Amanda McBroom's faith in human love turns into 'Heartbeats'

October 31, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Amanda McBroom's bubbly, accentuate-the-positive attitude comes across even over the phone; it's in the irrepressibly cheerful cadence of her voice.

"George [Ball, her husband] says I have a serious Pollyanna complex," she says with a deep, rolling laugh. "I just believe that our most redeeming feature as a species is our capacity for love."

That philosophy is the theme of McBroom's musical, "Heartbeats," for which she wrote the dialogue, lyrics and two-thirds of the music. Not only that, McBroom also stars, opposite her husband, in the production that opens the subscription season at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre on Tuesday.

Actually, the fact that she's starring isn't as surprising as the fact that she wrote the show. McBroom, whose credits include Broadway, regional theaters, television and cabaret appearances, has been a performer all her adult life.

Songwriting began as a sideline, although it quickly became a lucrative one when her theme song for the 1979 Bette Midler movie, "The Rose," won her a Golden Globe award.

The genesis of "Heartbeats" came several years later when she was performing her cabaret act in Los Angeles. "People kept saying, 'Your songs are so theatrical. Why don't you make a revue of your songs?' " she explained from Winston-Salem, N.C., where "Heartbeats" played a two-week engagement before Baltimore.

McBroom was aware that her compositions were theatrical. "I'm kind of a pop balladeer because I love the art of storytelling," she says. "I call myself 'HBO for the ears'; I sing little movies."

And so, heeding the advice of friends and fans, McBroom assembled a revue, which was performed in 1986 at the Matrix Theater in Los Angeles. Although "Heartbeats" was already the title, she jokingly dubbed the revue "McBrel," a reference to "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," in which she and her husband toured internationally for years.

"I was very much influenced by Brel's music," she readily acknowledges, describing the Brel revue as "my favorite piece of musical theater."

At the Matrix, "Heartbeats' " director Bill Castellino told her, " 'There is a play in here,' " McBroom recalls. However, nothing came of his suggestion until a few years later, when, she continues, "My alma mater, the University of Texas, called me out of the blue and said, 'We have a new works project. Do you have any new work?' "

The script she concocted with Castellino -- whom she credits as "Heartbeats' " co-creator, as well as director and choreographer -- tells the story of a woman who is approaching her 40th birthday and 20th wedding anniversary when she realizes she and her husband are no longer communicating. The six-person show had its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 1990, a year after the Texas workshop, and has subsequently been performed from coast to coast.

She admits that writing a musical around existing songs is a rather backward approach, but says her songwriting technique is, too. "I generally write [songs] from the end to the beginning," she explains. In the case of "Heartbeats," she discarded half the old songs and wrote original ones to fit the material.

Although, McBroom says, "I wrote ['Heartbeats'] for my husband and me because we like to work together," she is quick to add that the story is not about them. "I stole conversation from around our kitchen table, but the sturm und drang of these people's lives is not the sturm und drang of ours. We're much more stable human beings."

McBroom, who is 46 and will celebrate her 19th wedding anniversary next month, met her husband in "Jacques Brel." Both members of the couple claim that one of the secrets of their successful marriage is that they started out as -- and remain -- each other's biggest fans.

McBroom, whose father was a movie actor named David Bruce and whose mother was an acting teacher, was born in Burbank, Calif., and spent her teen-age years in a little south Texas town called Mercedes. She was on a break from her acting duties with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when she saw Ball performing in a touring production of "Brel" in San Francisco.

"George has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard, and the songs are so sexy, so French, I was gone," she says, adding that she returned to see the show several more times. Then, in one of those seemingly predestined quirks of fate, she noticed an ad in the newspaper announcing auditions for the show. "I got my guitar and sang 'Blowing in the Wind,' and they hired me," she says.

Ball has a slightly different memory of their initial encounter. "Actually, I met her about two weeks before that [audition]," he says. "She came to see the show, and she came backstage afterward. I remember her. I don't think she remembers."

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