Tuesday, November 15, 2005

William Hung. You remember William, he was the earnest young Chinese-American lad who tried out for American Idol and was so bad, so tone deaf and so off key that he became a huge success, cult hero and signed singing artist. Only in America, only today could something like this happen.

Well, not quite, its happened before, after a fashion.

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending "Souvenir" at the Lyceum Theater. The play is the tale of woman who became famous for singing badly. A woman who still has a cult following and was the embodiment of a national joke, one it seems she was never really in on.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a society matron of Philadelphia. As a child she longed to study music, but her father denied her the chance to go to Europe to do so. Later in life she continued to sing and play piano and was also discouraged by her husband.

In 1902, when her father died she inherited a great sum of money and put her mind to following the course her parents and husband denied her. She took part in Philadelphia's music scene, was a philanthropist and began to give a few select recitals.

This was all well, except for a few facts. She was tone deaf, off key, couldn't paint or sustain a note and her tempo was off. She had virtually zero musical talent. Yet, she was firmly convinced that she was divinely talented and often compared herself to the leading opera singers of the day. In 1922 she met Cosme McMoon, who would become her accompanist, cohort and friend for the next 22 years.

Judy Kaye (who won a Tony for the original Phantom) plays Jenkins perfectly. Her self confidence, cluelessness, and earnestness all come through, as do her painfully rendered musical selections. The first act develops the characters and the relationship between the two and chronicles her yearly recitals at NY's Ritz Carlton ballroom.

The second act is largely devoted to Mrs. Jenkins "crowning" achievement. Her 1944 concert at Carnegie Hall. Tickets were sold out week in advance and she died one month later.

The story is told by McMoon, played with deadpan accuracy and a constantly knowing look by Donald Corren. McMoon is a struggling gay pianist who tries out for and becomes Jenkins accompanist. He motives at first are mercenary, but he develops a love and protection for Jenkins over time. The story unfolds from his flashbacks as he is playing piano in a nightclub in 1964.

The play is VERY funny, touching and evocative of the time and place. No amount of anticipation or imagination will prepare you for Ms. Jenkins first song.

I am not sure if Mr. Hung was ever in on the joke, but it appears until the very end Ms. Jenkins was not, and that is what lends this play its humanity and forces the audience to reflect on its own assumptions and beliefs about themselves and their ambitions.

You can hear Madame J's original recordings on her two posthumous compilations "Murder on the High Cs" and "The Glory (????) of the Human Voice."