DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Souvenir's Judy Kaye Plus News of Streisand and Stritch

By Andrew Gans
14 Oct 2005

Judy Kaye and Donald Corren in Souvenir.
Judy Kaye and Donald Corren in Souvenir.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

JUDY KAYE

Tony Award winner Judy Kaye was one of the highlights of the 2004-2005 Off-Broadway season with her performance as the vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins in the York Theatre Company's production of Souvenir. Kaye drew raves for her humorous, yet touching work in Stephen Temperley's two-hander, which concerns the life of society woman Jenkins, who mistakenly believed she possessed a beautiful singing voice. That delusion led her to begin offering a series of concerts at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and, eventually, to a not-to-be-forgotten sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall. The musical play, which was extended at the York, was also presented this past summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, where it again received nearly unanimous praise.

When I spoke to Kaye last season during her acclaimed run at the York, the Tony Award-winning actress had hoped that the play would have a future life. In fact, she said at the time, "[The producers are] looking at a couple of different options, but I'm not privy to all of that, and in a way, I'm kind of glad because I'd only get crazy and start obsessing because I want it to happen so much. I don't want this to be the end. I love [Florence] so much."

Well, Kaye's wish has been granted. Souvenir—A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, which co-stars Donald Corren as Jenkins' musical director/piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon, will begin previews at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre Oct. 28 with an official opening set for Nov. 10. Last week I had the chance to chat with Kaye about her forthcoming return to Broadway; that brief interview follows.



Question: I remember you told me you had originally auditioned for this role. What was the audition process like? Did you have to sing poorly? Judy Kaye: Well, yes, in a word. It wasn't exactly poorly — it was a rather ingenuous way they discovered whether I could stick to my guns when I found an alternate way to sing the melody. [Laughs.] We actually started with the "Ave." [Original music director and co-star] Jack Lee played the "Ave [Maria]" in one key, and I was asked to pick another key and sing it and stay there. That's how we did it, and it worked.

Q: How difficult is it to sing that way?
Kaye: Gosh, I'm sure it's different for every person. For me, it's really not all that difficult. I'm not having that much trouble doing it — maybe I should be a little scared about it. Sometimes I'll get into it, and I'll be frightened that I have actually either 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.

Q: When we last spoke, during the middle of the York run, you had said you very much hoped the play would have an additional life. How did the Broadway production come about?
Kaye: Well, it came about because of a fellow named Ted Snowdon, who actually also helped with the York run. He had read the play. He had not seen any of the readings that were done, nor had I. On the basis of what he read, he was so drawn to it that he helped the York to realize the production that we had there, which was pretty special. And, then he decided he really wanted to keep going with it, based on the reaction that people were having to the play, so he found the Berkshire Theatre Festival . . . . They had a slot open and were willing to let us go up there and do it again. Even before that, Ted had made a commitment to bring the show [to Broadway], and it got more committed as it went along because the audiences up there were quite rapturous. They loved it.

Q: You also have a new co-star in the show.
Kaye: I do, and he is so splendid. Donald Corren. He is just terrific. He's very funny, very bright, very honest, very warm. I'm crazy about him. I feel like he's my little brother, [and] onstage he's just divine. He really is, and I'm loving working with him, and I feel like we haven't even scratched the surface because we only had a few weeks up there in the Berkshires.

Q: Have there been any changes made to the play since the York run?
Kaye: Some writing changes, some things have been strengthened. After the York run, the playwright was able to see some things that he really wanted to change, and so he did some rewriters. Essentially the play is the same — there are just some things that make it funnier or more touching or more to the point. And, then I have four times more costumes than I had at the York. In point of fact, when La Jenkins played Carnegie Hall, in fact whenever she did a concert, she had a different costume for each song. So now we do, too . . . . And, the set is going to be quite beautiful. It's the same idea but embellished a little more.

Q: What do you think is the greatest challenge of playing Florence Foster Jenkins?
Kaye: To be honest, to stick to my guns. And, I'm sure this probably was true for the lady. And, in doing so, I'm actually being truest to her to not go with the audience's laughter. Stay true to Florence and her vision of art and beauty and not play to the audience. When you're standing there with your mouth hanging open, and Judy knows she's making a terrible sound and not copping to it. That's a real challenge. It isn't so bad in a bigger theatre. The York was really hard because everybody was three inches from me.

Q: Who were some of the singers who influenced or inspired you?
Kaye: Marilyn Horne, that wonderful warm sound. Streisand, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, a real broad spectrum of people. David Clayton-Thomas. I really like good singers, and there are bunches of them out there. Ella Fitzgerald makes me nuts.

Q: Have you sought out Florence's recordings?
Kaye: Oh, yes. I knew them from even my high school days. They were played for me and I went, "No!" When I first found out this was happening, I was able to Google her and rehear some of that stuff. Continued...