Broadway has never sounded quite like this before. In Souvenir, the new Stephen Temperley two-hander at the Lyceum Theatre, Tony Award winner Judy Kaye stars as the fabulously untalented Florence Foster Jenkins, a society woman of the 1930's who was under the delusion that she was blessed with a beautiful coloratura. Jenkins's recitals, which began as intimate affairs at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, became must-see events, culminating in a legendary, sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall.
The play — which co-stars Donald Corren as Jenkins's sometimes exasperated piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon — is subtitled A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins simply because not much is known about the late performer, whose infamous recordings can still be found through a quick Internet search. "We're sort of dreaming her, trying to channel her," says the award-winning Kaye, who was most recently on Broadway playing Rosie in the long-running ABBA hit Mamma Mia! "If you go to the archives of the New York Public Library, you find this and that on her, [some] newspaper reports… but even a lot of that is kind of sketchy. It's odd that there's nothing concrete, that nobody ever sat down and wrote a book about her.
Part of her tale," Kaye continues, "is her father was domineering and wouldn't let her sing, so she left. She married a guy to get out of that house, and he turned out to be just as domineering and wouldn't let her sing either. So she divorced him. Then her father died and left her oodles of money, and she moved to New York and ensconced herself at the Ritz." It was at the Ritz-Carlton where her butcherings of Mozart and Verdi began.
There is a bit of irony in the fact that Kaye, who won her Tony playing opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, may be offering an even greater performance now as the severely vocally challenged Jenkins, who often mistook audiences' muffled laughter for cheers. Kaye, in fact, first played the role when Souvenir premiered Off-Broadway last season at the York Theatre Company under the direction of Vivian Matalon, who is also helming the show's Broadway bow. It was rather an ingenious way they discovered whether I could stick to my guns [and sing off-key]," Kaye says about her audition for the show's premiere run. "We started with the 'Ave [Maria].' [Original musical director] Jack Lee played the 'Ave' in one key, and I was asked to pick another key and sing it and stay there!"
One might think it would be difficult for a professional singer — whose Broadway credits also include On the Twentieth Century and Ragtime — to sing so poorly, but Kaye says with a laugh, "I'm not having that much trouble doing it; maybe I should be a little scared about it." She does admit, however, that "sometimes I'll get into it, and I'll be frightened that I have actually sung it too well or sung it too badly. There's a fine line there. I can't be so awful that it strains credulity."
Kaye does have the chance to display her true vocal skills during a touching moment at the play's conclusion when the audience hears what the playwright believes Jenkins must have heard in her own head while she was singing. When asked whether there is pressure to sing well at this pivotal moment, Kaye answers, "Only in that the scene before it is very, very emotional, and there are real tears. When I cry in life or onstage, my throat kind of closes up, and I have to find a safe place to go vocalize a little bit and relax the throat and clear out some of the cobwebs that develop in there so I can go out and sing as purely as possible."
Though her performance provokes much intended laughter, Kaye manages to create a full-dimensional woman, someone the audience grows to care about over the course of the evening. Kaye is equally fond of the woman she is portraying. I love her very much," says the actress. "I thought she was a dear, deluded person who did nothing but good. She was a really good person. Her mark has been left throughout the classical world because she gave money to many entities and singers along the way. She was a huge supporter.
"I've been going over my life while I've been doing this [play]," Kaye adds, "thinking, 'Gee, I've had this role, I've had that role. I played Lily Garland, I played Mrs. Lovett,' some wonderful people, but I think this could be the best role I've ever had. It's such a wonderful part, and it's so ironic that it's embodied in a person who couldn't carry a tune. It's so much fun and so moving to me to be able to do it."