Most bad singers limit their vocalizations to the car or the shower. Florence Foster Jenkins took hers to Carnegie Hall for a sold out performance. The play Souvenir written by Stephen Temperley fills in the gaps in the life of this intriguing socialite from the beginning of the 20th century. Nadia Verrucci and Chris Barillaro, the team behind In Your Face Entertainment, bring the show to Montreal, directed by Jonathan Patterson.
“Souvenir is a fantasia on the life of Florence F. Jenkins,” says Verrucci. “A lot of it is imagined. While there is some information on her life, there are no interviews and no footage of her. It doesn’t fill in the gaps. Temperley imagined her life and what the relationship with her accompanist would be like.”
What we do know is that Florence was a wealthy woman who loved to sing and was so bad at it that her father refused to pay for her lessons. When her father died, she used the money for singing lessons. When her mother died, she inherited enough money to do what she wanted, and that included launching her singing career at the age of 44 by living at the Ritz, holding charity concerts, and recording albums.
Even though she was awful, Florence was so charismatic and passionate that people adored her. “She decided to have a concert at Carnegie Hall and may have hawked all her furniture to do it,” says Verrucci. “It sold out in two hours. People paid $2.50 for tickets and were scalping them for $200. On the night of the show, they turned 2000 ticket buyers away. It was sold out, SRO. A month after she gave her concert, she had a heart attack and died.”
Florence was sincere in her singing. She didn’t do it to make a joke, even though she was bad. The play focuses on the connection between Florence and her accompanist Cosme, who reminisces about working with Florence.
“Cosme and Florence are focus and it’s a strictly professional relationship. The relationship progresses from Cosme’s complete contempt, or disbelief, at what Florence thinks she can do. He was talented musician, a real musician and a composer. In the end, he changed his mind and stayed with her for long time.”
One thing that makes this play unique are its musical numbers. It’s not a musical, but rather, a play with musical snippets of operas and arias. “I have to sing badly for the show,” says Verrucci. “It’s awesome. It’s so much fun. It’s slightly easier for me to sing badly than for someone else. All of the arias are for a soprano, and I’m not a soprano; I’m an alto. A lot of those notes I couldn’t hit if I tried. She had no rhytyhm, no pitch. She would flub the words. She sometimes sang a blob of nonsensical words.”
I asked if singing badly requires practice and apparently it does. Verrucci says, “I don’t practice the songs as much as I would if I were doing a musical. I don’t sit at home and go over and over the songs. But, even if it is slightly different from night to night, but I try to be consistent. In her head, she has a vision of what the song sounds like. She hears something and to her that sounds beautiful, so I have to have something in my head.”
Ultimately, Verrucci seems to have fallen under the same spell as those who loved Florence Jenkins years ago. “People use the word ‘endearing’ to describe her. She can’t sing. It hurts to listen to her. She was eccentric. She was so convinced she could sing. She loved it so much, you couldn’t help but love her. I want to give her a high five and tell her to keep going.”
Souvenir plays at the Centuar Theatre (453 St Francois Xavier) on May 22-25th. Showtimes T, F, Sat 8:3 0 p.m.; Sat, Sun 2:30 p.m. $30/23