Last summer in the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Summer at the Center program, which provides musical training for at-risk teenagers, the instructor taught the class a medley of songs with wordless choruses: "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and the like.
If the program needs additional help this summer, perhaps Ms. McGovern can step in as the cool new teacher.
McGovern — Maureen, that is — delivered a wordless tour de force Saturday at the center's Samueli Theater, where she played a three-night engagement with singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb. Midway through her set, the Grammy nominee and Broadway star noted jokingly that 1960s songwriters sometimes had trouble articulating their thoughts in language, and proceeded to plow through sections of "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," "Blue Moon," "Mrs. Robinson," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and others.
Considering how lyric-heavy the night was on the whole — Webb, after all, wrote "MacArthur Park," which both he and McGovern sang in their individual sets — the cavalcade of bom-boms and deet-deet-deets served as a reminder that before music can provoke verbally, it must start as joyous, or cathartic, noise.
The performance by Webb and McGovern, who joined for duets at the end, was high on joy, as both headliners joked, told stories and delivered spirited renditions. With just a piano — played by Jeff Harris for McGovern's set, then by Webb himself — for accompaniment, the show fit snugly into the cabaret-like confines of the Samueli Theater, where small tables occupy the floor below the stage as well as balconies above.
Of the two, Webb came off as more of a natural small-venue performer. His voice was more ragged than McGovern's, and his conversational style made the occasional roughness of his renditions fit in smoothly. For the first half of his set, the talk almost overwhelmed the music, as he delved into lengthy stories about meeting Frank Sinatra, dealing with Richard Harris' eccentricities and forging a partnership with Art Garfunkel after the singer's split with Paul Simon.
When Webb came to "Worst That Could Happen," he made the most of his nearness to the audience, assigning different sections of the room to sing parts of the harmony. The crowd had trouble mastering the rhythm, but when the song ended, Webb gamely called out, "Thanks for being good sports."
One of Webb's best-known songs is "Still Within the Sound of My Voice," and the sentiment expressed in that title symbolized a melancholy undertone throughout the evening. Webb mentioned his longtime friend Glen Campbell's ongoing battle with Alzheimer's disease and Linda Ronstadt's loss of her singing voice due to Parkinson's, while McGovern paid tribute to the late Pete Seeger, whom she called a lifetime hero.
She also sang a verse from Simon and Garfunkel's "Old Friends" that opines how "terribly strange" it is to turn 70, then pointed out with wonder that both Simon and Paul McCartney have passed that threshold. Webb and McGovern are both performers often tied to others — the former as a songwriter, the latter as a mostly cover artist — which means that they carry many of their absent peers within the sounds of their voices.
In McGovern's case, it's a powerhouse of a voice. Her Broadway background showed at Segerstrom as she carefully enunciated words and gestured dramatically, and her delivery seemed as appropriate for a stadium as a cozy theater. When she parodied herself as a teenager, belting out Connie Francis' "Where the Boys Are" in a hysterical wail, it was understandable to fear screws popping loose in the exit doors.
One of her quieter renditions was a truncated "MacArthur Park," which she reduced to the gorgeous bridge ("I will take my life into my hands and I will use it / I will win the worship in their eyes and I will lose it") while leaving out the famous — and oft-parodied — chorus about the cake in the rain. When Webb tackled the song, he included that part, and the first syllable of the word "MacArthur" alone drew warm applause from the audience.
Is that chorus brilliant or awful? Every listener seems to reach his or her own conclusion. As for me, I go both ways. The opening lines ("MacArthur Park is melting in the dark / all the sweet green icing flowing down") have an almost baroque intensity, but the ensuing ones, in which the narrator moans that "it took so long to bake it / and I'll never have that recipe again," strike a jarring note — less like the words of a spurned lover than the lament of a housewife watching smoke billow out of the oven.
But given how many people that song has moved over the years, any criticism may be moot by now. At Segerstrom last weekend, we got to hear a classic tune from the master chef himself. And as he and McGovern ran through the hits of an era that is beloved but fast sliding into history, it was a blessing to have that recipe at all.