Florence Foster Jenkins was a New York socialite with independent financial means and an equally independent belief in her vocal talent. However dubious her talent, Jenkins staged regular concerts with her pianist Cosme McMoon. These culminated with a sold out performance in Carnegie Hall just weeks before her death in 1944.
Stephen Temperley calls his play based on the story, Souvenir: A Fantasia On The Life Of Florence Foster Jenkins. Casting the show presents a real challenge says Cardinal Stage Company’s artistic director Randy White.
You have to have two really strong actors. The female lead has to portray a woman with little or no musical talent. The male lead has to be a very skillful and flexible pianist. And both have to be able to get the audience on the side of their characters.
Susan Swaney is the Unitarian Universalist Church’s Music Director. She sang a number of lead roles with the IU School of Music while working on her PhD. Swaney plays the role of Florence Foster Jenkins and she’s a defender of the singer.
The recordings we have of very demanding pieces come from late in her life. You’ve got to have some sort of admiration for a woman who’d record “The Queen of the Night” aria at seventy-four.
The Notes Are Something, And The Clothes Are Something Else
It’s really a fun role that I think people will enjoy and it has special challenges. One of the features of Florence Foster Jenkins’ concerts along with the music was her elaborate costumes some of which she designed herself. So, not only do I have to wend her awkward way through the music, I have to change into eighteen different costumes.
Bending The Notes With A Straight Face
IU’s Department of Theatre and Drama faculty member, Ray Fellman, plays Jenkins accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Like Swaney, Fellman is a product of IU’s Jacobs School of Music with solid credentials in the professional world as a singer and pianist. “Although I have accompanied a lot of singers and shows, there’s never been one quite like this one,” says Fellman.
From the recordings you can tell that McMoon was a very skilled and flexible pianist. As I play him, he may have had reservations about Jenkins talent, but did indeed respect and care about her. Part of the fun in the show for me is simply supporting Sue’s efforts in Cosme’s spirit.