The American Conservatory Theater production of Souvenir directed by Vivian Matalon threatened to be a musical, and had only two people listed in the cast, Donald Corren as Cosme McMoon and Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins. A musical about a soprano who could not carry a note, and only one other member in the cast, a 2+ hour play – with a 15 minute intermission, how long CAN one listen to bad music? Well, the intermission seemed like a safe escape route if one felt too tortured by it all. The play began with Cosme (Corren) an aging bar piano-player telling us about how exactly his collaboration with Florence (Kaye) began. She was a wealthy socialite who needed an accompanist as she prepared for a soiree at the Ritz. She only sang lofty classical pieces and picked a piece from The Magic Flute for Cosme to play. As she began her staccato wailing and shrieking we were given a glimpse of Cosme’s disbelief at what he was hearing. But he was young, talented, jobless, and running out of money – so he took the job! Many hours of ear-shattering practices later he accompanied her to a full house at the Ritz Ballroom! People were in awe of Miss Jenkins’ “talent” and stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths or clapped loud and shouted to drown out the sounds of their own laughter! Many had tears streaming down their cheeks that Miss Jenkins took as high approbation! Cole Porter was a regular attendee and said he had to poke his cane into his foot regularly to stop himself from losing all control. Cosme tried but was too nice a man, and too much in need of money to get out of the collaboration – it was simply a private series of “concerts” – only at the Ritz and never in public or open to the press. Then it all comes crashing down as Florence is offered a record deal – she is adamant about taking it as she has a desire to hear herself sing. When she does, to the audience’s amusement she rather feels the piano is out of sync! Needless to say the record sells out, and Cosme’s friends find out what his occupation is. Soon he is on the lookout for and making new non-musical friends! At the intermission I am stunned at how quickly time has flown by. It is possible to have an engaging musical based on the life of a woman who had no ear for music!
The second period begins with Florence excitedly telling Cosme that she has a big event coming up. How big? BIG! HOW BIG? REALLY BIG! She is to have a concert at Carnegie Hall! Cosme tries to get out of it, but is bulldozed into accompanying her. And she plans to sing one of his songs – to get him more visibility. The day rolls around – Miss Florence has a wardrobe designed specifically for the evening, a different dress for each song! And 2000 people are turned away as the concert sells out the day it is announced. The hall is packed and Miss Jenkins performs one ear-shattering piece after another. The piece-de-resistance is a Spanish number where she dances the fandango! The encore is her usual rendition of “Ave Maria”, which this time is greeted with loud laughter that throws miss Jenkins into a state of shock. She later asks Cosme why he did not tell her, but her shock is so great he convinces her that this was nervous laughter as people were overcome with emotion! History tells us that the press did attend the event and panned her solidly – New York Post stated that the performance induced a “dizziness, a headache, and a ringing in the ears!” Miss Jenkins died a month later, but Cosme tells us this was not due to a broken heart from finding out what people really thought of her – it was simply old age, as she was practicing for another planned soiree at the Ritz the day this happened. In the end, in a soliloquy, he wonders if she was really so bad a singer – is it that bad to be able to “hear” the music in your head? Florence always heard the music and loved it – it was what she translated it into that was out of the ordinary in its own way!
Like all ACT productions this one was exceptionally well staged – in one setting that went from bar with piano, to Florence’s music room in her suite at the Ritz, to the Carnegie Hall. Cosme is played wonderfully by Corren – he has a pleasant baritone, and is magical at the piano. His shock, and pain at hearing Florence sing for the first time, his humorous recounting of the Carnegie hall concert, his eventual decision to shield Florence from ridicule provided insight into why any one would stay with Florence and be an accompanist for such a singer for over 20 years! But the star of the show was no doubt Judy Kaye. This Tony award-winning actress is no mean singer – as we see when Cosme tells us maybe this is what it sounds like in her head – and Judy bursts into a magical rendition of the Ave Maria as the spotlight captures her in a magical glow. For such a phenomenal singer to consistently butcher Verdi, Mozart, Vivaldi requires a LOT of practice and a conscious placement of every shriek and tonal absurdity. Judy Kaye shines as the oblivious Florence – all she cared about was the music in her head, and she SANG!
“From her recordings, it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became tremendously popular in her unconventional way. Her audiences apparently loved her for the amusement she provided rather than her musical ability. Critics often described her work in a backhanded way that may have served to pique public curiosity.
Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the laughter which often came from the audience during her performances as coming from her rivals consumed by “professional jealousy.” She was aware of her critics, however, saying “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
The music Jenkins tackled in her recitals was a mixture of the standard operatic repertoire by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi and Johann Strauss (all of them well beyond her technical ability), Lieder (including works by Johannes Brahms and Joaquín Valverde’s Clavelitos [Carnations], a favorite encore), and songs composed by herself or her accompanist, Mr. Cosmé McMoon, who reportedly made faces at Jenkins behind her back to get laughs.
Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed herself, sometimes appearing in wings and tinsel, and, for Clavelitos, throwing flowers into the audience while fluttering a fan and sporting more flowers in her hair. After each performance Cosmé McMoon would collect these flowers from the auditorium in readiness for redistribution at the next one.
After a taxicab crash in 1943 she found she could sing “a higher F than ever before.” Instead of a lawsuit against the taxicab company, she sent the driver a box of expensive cigars.
In spite of public demand for more appearances, Jenkins restricted her rare performances to a few favorite venues, and her annual recital at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in New York City. Attendance at her recitals was always limited to her loyal clubwomen and a select few others — she handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself. At the age of 76, Jenkins finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. So anticipated was the performance that tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance. Jenkins died a month later.”
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