A comedy about off-key singer Florence Foster Jenkins
By David Amos
Who was this woman? In the early 1940’s she was the talk of New York, a wealthy socialite who was, as the play is subtitled, “The worst singer in the world!”
The North Coast Rep presented the play, written by Peter Quilter, about a month ago.
Before talking about the North Coast Rep play, let’s review a bit of her fascinating life. I have known of her for decades, having in my record library an old, scratchy vinyl LP with some of her notorious performances and recordings.
She was born into a wealthy family in Pennsylvania in 1868 and showed promise as a pianist in her early years. After a serious injury to her arm ended her days as a piano player, she became obsessed with the desire to be a singer, in spite of clearly not having a gram of talent in the voice category. Her father went as far as prohibiting her from taking voice lessons and/or singing in public. But, she persisted, and went as far as running away from home to pursue her dream, not realizing that it was everyone else’s nightmare.
After being on her own for a few difficult years, she returned home to her parents and to wealth, and obeyed her father’s wishes as long as he was alive. When he was no longer among the living, her mother allowed her to take voice lessons, but not until she passed away in 1928, Florence took control of the family wealth and her singing career; this was in spite of the fact that she was already sixty years old, when most prudent sopranos retire from the stage.
But not Florence! She was just getting started. She moved to New York City, became very active in the high society, and frequently booked large venues, where she would sing to her heart’s content to a selected crowd of friends. She was oblivious to any criticism, and dismissed the laughs she heard at her recitals as inconsequential.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a very sunny, positive person who loved people, good food and drink. A few insensitive people with high musical standards approached her, and openly told her how awful a singer she was. It did not faze her. What is so tragic about her life is that she never understood, or wished to understand that her wretched singing was the butt of cruel humor and outright ridicule against her. The singer from Hell could have been the singer from Helm or Chelm!
Another interesting aspect to her life in the later years was her relationship with her accompanist, a man with the unlikely name of Cosme McMoon. Although he was fully aware of Florence’s idiosyncrasies and faults, he became a faithful supporter of her musical pursuits.
The North County Rep production was focused on the laughs and quick one-liners. McMoon’s character was portrayed as clearly of a different sexual preference, and that provided the author the opportunity of many gags and the expected innuendos, all of which went completely past the hapless Ms Jenkins.
The four scenes in two acts were interspersed with film clips and sound bites of the true operatic stars of yesterday, which helped to contrast even further the musical disaster which was F.F. Jenkins. McMoon was very ably portrayed by David McBean, who not only acted to a tee the part of the often frustrated colleague, but also played the piano, both as a soloist and accompanist at a very high level.
Three minor roles were all acted by Annie Hinton, a wonderful actor, who was able to cleverly switch characters that were quite different from each other. Her accented Spanish, as the insolent Mexican housekeeper, bothered me in its edgy inaccuracy.
But the Jenkins character played by Susan Denaker, impressed me the most. There are several worthy points to mention and praise. Her portrayal of the kind, sweet and unaware Florence was very convincing, giving us both humor and masked tragedy, as the world saw her. Denaker’s true singing voice was very strong, beyond tone quality, range, and musicality. But, as you might have guessed, it takes loads of talent and serious preparation to sing badly, intentionally. She accomplished this goal. Nevertheless, she achieved the right balance to be sufficiently funny to entertain the audience, but did not go as far as becoming annoying and tiresome by the middle of the second act.
But, there is more to this: Since I have been familiar with Jenkins’ original recordings, I was frankly amazed to hear Denaker singing the same out of tune notes and mispronouncing the same words sung by the real Florence! This took the challenge of artistic preparation and concentration of the material at hand during the performances to an even higher level. Many people in the audience were laughing at the missed notes and fractured rhythms, in which pianist David McBean was desperately trying to keep up, but the imitation of what Jenkins and McMoon did in 1944 was a true gem. This was intelligent, well choreographed comedy in music.
The pinnacle of Florence Foster Jenkins’ singing career was a sold out house at Carnegie Hall, only a month before she died. She never had a clue that the audience was there just to laugh at her, as she pranced on the stage with outrageous costumes and a look of complete innocence.
This is a slice of music history that is both ridiculous and quite sad, but it portrayed a kind, happy person who just wanted to do what she cherished the most, and ignored the negatives which surrounded her. We should be grateful to Peter Quilter and the North County Rep for bringing to us Glorious!
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and a guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world.