There's a bit of irony in the fact that Judy Kaye won her Tony Award playing opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, yet she may be offering an even greater performance now as the severely vocally challenged Florence Foster Jenkins. Kaye, who easily shifts between Broadway belt and soaring soprano, is currently starring in the York Theatre Company's world-premiere mounting of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, a two-hander also featuring pianist Jack Lee as loyal accompanist Cosmé McMoon. Kaye portrays Jenkins, a society woman in the forties who was under the delusion that she was blessed with a beautiful coloratura. Her 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. Though her performance provokes much laughter, Kaye manages to create a full-dimensional woman, someone the audiences grows to care about over the course of the evening. I recently had the chance to chat with Kaye — whose Broadway credits also include On the Twentieth Century, Ragtime and Mamma Mia! — about her latest role. That interview follows:
Question: How did this great role come about?
Judy Kaye: This role came into my life because of an audition. I was called in to audition during the summer.
Q: Did you know anything about Florence Foster Jenkins before this play?
Kaye: Oh, yeah. I knew about her. I didn't know her intimately, but I certainly knew the outline of her story. I didn't possess the disc, but I had heard it. Of course, when I got the audition — and they were nice enough to send me the play to read — I pretty much flipped out. I just hoped they liked me enough to let me play this part because it's such a beautifully written piece of work.
Kaye: Nor does [the writer]. That was the intent all along, and I was grateful for that because there's a real person there.
Q: You said you had heard her recordings . . .
Kaye: I had. And, of course, you can google her. In today's world you can google anything, but you can google Florence, and I did because I wanted an update, and it became even more dramatic to me, how real she was.
Q: What are the recordings like?
Kaye: Oh, well, you should have yourself a treat and go google her and hear her. [Laughs.] There was an on-line critic who said that when the recording [is played] in the show, that it's actually [Florence who is singing], and it's not dissimilar. But in point of fact, I'm proud to say, that's me! [Laughs.] We went and we recorded that. The wonderful sound guys filtered the recording and did all this wonderful work on it so it sounds like an ancient recording, but it's me and Jack.
Q: You're such a great singer that I was wondering how difficult it is for you to sing poorly.
Kaye: First of all, you have to sing properly so that you protect yourself. I made certain decisions in noting the way that she sang — in particular, that she had no chest voice at all. And that was the day when women were not encouraged to use that part of their voice, especially if they were attempting to have classical careers. So, you just take that right out of the mix, and that actually is pretty healthy to do. There's a reason why female singers do that because you can sing a long time if you don't involve too much belting. And, so the evening, in that regard, is like a long vocalese. Now the pitches and things like that — those are choices made in rehearsal and in the moment. Those are decisions of the brain and not of the throat. It's fun if you know how to sing. If you're not a singer, it could be arduous.
Q: After playing the role for a few weeks, how do you view Florence now?
Kaye: I love her very much. 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 throughout the years because she gave money to many entities and singers along the way. She was a huge supporter.
Q: Do you know what happened to her pianist, Cosmé, after she died?
Kaye: There were evidently many Cosmés. There was a string of Cosmés. When Mr. Temperley says that this is a fantasia, a fantasy on the life of, it is because nobody really knows what her life was. We're cobbling together things from various places. People come in every now and then — older people — and say, 'Well, I knew this person or I knew that person or friends of mine saw the concert.' Marge Champion was there opening night. She said there were three Carnegie Hall concerts, which we did not discover at all. She said there were three, and she was at the last one. That was fun to have her to talk to. She said [the concert] was extraordinary, and that we did a pretty good job of [re-creating her], so that was exciting. But we're sort of dreaming her, trying to channel her. If you go on-line, if you go to the archives of the New York Public Library, you find this and that on her. You find newspaper reports. There's a lot of that, but a lot of that was even kind of sketchy. It's odd that there's nothing concrete, that nobody ever sat down and wrote a book about her.
Q: Was she married?
Kaye: She had been married. Part of her tale, of course, 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. Supposedly, there was a man in her life, and he was an actor [who] squired her around. Evidently, there is also a rumor that they were married. And, then I heard a story about her eventually moving into one of those wonderful opera apartments on 57th Street and buying lots of overstuffed furniture . . . and having fabulous parties. She was this wonderful eccentric, who loved her life so much.
Q: Is the role as much fun to play as it seems?
Kaye: Yeah, it is. I've been going over my life while I've been doing this, 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.
Q: As you said, you're used to playing bigger stages. What's it like performing at the York, which is such a small space?
Kaye: What a swell theatre that is! I had only done benefits and the odd reading in this theatre, and I never really got a total feel for what it's like. It's really a wonderful space. It's extremely intimate. I know a great deal about the audience by the end of the evening. [Laughs.] I do everything not to see them, of course. It was a real challenge to desensitize myself to the laughter while I'm singing. I made sure from the very first day [of rehearsal] that I got used to — and it wasn't easy — people guffawing in my face while I'm trying to sing.
Q: What was that the first time like when you had an audience?
Kaye: Well, when I had my first audience, I was scared. That was the one thing I was really worried about. And, I did the right thing by getting people to laugh at me [before the first preview]. I'm very much concentrated in the piece now, and it's okay. I don't become the audience. It's easy to sort of momentarily, without realizing it, pull your little brain out and become the audience and look at yourself, and that is not a good thing. By the time we had an audience in there, I had had the tech people watching me, and a small rehearsal space, which was good. We were in a small rehearsal room and that was very helpful.
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