Farewell to Florence

Last night, sitting in the last row on the floor of A.C.T.’s beautiful theater–and it truly is a gloriously beautiful theater, rebuilt after the ’89 earthquake, with deliciously comfortable seats (Thank goodness! Why don’t more theater’s pay attention to this essential detail?!)–I listened to Judy Kaye “sing” her Florence Foster Jenkins and Donald Corren fictionalize her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the opening of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. It is a delightful show: sweet, funny, easy. The audience loves it, and I adore it, though I don’t think I could ever love it. I know too much. I have read the script too many times. I spent too many hours creating the materials for it.

Sometimes I worry that we provide too much information to our audiences. Though they hunger for it, I wonder if we are helping them intellectualize the shows to the point that they cannot experience it phenomenologically. While we are helping them to understand it, are we helping them in enjoy it?

But this fear probably stems more from my own sadness of not being able to enjoy Souvenir as much as I would have if I were more ignorant to the history surrounding Florence Foster Jenkins. Temperley titled his play as he did because he wanted to make it absolutely clear that he was in no way trying to be biographical. He used FFJ’s story as a jumping-off point to tell the story of his Cosme Mcmoon–a struggling, delicate young artist new to New York who joins up with Jenkins, at least at first, for the money–who, he admits, was not created to resemble the real Cosme McMoon at all. In reality, Temperely doesn’t even find the real Florence Foster Jenkins all that interesting. Which is remarkable to me.

Florence Foster Jenkins created a mass hysteria in her audiences that cannot be recreated by theTemperley’s play. This is not his fault, nor is it Judy Kaye’s fault. The phenomenon that was Florence Foster Jenkins boiled down to the woman’s sincerity–or, at least, a perceived sincerity–at trying to sing really difficult music well, and failing completely. Her performances at the Ritz were not sold out because her singing was funny, though it was; 3000 people did not fill Carnegie Hall because her costumes were funny, though they were. The ultimate joke was not her voice or her pageantry, but her belief and innocence and unwarranted confidence. Her delusion. And the audiences did not come to listen, and, really, they didn’t even come to laugh. They came to play a rather cruel game, seeing how long they could keep Jenkins unaware of her own folly. Nothing brings people together like games and secrets. And cruelty.

For better or worse (yes, yes, probably for better), the A.C.T. audience is not invited to enter in on a cruel joke at the expense of a misguided singer. There are no secrets, no games, in these comfortable plush chairs in this beautiful theater. We are not given permission to embrace our uglier side, because we know Judy Kaye can sing. We know she knows she is singing poorly. We are laughing with her. Which is the polite thing to do. Judy and Donald find other ways to make the night fun and funny, and even remarkably touching, but they cannot replicate the dark comedy that graced New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. They can only create a brighter shadow of it. And part of me wishes I didn’t know that.

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