With The Crucible closing in one more week, I’m turning my attention to the play I’ll be directing, Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir. It’s a new kind of show for me, but one that has already grown very close to my heart.
All my life I’ve toyed with the dream of becoming a professional singer—the latest iteration is blues, crooning in a dim club, my chiffon scarf floating behind me, my pianist and I communicating constantly, eye-to-delighted-eye. My sister and I used to make up operas (and languages!) and perform them dramatically to the bathroom mirror. As a child and as a teenager I sang in church choirs; in high school, college, and graduate school I was a member of numerous singing ensembles. The gift of a guitar gave me hours of solitary delight composing and singing. I was a soloist in church and school programs. I was selected to be part of the New Jersey Opera Festival, a state-wide high school project, one year. In other words, I could sing. Correction: I CAN sing, and I love to sing.
But really, I think everyone can sing. And I think everyone should.
In grad school I had a friend who was completely tone-deaf as far as producing notes went, but a real lover of music…. In those folky days, just about every get-together eventually wound up with the guitars coming out and everybody singing; and when Michael sang, his head moved up and down in perfect pitch. Of course back in his growing-up years he had been one of the many kids kindly advised by the chorus director to “just move your lips, dear” so that the harmony of the tonally able would be unimpaired. But I loved hearing him sing “O Danny Boy”—his heart was in his voice, and his face was blissful. Isn’t that what music is for?
So Souvenir is about such a person. She wasn’t tone-deaf, but she was definitely tone-impaired; and the operatic coloratura she believed poured from her was actually watery in quality and accuracy. But she had money, and influential friends who encouraged her. And so she became a performer, donating the proceeds of her concerts to charity. From small private musical evenings to larger performances for invited audiences, she had the encouragement and accolades of her friends. And somewhere along the line there she acquired a piano accompanist who entered the partnership for the salary and stayed out of respect, admiration, protectiveness, and a kind of love. A record company invited her to make recordings. Her crowning achievement was a sold-out recital in Carnegie Hall.
Whenever she performed, what she heard was cheers and sobs of appreciation; what it was was stifled laughter, muffled laughter, screams of laughter. Her Carnegie Hall concert sold out, all 2000 seats, in two hours, and they all came to laugh.
This was Florence Foster Jenkins. Her accompanist was Cosme McMoon. Stephen Temperley has written what he calls “A Fantasia on the Career of Florence Foster Jenkins,” and I get to direct it; and I dedicate it to the proposition that everyone should sing.
The wonderful actress and singer Priscilla Squiers plays FFJ; actor, singer, and pianist Greg Chrzczon plays Cosme. The play is full of music, and the two cast members have been working on that part of it since January. Last week we began blocking the scenes and developing the characters.
We open the second weekend of April. The audience will laugh—the play invites it—but they will also come to understand, we and the playwright hope, a remarkable partnership and a voyage into the heart of music. At this moment in February, to quote Milton out of context, the world is all before us.