It was director Hal Prince's lucky day when Washington, D.C. native Maureen Brennan, still a junior in college at University of Cincinnati, walked into the Shubert Theatre to audition for the role of Cunegonde for his 1974 Broadway revival of "Candide," the first Broadway revival since the original 1956 production shuttered after only 73 performances. Prince felt there was still gold to be mined from the unsuccessful original production, with book by Lillian Hellman, lyrics by James Agee/Dorothy Parker/John Latouche/Richard Wilbur, and of course that unforgettable music by Leonard Bernstein. With Hellman's book considered the weak link according to critics who said it lacked Voltaire's joie-de-vivre, Prince brought in Hugh Wheeler who wrote a considerably shorter new book, turning it into a one-act operetta, with a special focus on Voltaire's original high-spirited style. He also brought in Stephen Sondheim to write additional lyrics. Then there was the task of casting new leads. While the original production may have been a flop, the original cast recording was a cult classic, with Robert Rounseville and Barbara Cook turning in memorable if not definitive performances as Candide and Cunegonde respectively. Enter the then 20-year old Brennan.
"It was my first professional job, which I got while I was still in college," marvels Brennan, who still can't believe that her first professional audition landed her on Broadway — as the leading lady, no less. Brennan, a lyric soprano, had already learned Cunegonde's dazzling aria "Glitter and Be Gay" for her end-of-year jury at University of Cincinnati. "I listened to Barbara Cook over and over and consequently did very well." As if on cue, an ad appeared shortly afterward in Backstage, an industry paper for actors, saying Hal Prince was looking for a young lyric soprano for a new unnamed project. "I asked my roommate if I should send my photo with all my high school credits to Harold Prince's office," laughs Brennan, "and she said, 'yes.' So I did! I got a call a week later, which has never happened to me since, and they asked me to come in and audition. Once there, I told them I would be doing 'Glitter and Be Gay,' and they said, 'That would be perfect, because that's the show we're doing,' which I thought was odd, since that wasn't mentioned in the ad." Odd though it may have been, she sang, she read, she got the part.
Blink & you will miss her in 'The Producers' film
The 1974 Broadway Revival of "Candide" was far more successful than the original production, running for nearly two years, and 740 performances, garnering Brennan a Tony nomination for her performance, and with the help of a rave from Clive Barnes in the New York Times ("The cast is perfect.") helped launch Brennan's career. This then led to four more Broadway musicals, and two national tours, including the national tour of the 1982 Broadway production of "Pirates of Penzance," as Mabel, the role that starred Linda Ronstadt in the Broadway production. Testing new creative waters, Brennan, who has called Stoneham, Massachusetts home for the past 20 years, will be performing her cabaret show, "Shine" for one night only at the Napoleon Room at Club Café Boston on Tuesday, October 15th. (For more information, visit the Club Café website.)
While Brennan has performed in some of the country's finest regional theaters (such as Seattle Rep, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, the Guthrie Theater, and St. Louis MUNY), local audiences will likely recall her performances as Annie in "Calendar Girls" at Greater Boston Stage Co., Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," Magnolia in "Showboat," and Mrs. Cratchit in "A Christmas Carol," all at North Shore Music Theater, and Madame Thenardier in "Les Miserables" at Reagle Music Theatre. While you may not have picked out her voice in the choruses of the Disney animated films of "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "Hunchback of Notre Dame," you might have caught her as a dancing old lady with a walker in the film of the musical "The Producers," starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. That is, if you have a keen eye. "I had to freeze the frame to see me," quips Brennan. "Susan Stroman put all the leggy girls in the front row, doing cartwheels over all of us old Broadway girls in the back. I'm the last one on the right!" And while she wasn't in the Broadway production of "The Light in the Piazza," she did do the workshop at Sundance in 2002 as Mrs. Naccarelli, the role that Patti Cohenour created on Broadway. "Fabrizio's mother had no song initially, and so they wrote 'Aiutami,' and they tried that out for the first time at Sundance," Brennan recalls.
Brennan's cabaret show "Shine" is a biographical tour through her musical theater and operetta career, which she freely admits has had its ups and downs. Now, she brings the wisdom of a life well lived to her career and allows herself to absorb the glow of the limelight. "The show is about letting your light shine," explains Brennan. "For so much of my life, I've done a great job of hiding my light. I'm going to start the show with the song 'Let it Shine.'" The show will trace Brennan's career through a mix of songs from musical theater and standards from the Great American Songbook, as well as the odd pop song, or operetta aria. Pop is actually a new genre for Brennan, who says that comes with its share of risks. "I'm including a Patty Griffin folk pop-rock song, which I really like. I'm experimenting with that and debuting the song in this show," admits Brennan, continuing on with some apprehension. "The only price to be paid for that is the nervous anticipation of doing just that. I recall a lot of auditions when I did something new or risky, and it always gave me some nervous energy. But I turn that into something I can use in the show, and as long as I stay present, I'll find the words."
Doing a cabaret show itself carries some risk for this Broadway baby who hasn't really done much cabaret work. "I've done a couple of cabaret shows in New York and Delray Beach but it's scary," admits Brennan. "The first time I did a cabaret show, I did it with a friend of mine, George Dvorsky, and we did it at Birdland. It's a totally different feeling than theater, because you don't have someone feeding you lines, and you can't hide behind a character and a costume. It is scarier because you are yourself and have to come up with your own lines. But it's a whole different feeling when it all goes right."
The majority of her show will be filled with songs that will be familiar to fans of musical theater and the Great American Songbook: songs by Cole Porter, Sondheim, Pasek & Paul ("Dear Evan Hansen"), Maltby & Shire, Lerner and Lane and Jason Robert Brown. "And even a classical piece, with a personal connection to it," says Brennan. Using these songs, Brennan will take the audience along with her on an intimate journey. "It will be about my discovering the joy and impulse of singing, through the lens of my personal life and my life in the musical theater," describes Brennan. "It's a mix of material from my career, but a few things I've picked because they are meaningful to me because they reflect part of my life. I'll be talking about some of my flops (laughs) and some of my hits as well." Brennan's musical director for the show will be Steven Ladd Jones, a teacher and musical director at Boston Conservatory. "We work off each other and have created some fun things in the last few months," says Brennan. "This is the first time we are doing a cabaret show together. We collaborated as teachers at BoCo and I knew how he worked, and I knew it would be really fun. He's honest and constructive and we are able to laugh a lot.
Inspired by Sally Field
As one might expect from a lyric soprano, some of Brennan's early influences were Julie Andrews and Sarah Vaughn, though she also includes among her influences Linda Ronstadt, and even Sally Field, for her acting. "I identified with her cute perky personality," squeaks Brennan, "but she also had real depth in her. I really related to that. That gave me the courage to try new things."
But trying new things is risky and not all risks pan out. One might even say Brennan's career was as mercurial as that of Cunegonde's. Brennan hit one of her career high points right off the starting block, only to then see some of her other Broadway achievements go down in flames. Her second Broadway show, "Going Up," closed after 49 performances, "Stardust" only ran for six weeks, and the 1982 revival of "Little Johnny Jones" starring Donny Osmond, closed on opening night. "The reviews were terrible," moans Brennan, "and I had no money. Donny Osmond retired from show business for a while and grew a beard and went into hiding. That was the worst." But then there was the Hal Prince Tribute on the 10th Anniversary of the closing of "Candide" in which Brennan was asked to participate that marked another career high point. "I was asked to come sing 'Glitter and Be Gay,'" Brennan anxiously recalls. "Barbara Cook would be there singing something else, and Stephen Sondheim, and Chita Rivera would be there. I was so nervous, I practiced and practiced. Then I went out and nailed it." And like Cunegonde, Brennan's career has progressed just as it was meant to in this best of all possible worlds.
Maureen Brennan will perform "Shine" on Tuesday, October 15, 2019, 7:30pm (dinner seating starts at 6pm) at the Napoleon Room at Club Café Boston, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116. Tickets $15 advance (+$1.75 reservation fee), $20 at the door. For reservations, visit https://www.clubcafe.com/events/maureen-brennan/ or call617.536.0966.
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