Spiro Veloudos and his talented cast has given us an evening in the theater when all that makes us human comes to the fore.
Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Starring Will McGarrahan & Leigh Barrett. Staged at the Lyric Stage Company, Boston, MA, through November 19.
By Roberta Silman
You may be tempted to skip this play because there was a recent movie called Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Don’t make that mistake. Comparing that film with this intimate gem is like comparing apples and oranges.
One of the things that makes Souvenir so special is that it is not just a star turn, as the movie really is, but a duet between Madame Jenkins, as he calls her, and her very musical and accomplished accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Cosmé is as complicated in his way as Madame is in hers, and their story — it is a two character play — is one of caution and delusion and sometimes hilarious craziness that evolves into a moving tale of friendship and protection and trust.
Florence Foster Jenkins is often presented as a New York heiress and aristocrat who lived from 1868 until 1944. That is part of the illusion. In truth, she was a musically talented girl from Wilkes-Barre whose father was a banker and also a member of the Pennsylvania legislature. When still in her 20s Florence made the mistake of running off with a man named Thomas Jenkins who may have promised her freedom by taking her to Philadelphia but gave her syphilis. They separated and supposedly divorced around 1902 but there are no formal papers to corroborate that. However, by then she had moved to New York City with her mother, and she met an English actor whom she married but, it is believed, never slept with because she feared giving him her disease. Syphilis may be very much part of the story because in those years there were no antibiotics and its lingering effects were often horrible and fatal. Most important when talking about Florence was that, over time, its effects could damage one’s hearing.
After Florence’s father died in 1910 she had more money and set up what can only be called a salon and, because she loved opera and classical music, sang for a small coterie of friends and family, usually in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton, and gave the proceeds to charity. As she developed a following she decided to work harder and more regularly and hired Cosmé to accompany her.
The play is a flashback from Cosmé’s point of view and begins soon after Florence’s death in 1944. We learn that Cosmé came to New York with dreams of writing and performing his own music, that he was in love with “swing” but the path he had chosen was hard for a young man from the sticks, so he took menial jobs to pay the rent and after about five years of knocking around he was recommended to Florence. He played, she sang. If you can call it that. For Florence could not, in any way, shape or form, carry a tune; moreover her only mode was loud, so her voice was an off-pitch screech. Yet she was convinced that she had perfect pitch and was singing in tune; her sincerity was so disarming that, again his better judgment (and remembering the unpaid bills) Cosmé took the job.
What is so amazing about this story — both in the play and in real life — is that most people who heard her thought this was some kind of colossal joke and often had to stifle their laughter with handkerchiefs in their mouth or even leave because they had become faint with laughing. Yet she became a phenomenon and even musicians began to attend her recitals. And when she died, we are told that “Toscanini sent flowers.”
The question that was asked when she was alive, and even now, is: Did she know? Was this some wild foray into the absurd that she perpetrated on her audiences? Or, and this seems more likely, did she simply hear something very different from what her fans were hearing? And, was it because of faulty hearing, or had her brain somehow made the adjustment so that she heard beautiful, on-pitch singing instead of the awful, ear-shattering shrieks? We will never know.
But, as Cosmé asks at the very beginning, why did he go along with her lunacy? That is what Temperley addresses in a wonderfully tender way. And which these actors, Will McGarrahan and Leigh Barrett, portray with uncommon skill and dignity. McGarrahan plays the piano beautifully, he riffs constantly as he talks to us and interacts with Florence, and even teaches her the lyrics to his favorite song, “Crazy Rhythm,” which becomes a metaphor for their relationship, which had its ups and downs as he educated her about popular music and advised her what to sing in the classical realm. “Crazy rhythm, here’s the doorway / I’ll go my way, you’ll go your way / Crazy rhythm, from now on we’re through. / Here is where we have a showdown / I’m too high and you’re too lowdown/ Crazy rhythm, here’s goodbye to you.”
This is a play about music and friendship and also class. Here are two people, “high” and “lowdown” who might never have met, who discover that they need each other in unexpected ways, and yet never forget their “places.” The first act is mostly practicing, talking, letting the relationship grow. The second act is preparation and reenactment of her famous recital at Carnegie Hall in 1944 given to help the war effort. McGarrahan and Barrett are more than up to the task, and the second act, when Florence wears a different, often wild costume for each song, is astonishingly convincing. They have let out all the stops, and when Florence sings Cosmé’s own composition, “Serenata Mexicano,” you could feel the audience gasp with pleasure. We were there, at Carnegie, watching this remarkable woman do her outlandish, endearing stuff.
The simple set and lighting are perfect foils to this story, and Spiro Veloudos’s direction nurtures the intimacy that has grown between these two unfold so naturally that when Florence wants reassurance from Cosmé after the big night that he has always told her the truth, we are truly moved by his loving answer. By taking this play seriously and not reducing it to the slapstick it could easily become, Veloudos and his talented cast has given us an evening in the theater when all that makes us human comes to the fore.
Who could ask for more in these trying times?
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.