Once there were two Maureen McGoverns. There was the has-been pop singer, the one who recorded two smash hits in the early '70s -- "There's Got to Be a Morning After" and "We'll Never Love Like This Again" (the theme songs of the movies "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno").
Then there was -- and is -- the Maureen McGovern who is the thinking man's Barbra Streisand, the sort of singer who can take a classy song, whether by Gershwin, Handel or Bernstein, and drive admiring aficionados nuts.
It is the second of those McGoverns who will perform tomorrow at Meyerhoff Hall, with an orchestra conducted by William Henry Curry, in a benefit for the Chesapeake AIDS Foundation.
Thankfully, says the 41-year-old singer, a self-described "one-time Disaster Theme Queen," there is only the second McGovern now. "In the past 10 years I have really discovered who I am musically, and what I do. I don't have to fit into the 3-minute, 10-second formula that hit songs require."
For several years after those two big hits, however, it seemed as if McGovern might quit the business.
"By the end of 1975, I was flat broke and took a job as a secretary in Santa Monica," she says. "For some reason, my records continued to sell abroad in places like Brazil. So I would get a call on Friday afternoon to ask if I could be at a club in Rio on Saturday night. But I'd be back pounding a typewriter again on Monday morning.
"I was on the verge of walking away from it all when I got asked to record "Can You Read My Mind" [for the movie "Superman"] and that sold
more than a million [in 1979] and made my name known again. But all my record company wanted from me was more dreck and I figured that I could at least keep my integrity by typing office memos."
What changed things for the singer was the chance to sing Maria in a Pittsburgh summer stock production of "The Sound of Music" in 1980. That, in turn, brought her to New York the next year as an acclaimed replacement for Linda Ronstadt in the Broadway production of the "Pirates of Penzance."
"That was terrifying," McGovern says. "I had never had an acting lesson in my life and here I was -- after only three weeks in Pittsburgh -- suddenly facing a New York audience. But it was also the most wonderful experience of my life because it opened up a whole new world."
McGovern began to do a cabaret act in which she was able to explore the obscure corners of the jazz singer's repertory. She also took voice lessons and learned that she was able to sing Copland as well as Gershwin, Handel as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein.
"The best part was the audience -- knowing that it was there to hear me and not just the hits," she says.
What she likes in a song, McGovern says, "is having a melodic challenge and having the chance to be witty and romantic. These are things you find most often -- with exceptions like the songs of Stephen Sondheim -- in older material. The drum tracks you hear in songs nowadays are great to exercise to, but they are not things that stretch my heartstrings."