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.
Q: Speaking of bad singing, I was wondering if you've ever watched the "American Idol" auditions.
Kaye: You know, I tried. I tried. And I do recognize that the dream dies hard. I was in touch with that the first time I auditioned for a professional show. I watched people around me, and some of them were very capable, and then there were those who shouldn't have been there. But I knew that their desire to be there was as great as mine, if not more so. And, then it made me think about myself, which is what the play does. It made me think, "Who do I think I am? What am I doing here? Is that what I sound like?"
Q: Do you feel pressure at the end of the show when you have to sing well?
Kaye: 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 — which heretofore has not been really possible — 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. So that's a challenge.
Q: It is sort of ironic that you won your Tony playing a great opera diva . . .
Kaye: Isn't it? Is this a theme?
Q: . . . and now you're going to be in a show about a woman who really can't sing.
Kaye: Well, the Phantom didn't think that Carlotta could sing either! Everybody's a critic. [Laughs.]
Q: Did you get the chance to see the "Phantom" film?
Kaye: I haven't yet, and that's only because I haven't seen anything. I'm way behind. One of these days I'll get the DVD and I'll watch it. It won't be in a big theatre, which will be too bad, because it's really probably all about production.
Q: What was the response when you performed Souvenir this summer in the Berkshires?
Kaye: Oh my God, over the moon. A lot of them didn't know what to expect. They didn't know what they were walking into. It was just something that the Berkshire Theatre Company was presenting, so they went. They laughed heartily, and they were taken emotionally on a journey. All the things that are supposed to happen in a good play. [Tickets for Souvenir, priced $46.25-$86.25, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com. For more information, go to www.souvenironbroadway.com.]
Five Barbra Streisand television specials — spanning the years 1965 to 1973 — will be released in a single DVD package next month. On Nov. 22 "Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials" will arrive in stores on the WEA/Warners label. The five DVDs include "My Name Is Barbra" (1965), "Color Me Barbra" (1966), "The Belle of 14th Street" (1967), "Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park" (1968) and "Barbra Streisand . . . And Other Musical Instruments" (1973). Some of the concerts will also be aired on PBS stations this December under the "Great Performances" banner. "My Name is Barbra," which was filmed in black and white, features Streisand's renditions of "When the Sun Comes Out," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "My Man." "Color Me Barbra" includes such tunes as "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I Stayed Too Long at the Fair" and "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home." "Some of These Days," "How About Me?," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "My Buddy" are just a few of the tunes heard on "The Belle of 14th Street." "Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park," filmed before an outdoor audience of 150,000, features Streisand singing "He Touched Me," "People," "Second Hand Rose" and "Happy Days Are Here Again." And, "Barbra Streisand . . . And Other Musical Instruments" features the singing actress with 150 musicians; it also includes a duet with Ray Charles on "Crying Time." For more information visit www.barbratvshows.com.
Elaine Stritch, who is currently playing the Café Carlyle through the end of the month, has already agreed to a return engagement at the posh nightclub located within the Carlyle Hotel. Stritch will play a second stint at the intimate venue Jan. 10-Feb. 4, 2006. Although her current run is completely sold out, a final evening has been added for Oct. 30 at 8:45 PM. For her upcoming second engagement, all tickets will be $125. For reservations call (212) 744-1600; visit www.thecarlyle.com for more information.
The First Annual Worldwide Orphans Foundation Benefit Gala will be held Oct. 24 at Capitale Restaurant in Manhattan. Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, an adoptive mother of three, will be honored at the benefit, which is set to begin at 6:30 PM. Channel 2 News' Cindy Hsu will emcee the evening, which will feature performances from Ebersole, Donna Murphy and Melissa Errico. Founded in 1997 by Dr. Jane Aronson, Worldwide Orphans' goal is to "improve the lives of children living in orphanages." The Capitale Restaurant is located in Manhattan at 130 Bowery. For more information, visit www.wwo.org.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]