefined herself as an interpreter of the American icon's work.

November 08, 1998|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is a regular contributor to Calendar

George Gershwin is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind as Maureen McGovern slips into a booth at Gadsby's on La Brea for a quick lunch. Looking tailored and elegant, her short red hair neatly coiffed, she could easily pass as a successful Beverly Hills psychiatrist or a power-brokering Hollywood agent.

Yet this is the same McGovern whose versatile, song-filled stage appearances have been virtual Gershwin celebrations for the past few years--and especially so in this centennial of the legendary American composer's birth. On Thursday, she makes one of her most dramatic Gershwin statements when she stars, with Gregory Harrison, in a 14-performance run of George and Ira Gershwin's musical satire "Of Thee I Sing" in the Reprise! series at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman.

"You never get tired of hearing Gershwin," she says, pausing briefly to explain to the waiter that she's "vegetarian all the way."

"That's what I think is astounding about Gershwin's composing," she continues, "the body of work that he wrote, especially in such a short time. And if it's played well, and treated with respect, you just never tire of it."

Certainly McGovern hasn't. She already has performed in a historic concertized rendering in 1987 of "Of Thee I Sing" (with "Let 'Em Eat Cake") at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kennedy Center with Jack Gilford and the late Larry Kert--a performance that received a Grammy nomination for its recorded version. And she has recorded a collection of Gershwin classics ("Naughty Baby" on CBS Records) and starred in a number of Gershwin television specials, including "Celebrating Gershwin" and "Happy Birthday George Gershwin."

It's no wonder that Clive Barnes of the New York Post, reviewing her Gershwin performances, wrote "McGovern can sing Gershwin like Joan Sutherland can sing Donizetti."

But who would have thought, 25 years ago, when McGovern was briefly the queen of disaster-flick songs--with such hits as "The Morning After" from "The Poseidon Adventure" and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from "The Towering Inferno"--that her career would unfold the way it has? Certainly not McGovern.

"I had a huge hit with 'The Morning After,' " she says, "but I wasn't the hit, the song was the hit. And what I've made a conscious effort to do, ever since then, has been to find a way to make myself blossom."

She may, however, be a bit too critical of herself. A retrospective hearing of those early hits reveals, even within the over-baked production of the time, that McGovern's voice was something special, clearly capable of working with music better suited to her expansive skills. Something like Gershwin.

And once she moved past the disaster ballads to Gershwin and the Great American Songbook, she never looked back.

"Gershwin really is the universal language," she says. "No matter what country I've been in, everyone knows those songs. They may not know who he was, but they know the music.

"And I keep discovering tunes that I haven't done. One of the best Gershwin experiences I've ever had was doing the 'Happy Birthday George Gershwin' television show with the Dallas Symphony. I actually got to sing a duet from 'Porgy and Bess' with Jubilant Sykes--and how often do you think I get a chance to do something like that? It was absolutely thrilling."

She is equally excited about the prospect of performing in the upcoming semi-staged production of "Of Thee I Sing," a 1931 work by George and Ira Gershwin that was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The story, in essence, is about a presidential campaign based on a platform of "love" expressed via the song "Love Is Sweeping the Country." Candidate John P. Wintergreen, eager to win the presidency, agrees to a campaign gimmick in which a beauty contest is held to choose a first lady for him. But instead of accepting the contest's winner, Diana Devereaux, Wintergreen falls for the campaign organizer, Mary Turner, played by McGovern. Infuriated by the rejection, Devereaux calls for an impeachment hearing to deal with Wintergreen's actions.

"You could definitely say that it has a contemporary resonance," says McGovern with a smile. "But the thing that's really interesting about it, to me, is that--along with 'Let 'Em Eat Cake' [a sequel to "Of Thee I Sing" that ran for three months in 1933]--it shows Gershwin's maturation as a composer, on the way to 'Porgy and Bess.' You can hear all that, the contrapuntal lines, the harmonies. And just to hear that score every night is such a thrill." (The song "Mine," from "Let 'Em Eat Cake," was added to a revival of "Of Thee I Sing" in 1952, and will also be included in this production.)

Los Angeles Times Articles