It is not the case, Maude Maggart would have you know, that every member of her family is in show business. She has two half-sisters who lead very conventional lives, out of the limelight.
Everyone else, on the other hand, pretty much is in the biz -- including, of course, 31-year-old Maude herself. A new sensation in the world of musical cabaret, she is just finishing off a three-week-plus engagement at the Algonquin Hotel's legendary Oak Room in New York.
Then there's her younger sister, pop-singer/songwriter Fiona Apple; her half-brothers, actor Garett and director Spencer Maggart; and her parents, actress Diane McAfee and actor Brandon Maggart, who met as cast members in the Broadway musical Applause in 1970.
Going back another generation, her grandmother, 96-year-old Millicent Green, was a teenage dancer on Broadway in the 1926 George White's Sca ndals review, while 93-year-old grandfather Johnny McAfee sang with several big bands, including the Harry James Orchestra in the thirties and forties.
So Maude Maggart, who has lately caused New York music mavens to search for new superlatives, certainly comes by it honestly.
To hear her sing is to be transported back in time. In part, it's simply the voice, which in its upper registers has an almost ethereal quality, and in its lower zone an earthy seductiveness. Or as her friend and cabaret mentor Andrea Marcovicci put it: "She has a voice we haven't heard in 60 years." But it's also the material, most of it drawn from the early American songbook.
Even her name, Maude -- changed from Amber more than a decade ago, it was her great-great-grandmother's first name -- harkens back to another era. Maggart isn't entirely comfortable with the label "cabaret singer;" she prefers just "singer." Still, it's in the intimacy of such a venue that she works best. In the cozy confines of the Algonquin, with understated accompaniment on the piano by Lanny Meyers and on guitar and cello by Yair Evnine, she can literally make eye contact with the entire room.
The melodies -- by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Noel Coward, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others -- sell themselves. Maggart sings them straight ahead, unembellished by jazzy vocal accoutrement. What she is essentially selling is her way around a lyric, her ability to find and deliver the emotional heart of the song -- a depth of commitment to the material you won't find in much better-known chanteuses, among them the icy Diana Krall.
Now playing to rave reviews, Maggart's current show Good Girl/Bad Girl, her third at the Oak Room, is themed and carefully constructed. All of the songs, from A.P. Randolph's How Could Red Riding Hood? to Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's The Folks Who Live on the Hill to Gershwin's Do It Again, stand at some indefinite point on the passion and betrayal continuum. Among the stand-outs is You Belong to Me, recorded by Jo Stafford, Patsy Cline and Patti Page, among others. (An interesting anecdotal gloss to the song, as Maggart explained, is that the words and music were written by a woman, Chilton Price, although two better-known and better-connected men, Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King, were listed as co-writers.)
The four-decade run of the classic American song is thought to have ended in the mid-1950s, swept away by a rock 'n' roll tsunami, but Maggart notes that great songs like Joan Baez's Love Song to a Stranger -- also part of her act -- continue to be written. She intends to inject more of them into her repertoire.
Maggart owes much to Andrea Marcovicci, a cabaret veteran who took the young singer under wing, helping her choose material and find the right approach to the song. Maggart was just a teenager when she saw her future mentor perform in Los Angeles. "It was the most special thing I had ever seen, and I came home and wrote reams about it my diary," Maggart recalled in a recent interview. "But I was too timid to speak to her for a long time."
After her parents' divorce, Maggart lived a bi-coastal childhood, spending the school year with her mother in New York and summers with her father in Venice Beach, Calif. She saw Marcovicci's act several times, but never spoke to her until 1999, at a memorial service for composer and family friend Marshall Barer ( Once Upon a Mattress and Here I Come to Save the Day, the Mighty Mouse theme song).
At the time, Maggart was still trying to determine "what I wanted to do with my life." She had sung at the Barer service and, the next day, Marcovicci called Maggart's father and said she'd be prepared to help if Maude wanted to become a singer.
"I owe everything to Andrea," she now says. "She shared all of her knowledge about cabaret, her music library, protocol, how to take the audience on a journey, and how to become myself. She never tried to turn me into a little clone."
Later, Maggart got a boost from another major cabaret star -- Michael Feinstein -- who invited her to perform with him during a two-week run at the Algonquin and again at Carnegie Hall.
In other words, two of the biggest names in cabaret have given Maggart their endorsement.
Maggart says she has also been influenced by Helen Forrest, who sang with Artie Shaw's orchestra and later Harry James's, and to some extent by Helen Morgan, a torch singer from the twenties and thirties. "There's a fragility and tenderness with her that is kind of untouched," Maggart says of Morgan.
Next stop is London. Maggart opens a week-long gig at the Jermyn Street Theatre later this month. And there's a new CD, Maude Maggart Live, a compilation from live performances in New York and Los Angeles, due out this week.
The themed evening of songs echoes Marcovicci's approach. "I like to know why people pick songs -- that it's not just a potpourri," says Maggart. "You can carve out a pathway for the audience. I'm singing songs a lot of people don't sing any more, and we are keeping that history alive. It's storytelling."