Souvenir

A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

Donald Corren and Judy Kaye perform the Carnegie Hall scene from the Broadway production.

Directed by Vivian Matalon

Designed by R. Michael Miller

Costumes by Tracy Christensen

Lighting by Ann Wrightson

Sound by David Budries

Musical supervisor Tom Helm

First presented as a staged reading in May of 2004, at the York Theatre, New York, before going on to a fully staged version at the York that later went to the Lyceum Theater, Broadway.

One of the most produced plays in the US it has been an international success.

In less gifted hands, Souvenir… could have been a crude joke. Instead, with a script by Stephen Temperley and superlative performances by Judy Kaye as Jenkins and Donald Corren as her accompanist – the wonderfully named Cosme McMoon – it makes hilarious and deeply touching theater out of something inherently ridiculous. Elegantly designed, beautifully directed, Souvenir is a kind of loony triumph.

 

NY Daily News.

Temperley recognizes something poignantly universal in Jenkins’ delusion—the fantasy of artistic triumph that lies behind all the screenplays in desk drawers and the impromptu karaoke numbers performed at high speeds on the freeway. This is a must-see for anyone who’s ever delivered an Oscar speech to the bathroom mirror.

Vivian Matalon’s production never lets the funny business get too far ahead of the feeling. That is quite a feat. Those first mangled notes are hard to recover from. The hilarity quickly gives way, however, to a psychological curiosity that’s delicately explored by two actors beautifully committed to making unbeautiful music together.

… a superbly dry Donald Corren… Judy Kaye delivers the cacophony at full farcical blast yet never loses sight of her character’s tone-deaf innocence.

 

    L.A. Times: Ovation Production of the Year Award 

As in the play’s 2004 premiere at the York Theatre Company, Jenkins is played by the extraordinary Judy Kaye, who is once again astonishing: hilarious in her deadpan emulations of Jenkins’s hideous squeaking, and then—when Temperley cleverly turns his mirror on the audience—suddenly and deeply poignant. And Donald Corren’s dapperly ironic performance as Jenkins’s accompanist, Cosme McMoon, throws new light on everything around him. Directed with forceful clarity by Vivian Matalon, Souvenir is a memorable illustration of the real limits of self-perception, and of the purely theatrical magic that can turn the tinniest ear to gold.

 

    Time Out: New York 

My play was never intended to be a factual account of the life of Mrs. Jenkins of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: which is why it’s subtitled a fantasia.

The real Mrs. Jenkins never sang in angel wings. That’s my invention. 

The real woman wore that costume for an appearance as the Angel of Inspiration at a tableau vivant for one of her charities. The photograph was used maliciously for the cover of her vanity recordings that were licensed by RCA and released under the Melotone label as The ‘Glory’ of the Human Voice— but it was never thought that she sang in that costume till Souvenir.

 

On the subject of what she didn’t do: she never sang the Ave Maria. Especially not Gounod’s version. Especially not while wearing angel wings. And especially not at Carnegie Hall in 1944.

She also most emphatically not did not hear the laughter from the audience in the middle of the that concert. That’s a fabrication of mine. 

Neither was there any question that her accompanist rescued her from doubting herself. 

There was no scene in a dressing room after the concert. There are no dressing rooms at Carnegie Hall. There is the Maestro’s Room and a kind of glorified closet

Nor did she ever complete the story by returning from the dead to sing with the voice she’d imagined as her own. 

These are fabrications on my part. I confess. It never happened. 

But these are nothing compared to what she invented about herself: for example, the incident in the taxi when she found high c. She repeated it many times. I made my own version:

FFJ    Few sopranos are equipped to tackle the Queen of the Night. As you’re no doubt aware, the aria’s range is extensive. I had my doubts. One is only human after all. (Laughs. Stops herself abruptly) However — and this is almost too uncanny — the next day — the very next day, Mr. McMoon! — while riding in a taxicab on Lexington, I found myself in a slight collision. The f above c burst from me spontaneously.

McM    (Bewildered) The f above c?

FFJ    Passersby were enraptured, amazed. I stepped from the wreckage a new woman. 

Improbable or not, McMoon’s name was real. Scottish father emigrates to Mexico; marries; has five sons; gives the fifth and last a name from his homeland—Cosmo. It was high-class when he jumped a ship to the new world. So his youngest son was Cosmo McMahon. Then Spanish speakers added their own twist. It’s not Cosmé, as some reviewers have gone into print to correct my French—and as it’s mystifyingly recorded at the Carnegie Hall website—though not at the Library of Congress. The songs attributed to him that were sung by Mrs. Jenkins in Carnegie Hall—Like a Bird I am Singing and Serenata Mexicana— were copyrighted in his name. Since you can’t copyright a work under a pseudonym unless you state your real name—Cosme was real.

As a child, he moved from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, with his mother and four brothers. Then at the age of nineteen he moved to New York and was living in a boarding house on 34th Street. In 1929 he gave a recital in Town Hall—and subsequently met Mrs. Jenkins. 

Given the amount of nonsense surrounding her, to claim a ‘real’ or ‘true’ account of the life of Mrs. Jenkins seems misleading. Which is why I wrote a frankly fictional account.

In all the many productions of Souvenir — beginning with the supremely talented Judy Kaye — Mrs. Jenkins has been played by a woman in the prime of her life. When the audience laughs at her it’s safe in the knowledge that it’s only make-believe — shielded from the cruelty of what actually took place in Carnegie Hall of October 1944.

Because when Florence Foster Jenkins gave her Carnegie Hall concert she was seventy-six years old. That is the fact to bear in mind, and one that has never been addressed in any of the so-called ‘true’ versions of her life story. In the only honest account I’ve read of that concert the reviewer damns her colleagues for their collusion with the audience to shame a poor old woman, ludicrously dressed and made up, hopping and staggering about the stage as if demented. For one night it was the hottest ticket in town. She produced the concert herself and was proud that she made a two thousand dollar profit.

That is the fact to bear in mind, and one that has never been addressed in any of the so-called ‘true’ versions of her life story. In the only honest account I’ve read of that concert the reviewer damns her colleagues for their collusion with the audience to shame a poor old woman, ludicrously dressed and made up, hopping and staggering about the stage as if demented. For one night it was the hottest ticket in town. She produced the concert herself and was proud that she made a two thousand dollar profit.

If there is a ‘real’ story, it’s the public mockery that greeted her. Today it would be looked on with revulsion. We no longer live in the world she inhabited, when attending her recitals was a ‘thing’ that defined status, our place in the social world of Manhattan. When we went to hear her so we could later entertain dinner parties with first-hand accounts, making fellow-guests shake their heads in wonder at such folly, such reckless delusion that made her believe she could sing der hölle rache, the mad coloratura fantasy from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

I hadn’t heard the syphilis theory till quite recently: that syphilis caused nerve damage that stopped her from hearing what she was doing. Certainly none of the people I spoke to who had known her or had attended her recitals brought it up, and it was never mentioned in any of the gossip I read about her. Perhaps someone has seen her medical records and based this theory on what was found there. To my mind it seems to echo Karen Blixen’s biography—young bride (both nineteen) infected by husband on her wedding night; a great love unconsummated for fear of passing the contagion along—in Blixen’s case to Dennis Fynch-Hatton, in Mrs. Jenkins’s to StClair Bayfield. This offers a more sympathetic reading of Mrs Jenkins remaining legally a spinster than my idea, which is that she remained single to keep control of her money. And the new perception of her that she was a piano prodigy whose career was cut short by her illness which was when she taught herself to sing is suspiciously like the biography of Galli-Curci, who was regarded by Mrs Jenkins as a rival. There is no way to explain away her delusions without diminishing her mad career. I could be wrong about all this—I purposely didn’t see a documentary film about her. It was shown when the play was already running off-Broadway and I didn’t want anything to interfere with my ‘facts’ as we went forward—so perhaps I’m deluded, too. 

In the play, after the concert, as she sits with Cosme in his dressing room where she has come for comfort having heard the laughter in the house, my Mrs Jenkins seems to have an intimation that her life is over

FFJ: Since I was a girl, you know, I’ve dreamed of such a night. And now it’s gone. It was ahead of me. It was there to be hoped for. But now it’s over. It’s in the past. A memory. If only we could live in the music forever, Cosme. If only it could go on and on. But of course it can’t. Of course it has to end. 

We laugh for many reasons. Often it’s to experience that boundary area between what is and isn’t acceptable. Stand-up comics do this, they bring their audience right to the brink without tipping over into what isn’t socially acceptable. I think that’s why old jokes often seem perplexing, because they’ve lost their social context. With her singing, Mrs Jenkins went to that edge and tipped over, upending cultural norms and causing what seems to have been a reaction in the audience close to panic, a hysteria that feeds itself. I was once in such an audience, in London, at the Palladium, and I used the memory of it for the Carnegie Hall scene in the play; people running out, shrieks of laughter coming from the bar, the initial euphoria that becomes convulsive, exhausting. That particular act became aware of the reaction they were causing but it took some time, they were after all big TV stars in their home country.

Some, from among the many foreign productions, left to right: Desirée Nick, Berlin and Vienna; Agnès Bové and Grégori Baquet, Paris, Avignon Festival and tour;  Lise-Lotte Nielsen and Henrik Koefoed, Hjorring and Copenhagen, with the Danish Royal Opera.