Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2012  



Florence Foster Jenkins Lives Again


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - June 18, 2012)   Wikipedia has this to say about Stephen Temperley's Souvenir:

Souvenir is a two-character play, with incidental music, by Stephen Temperley. Set in a Greenwich Village supper club in 1964, [Actually 1974 according to the plot. IS] it flashes back to the musical career of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite with a famously uncertain sense of pitch and key. In 1932, she met mediocre pianist Cosmé McMoon, and the two teamed up in the hope of achieving success. Over the next dozen years, their bizarre partnership yielded hilariously off-key recitals that became the talk of New York, earned them cultish fame, and culminated in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944.

The play was showcased by the off-Broadway York Theatre Company in 2004. After fourteen previews, the Broadway production, directed by Vivian Matalon (who originally suggested the subject matter to Temperley), opened on November 10, 2005, at the Lyceum Theatre, where it ran for 68 performances. Judy Kaye and Donald Corren comprised the cast. Kaye was nominated for both the Tony and Drama Desk Award for her performance.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston staged Souvenir in early 2007 - their production featured direction by Spiro Veloudous, and starred Leigh Barret as Jenkins, with Will McGarrahan as Cosme. The San Jose Repertory Theater staged the West-Coast premiere of Souvenir in their 2007-2008 season; with Mark Anders playing Cosme McMoon and Patti Cohenour playing Florence Foster Jenkins.

This remarkable theatrical experience, only eight years old, found its way to Longview in East Texas on June 8 and 10 this year by way of previous performances put on by Cyrano's Theatre Company in Anchorage, Alaska in 2010. My wife, Ann, and I had the pleasure of seeing the second Longview presentation. The two performers in Souvenir's most recent reincarnation were Anchorage-based soprano Kate Egan as Jenkins and New Yorker Gerry Steichen as McMoon, and the direction was by the nationally and internationally active Bill Fabris. The production was under the sponsorship of the "East Texas Music and Theatre Company," a nom de théatre for what usually goes by the name of Opera East Texas, Derrith Bondurant Director. Steichen had conducted various operas over recent seasons for this organization when its procedure was still to produce fully staged and orchestrated operas. In more recent years other less ambitious operatic events have had to be substituted till the pipeline of necessary support gets flowing again.

It had been my pleasure to serve as concertmaster under Steichen's baton for all these once-a-year operatic events. Steichen, a native of Oklahoma and a distant relative of the famous photographer Edward Steichen, always conducted with vigor, elan, and exactitude, inspiring all his forces both instrumental and vocal with the proper enthusiasm and forcefulness to create fine performances. These excellent qualities were also very much in evidence when he minded his own more usual operatic store both on podium and keyboard for 10 years at New York's late-lamented City Opera. Now Steichen has three different orchestras to lead: in Richfield and New Haven, Connecticut, as well as being pops director of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City.

Accustomed as we were to Steichen's excellent baton work we were very much pleased to see him wearing as well three other hats to fine advantage in Souvenir: cocktail pianist, Feinstein/Sinatra-type vocalist, and actor. The last we heard, as wonderful as he is, pianist, singer, and archivist Michael Feinstein does not enjoy the reputation of professionally conducting orchestras and operas nor acting in plays in addition to his usual activities. So we must widen our eyes in admiration when we contemplate Gerry Steichen's remarkable musical and theatrical versatility.

Steichen as Cosme McMoon, sporting a Groucho-type mustache, opens Souvenir by noodling and improvising at the piano and singing some songs from the 1920s and '30s, which he continues to re-introduce throughout the play. He starts with Crazy Rhythm (1928) by Caesar, Meyer, and Kahn from the Broadway musical Here's Howe (not to be confused with the Gershwins' I've got Rhythm). Not that McMoon ever gets to sing any of his songs all the way through. He constantly interrupts himself by stopping to continue telling the story of how he got started and then continued for 12 years to be the accompanist for legendary faux-soprano Jenkins. (These constant interruptions and re-lookings to the audience evoked some of the biggest laughs of the afternoon.) The two acts of the play culminate with excerpts from Jenkins and McMoon's joint sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944. It was said and shown on the Longview stage that for every one of the 24 songs and arias Jenkins sang in that concert, some of which were reproduced in Souvenir, she changed her outfit for every single one.

Steichen's portrayals of McMoon's horrified and incredulous reactions to the unbelievable attempts at the singing of the great operatic classics issuing forth from the throat of the completely incomprehending and thoroughly incompetent heroine were some of the most striking moments of the play. These reactions became more and more horrified as Jenkins informs him of her plans to shift her concerts from the Ritz Carlton hotel where she lives to places like Town Hall and eventually to Carnegie Hall. McMoon's professional embarrassment at having his activities exposed in places sacred to his classical music colleagues evokes his constant sinking of head into hands throughout the afternoon. But he had to pay his rent and he went along. And as he explains eventually to the audience, after some years of all this he begins to think of Jenkins as a kind of genius. Why shouldn't her individual versions of these icons of the standard repertoire be even more treasured and more interesting than the originals? As McMoon puts it: "After a while I heard Ponselle sing these things, and you know: there was something missing!" And as Ann pointed out to me, the 20th century was the age of Picasso, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, etc., and normal-looking objects began taking on some rather bizarre aspects all over the painting world, so why not the parallel process in music as well?

McMoon explains: the audiences couldn't believe their ears and had to physically fight their urges to burst out into horrified laughter by stuffing handkerchiefs into their mouths or running physically out the doors. But to Jenkins the tears she saw in her audiences' eyes were not tears of laughter but tears of emotion, the emotion she felt as she sang. And if some of the sounds that came out of her mouth didn't quite correspond to what the composers had written on the page, Jenkins was not aware of it.

Once, Jenkins informs the horrified McMoon that a proposal had come to her to make a recording of her singing. When McMoon asks her which company Jenkins replies, "Is there more than one?" Eventually the recording is made and Jenkins actually hears herself for the first time. She thinks that perhaps she heard some inaccuracies often caused by McMoon's not following her correctly! But the recording sells brilliantly and her concerts become more and more sold out year after year. And eventually parts of the Carnegie Hall concert were also recorded and issued on an RCA Victor recording as LRT-7000. One of the audience members in Longview actually had a copy of this LP from the 1950s, which she had treasured from her student days. It was on display for the rest of the audience to inspect. Amazingly enough, Steichen himself, when showed this recording after the show, had to admit that he had never seen or heard of it before and was holding it in his hands for the first time.

Soprano and actress Egan carried off both parts of her role, singing and acting, very convincingly. One wondered how this excellent soprano could actually train herself to sing so badly on purpose, but she did. It reminded me of a recording once made by the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz as he parodied an incompetent fiddler trying to match him in the classics. But Egan finally got the chance to show what she could really do at the very end of the play when she sang (legitimately and very beautifully) the amazing solo line that Gounod had added to J.S. Bach's First Prelude of the Well Tempered Clavier, Book One, known nowadays as the Ave Maria. This concluding event of the play, and highly touching it was, was meant to portray to the audience what Jenkins heard and felt inside of herself, as opposed to the results of her efforts which actually and audibly came out.

The Ave Maria was one of Jenkins's specialties and her final encore on the Carnegie Hall concert. This and the first aria of Mozart's Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute, with its notoriously stratospheric interjections so mangled by Jenkins, were the bits, according to McMoon, which audiences waited for and doted upon to hear again in their ghastly Jenkins-esque transmogrifications. It was only during her singing of this final Ave Maria encore that Jenkins began to suspect the ridicule of her efforts that had been emanating from her audiences all those years. But McMoon convincingly, in his accustomed hypocritical way, allayed her fears after the concert and they began to plan for the next season. These plans were brought to an end about a month later when the 76-year-old Jenkins stepped in to shop at a fashionable New York store and suddenly suffered her life-ending heart attack. McMoon took great pains to assure the audience that by no means did Jenkins die of an audience-instigated broken heart. His last words to the audience, purportedly said 30 years after the event that had ended their 12-year collaboration, "I still miss her, oh, how I miss her."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 18, 2012