Souvenir, which bowed Nov. 10 at the ripely rococoed Lyceum, is a comedy about the sound of music, and it's a tragedy about the sound of music, but it is not and never will be a musical about the sound of music since, true to its subtitle, it's A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins—a name that strikes dissonant chords in the hearts of opera buffs.
Lore has it that during her tentative, self-financed tippytoe into the musical arts, Mme. Jenkins set the bar for awful. Today, her name is spoken of in muted (maybe muzzled) tones by the knowing opera set, who hold her high and lovingly as a negative yardstick.
To give you an idea: in Souvenir, when Madam first lifts her voice in song to us—and to Cosme McMoon, her soon-to-be accompanist and listing pillar of support—the sound of her music all but knocks him off his piano bench, and he rushes to her to see if she will require tourniquets. No, that's just the way she sings. Think Margaret Dumont in heat, although Judy Kaye claims that she didn't for her bravura performance of La Jenkins.
Dumont was the punching-bag dowager who served as Groucho's ramrod straight man in A Night at the Opera and other films—and served quite well, he thought, because "she never got the joke," which, concedes Kaye, puts Dumont squarely in Jenkins' groove.
Jenkins died 61 years ago this month, on the 26th—less than a month after her Carnegie Hall debut (I imply no cause and effect, but there you have it)—and it was only during an encore at that concert that she got an inkling that the sound in her mind was not making it over the footlights. Her clue: that her "Ave Maria" brought the house down. "You expect that with `The Laughing Song,'" she noted, her voice trailing off toward a dreaded abyss. Kaye juggles twin plates of compassion and comedy throughout the evening—a tricky tightrope act she obviously relishes. At the after-party at The Supper Club, she admitted as much: "I've said this all over the place, but it's so true. This is the best role I've ever had, and that's saying something—Lily Garland, Mrs. Lovett, Mama Rose, Carlotta [her previous diva, and a Tony winning one at that in Phantom of the Opera]—but I got to create this one from scratch, and that's a privilege for any actor. I don't take that lightly."
It's no picnic for a professional singer to go through an evening singing badly, but the hardest part for her to bring off, she says, is the redemptive (straight) "Ave Maria" that ends the program. "What's hard is the transition. The big T-word. The emotional scene at the end where she's crying, then I've got to go off and clear my throat before I come back out and sing 'Ave Maria' as purely as I possibly can. That's a challenge." She sings it the way it sounded in Jenkins' head, and, on opening night, a lonely Brava! in the audience punctuated the first second of silence afterward.
Jenkins' reign of aural terror came in a more innocent, less cynical time when even the fourth estate was politely self-protective about her gift. "The reviews were kinda written in code," Kaye says. "It's hard to tell what critics thought. One said: 'She was happy in her work.' With that, every artist would be happy. I researched her as much as it's possible to. I read all the clippings, and that's really all there is. No one has ever written a book or done any exhaustive research so all we can go by is what's in the newspapers."
Donald Corren, who took over the accompanist/accomplice role for Broadway and completes the joke much the same way that George Burns completed Gracie Allen, eschewed research on McMoon. "I was asked not to by our director, Vivian Matalon," he said. "Vivian said to me, 'This is a piece of fiction based on some key facts, but really not much is known about these people, and it's shrouded in mystery, and don't go looking for facts because the play needs to be its own world. He was very specific about that."
But the part played right into his hand without a prior knowledge of the real character. "When this part came up," he said, "I thought, 'Really? Someone thinking of me?' In my 20's and 30's, when I wasn't acting, I played piano bar for a living. That's where I learned the comedy for the part as well as playing the piano during the scenes."
For casting director Barry Moss, that's another perfect fit—two for two—and it might well pay off in Tony nominations. "It will, if I have anything to say about it," says lyricist Susan Birkenhead, who does (as a member of the Tony Nominating Committee).
Director Matalon always thought there was much theatre to be mined in Jenkins' brief season in the emperor's new clothes. "The reality is I suggested this play to Stephen Temperley 26 years ago, and kept nagging him to write it," Matalon said, "I have never found her to be a figure of fun. I've always found her to be a rather touching individual."
And a very elusive one to capture, Temperley admitted. "I tried to write this for many years. It was when I understood I couldn't write it from the point of view of the woman because if I did I'd have to decide if she's bonkers or what. But, if it's the man trying to work it out, there's a story." His play, he hastened to add, is not gospel—it's the aforementioned "Fantasia"—a kind of dressing up of known information. "My version of Cosme is very far from the real story. I've been very free with that. He died in 1977."
Casting the play so precisely wasn't easy the first time, and now some name brand stand-bys have been hired. Meg Bussert (who opened on Broadway in Matalon's Brigadoon 25 years ago) and Bob Stillman (who has some Broadway experience as a on-stage accompanist to Claudia Sher's Dirty Blonde, Mae West).
Should the show become a big fat hit and go extra innings, Moss knows the casting route he wants to go: Victoria Clark, the Tony winner of The Light in the Piazza. "She has the musicianship to pull it off," he said. "It's not easy to sing badly. Joanne Worley told me she couldn't do this show. She said, 'I'm not that good a musician to sing off-key.'"
Interestingly, the first person asked to do a reading of the play for York Theatre Company turned it down sight unseen: the adorable, Tony-winning Darling of the Day herself, Patricia Routledge. "The story we heard was that she wouldn't even read it," said York's artistic director, James Morgan. "She said, 'I don't want this woman to be made fun of.' And that's the one thing this play doesn't do. It doesn't make fun of her. It just has this odd, beautiful vulnerability side. You can't help laughing at her singing, but the play doesn't laugh at her. The play treats her as a serious artist who just has this strange bent."
Souvenir is the second York piece to reach Broadway—"it's our Broadway debut with a new work," Morgan asterisked. (In 1990, York's Sweeney Todd was transplanted into Circle in the Square and won Tony nominations for Beth Fowler, Bob Gunton, director Susan H. Schulman and Best Revival. It was scaled down but had its own orchestra.)
Right now—until Sunday, when The Musical of Musicals: The Musical and Stephen Schwartz's Captain Louie end their Off Broadway runs—York has a hat trick not accomplished since the days of Joe Papp's Public: three homegrown shows in open-ended runs.
Melanie Herman, producer of The Musical of Musicals, arrived at the party late after a hard day at the "office" (Dodger Stages, where the show had just enjoyed a full and happy house). She said the show would be starting a 12-city tour in Iowa on Dec. 1, followed by gigs in Minnesota and San Francisco. And the Samuel French people will be publishing it.
Souvenir producer Ted Snowdon found himself strangely susceptible to the subject matter, and he suspects it's genetic: "My father had been an assistant to a big concert and opera impresario in the '30s and '40s—Charles Wagner—so I'm certain he went to see this woman during that period," he said. "He would have been a part of that musical elite. Sometimes, he would say to me, 'Florence Foster Jenkins, HA!' but I never pursued it. I never asked him much about her, and now I have produced a Broadway show about her."
A casual off-the-cuff remark is how Florence Foster Jenkins finally had her day on Broadway. "I ran into Ted at a reading," recalls Morgan, "and, as we were walking home, I said, 'You should know about this play we just did a reading of. It's about Florence Foster Jenkins.' He said, 'Really? It sounds interesting. I never say this, but would you get me the script? I promise I will read it this weekend.' We left each other in the middle of Broadway at about 62nd Street, and on his way home he stopped at Tower Records and bought a Florence Foster Jenkins CD. He was fascinated, and he just fell for the script."
Rip Taylor similarly flipped. "Like it? I've seen it four times," he said, leaving the Lyceum. And—at the other end of the showbiz spectrum, opera legend Licia Albanese was also singing praises of the show in her broken-Italian fashion. And she wasn't the only soprano at the opening: Dominic Chianese was likewise moved: "It's a powerful theme because it's not only about the performer and her angst, it's also about how people can accept things and they don't have to tell the truth. That's what it's about to me." Jane Gullong, executive director of City Opera, which has employed Kaye on occasion (Candide, The Pajama Game), admitted her "crowd" might have a leg up on the show since the character is the stuff of opera legend, but was quick to point of the universality of the story: "The story is so interesting because it's a story of denial that we all know."
The Vivian Matalon Fan Club made a unified front on opening night—Grade-A actresses who have been directed by him (Elizabeth Wilson, Polly Holliday, Kaye Ballard). Wilson, in fact, got some direction from him at the very same theatre where Souvenir is playing—in 1980's Morning's at Seven, a favorite experience of hers. "Every time I'm in the Lyceum, I have such a rush of emotions," she admitted.
Estelle Parsons, a Tony contender for the 2002 Morning's at Seven, pointed out that her revival played the Lyceum, too—as did the original production. Currently, Parsons is playing director herself, "working on Adrianne Kennedy's Madame Bovary over at Signature for February. It's all white people. I said to her, 'What should we do with this? Are they black?' She said, 'No. They're white. All my black friends will hate me, but I've written enough for them so now I'm writing for white people." Now, the casting net is out.
Other first-nighters included Amy Irving, a cast of young Turks from the forthcoming God Sees Dog (Eddie Kay Thomas, Kelli Garner and America Ferrara), producer Marty Richards, and playwright, actor/actress and (of late) film director Charles Busch.
If there was anyone present who had actually witnessed Florence Foster Jenkins in action, he or she didn't step up to the mike, but some guests—Holliday, Parsons, Charlotte Rae—knew her from her record. "I remember hearing a record of hers when I first came to New York in 1948," said Rae. "I never thought before a writer could catch her."
Parsons seconded that. "I had heard her records before, and I couldn't imagine how they was going to make a play out of that. But they did. I thought it was a really wonderful, lovely evening. Very different. It's one of those things that is totally original. Totally."
And now that record won't be the only souvenir from the mouth that roared.