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

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."

About a week later, the producer asked Ball to sit in on the auditions. "The second person to walk out on stage was Amanda," he says. "She had an aura. She sang a folk song, which I found to be rather strange for 'Brel' because he's dramatic, but it didn't matter, and I said, 'Listen, you should hire this girl. There's something going on here.' "


Something going on? An aura? "I really mean there was some light coming from her," Ball insists, "and I've told her this -- at that moment I became a big fan of hers. . . . One of the big things about us is dual respect. Our mutual respect paves the way for us to co-exist in this business."

The first song

"Jacques Brel" also figured into McBroom's life at another important point. She and Ball were performing the show in Cincinnati when she wrote her first song. "It was his day to work, and my day off, and I picked up the guitar, and I just started writing," she says. "Nobody but George has ever heard that song. It's called 'Losing You Again.' It's not a bad song -- if the bossa nova ever comes back."

"The Rose" also came about somewhat serendipitously. McBroom was driving on the Hollywood Freeway in 1978 when, she says, "There was a song on the radio called 'Magdalena' that a guy named Leo Sayer sang -- a song by a wonderful writer named Danny O'Keefe, and one of the lines was 'Your love is like a razor/My heart is just a scar.' I love imagery. I thought, 'This is a great image.' I started thinking, 'I don't think love is like a razor.' I said, 'Some say love, it is a razor/That leaves your soul to bleed./I say love, it is a flower/And you its only seed.' "

Since she didn't have a tape recorder with her, she kept repeating the song over and over, until she got home. Then she sang it for Ball. "I knew that that was a great song," he says. "I said, 'Oh, my God, I think you just wrote a standard.' "

Coincidentally, McBroom learned that the producers of the movie "The Rose" were looking for music. But "They kept rejecting it," she says. "They were looking for rock and roll."


Fortunately, the movie's music producer liked the song and sent it to Bette Midler, who went on to make it the standard that Ball had predicted. It has subsequently been recorded by everybody from Conway Twitty to Zamfir.

"The Rose" is also the climax of "Heartbeats" -- although it hasn't been in every production. Concerned that the highly recognizable, popular song might upset the balance of the show, McBroom and Castellino experimented with taking it out of a few productions. They finally restored it because, McBroom explains, People really like it to end the piece, and it is pertinent."

For that matter, McBroom and Ball haven't been in all the productions, either. After the San Diego debut, McBroom says, "I decided not to be in it so I could sit back and watch it." However, she admits, "I've always wanted to do it again."

Return to cabaret

"Heartbeats" will be the first time McBroom has performed in Baltimore, which might surprise some of her fans since Hoagy Carmichael's song, "Baltimore Oriole," is a staple of her cabaret act. She'll be returning to the cabaret world in March, when she plays a month-long engagement at New York's Cafe Carlyle.

She's also about to record her fifth album, and she's working on a one-woman show. "It's sort of a pastiche of a lot of material, probably about a woman, I bet, going through self-revelation, I bet," she says kiddingly.


But if McBroom works on any more full-fledged musicals, she'd prefer just to write the songs and let someone else write the scripts. It's a skill she developed when she wrote some of the music for ABC's short-lived 1990 television series, "Cop Rock." "I enjoyed someone telling me, 'These are the characters. This is the situation,' " she says.

However, considering the unexpected turns Amanda McBroom's life has taken, she's careful not to rule out the possibility of writing another entire musical by herself. With characteristic ebullience, she exclaims, "Hey, if I get a moment of divine inspiration, I'll go for it again!"


Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Nov. 28. (Sign-interpreted performances Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 13 at 2 p.m.; audio-described performances Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. and Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.)

Tickets: $17.50-$42.50


Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407