By Beth C. Aplin
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS ‚ÄĒ Maureen Kelley Stewart was at her college reunion in Iowa a couple of years ago and found herself repeating the same phrase: ‚ÄúI live in New York City and I‚Äôve been selling advertising for more than 30 years.‚ÄĚ
Once an actress, she had worked in sales for several top publications, including Adweek, Newsweek and the New York Observer. But the longtime Heights resident didn‚Äôt like the sound of her summation.
‚ÄúAs grateful as I am for my sales career, I am not dead yet,‚ÄĚ she said at a Montague Street caf√©, ‚Äúand I‚Äôd like to try some other things.‚ÄĚ
One result is Heart‚Äôs Desire, a cabaret show that Stewart began performing in the fall of 2007 and continued last month at Laurie Beechman Theater in Midtown. Accompanied by musical director Don Rebic, Stewart sings a roster of old standards and newer songs that speak of lost opportunities and chances that must be taken. It is her most personal work to date.
‚ÄúThe whole idea behind Heart‚Äôs Desire, and with this phase of my life, is I would very much like to work more from my right brain and more from my authentic self,‚ÄĚ she explained. ‚ÄúThe goal was not only to tell the story and acknowledge the shift that I felt had happened in my life, but to surpass my comfort level and try material I‚Äôd never done before.‚ÄĚ
Eric Michael Gillett, the director of Heart‚Äôs Desire, concurred. ‚ÄúShe has found a way to combine her desire to entertain with a fearlessness in allowing us inside the needs that drive her to be the person she is,‚ÄĚ he wrote in an e-mail to this newspaper. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been a growth show for her and will, I believe, lead to some huge strides in her next work.‚ÄĚ
Life Is (Partially) a Cabaret
It was the desire to entertain, not advertising, that brought the blond-haired, blue-eyed Illinois native to New York City. The eldest of six children in an Irish Catholic family, Stewart says she ‚Äúgot hooked‚ÄĚ by the performance bug when she was 4 years old and so shy that her mother sent her to an elocution school.
‚ÄúThey would take us around to these old folks homes, and I was saying things like, ‚ÄėI wanted a puppy for Christmas but look what they gave me, a doll,‚Äô‚ÄĚ she reenacted. The applause always came, and that was that.
Her family expected her to ‚Äúto get a teaching certificate, marry the boy next door and teach the third graders in Illinois.‚ÄĚ She got the certificate, but then she won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and moved to the Big Apple in 1976.
The next five years were spent auditioning, waiting tables and cleaning people‚Äôs houses. She studied with Uta Hagen, got a small part in the soap ‚ÄúDoctors‚ÄĚ and met her future husband, Tom Stewart (the well-known ‚Äúvoice‚ÄĚ of Thirteen/WNET New York). Acting work, however, was sporadic.
‚ÄúI think I understood early on that I had some ability, but I didn‚Äôt think I was strong enough, really. I got discouraged very easily,‚ÄĚ she said.
When a temp agency placed her at an advertising agency that worked with Broadway shows, Stewart considered it a transformative experience that made her braver and stronger.
‚ÄúIt was the beginning of understanding the other side of performing,‚ÄĚ she explained. ‚ÄúI always say, ‚ÄėHaving talent and making a living: two different things.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Making a living took over until 1990, when on a whim Stewart opened an issue of the magazine Back Stage and saw an audition call for a weeklong cabaret symposium. Though it was highly competitive, she was accepted and in time she fell in love with the intimate medium.
‚ÄúI say this with humility ‚ÄĒ I don‚Äôt have the world‚Äôs greatest set of pipes. But what I feel about cabaret is that it is about the lyrics and it‚Äôs about communicating,‚ÄĚ she said.
Since then, she has done a cabaret show about once a year. (Several Heights residents are familiar with the annual show Stewart and her husband perform at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz.) Most of her cabaret career has been alongside musical director Dick Gallagher, who died in early 2005. Stewart says it took her a long time to want to sing again.
‚ÄúHe was a brilliant, brilliant guy and he just kept nurturing me for a long time. The most important thing he said to me in terms of cabaret was ‚Äėjust tell the story ‚ÄĒ that‚Äôs all cabaret is, telling the story.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Just this past year, Stewart retired from her media sales career and has become intent on leading a life that is more in line with her heart‚Äôs desire. That may mean more cabaret shows that are more in line with her own story, or that may mean a new career.
For now, she and her husband own the one-bedroom on Remsen Street that they first rented 23 years ago, and it‚Äôs certain that at her next college reunion, there will be an addendum to that sales career.
‚ÄúThe goal for me and for Tom, who‚Äôs also from a small town, is to be stimulated and to be motivated, and we are around people who do that for us all the time,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúI really feel extremely blessed.‚ÄĚ
¬© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2008
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