There are no amateur radiologists, or tax accountants, or hod carriers or slitter-slotter operators, but in our own minds we are all artists. I feel it a thousand times myself. I’ll write some phrase that tickles me, and then spend the morning imagining that I’m getting something nice from the King of Sweden. You too, I bet: you’ve painted a nice abstract, and wondered what Mark Rothko had that you don’t; or done a spot-on performance in a community theater production, and wondered whether Holly Twyford would have done it any differently.
But you and I have the real world to squeeze us out of our grandiosity. If we were completely oblivious to reality, we would be – Florence Foster Jenkins, whose preposterous life is the subject of this clever play, now being indifferently done at Bay Theatre in Annapolis. Jenkins’ story is too bizarre for fiction, and is in fact true in its most important particulars. She was a god-awful, but wealthy, singer who imagined herself to be great; people flocked to her concerts not for their beauty but for the same reason they slow down to look at a bad accident on the side of the road.
Astutely, playwright Stephen Temperley begins the story with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, reminiscing about his days with the long-dead Florence (Gael Schaefer). Reflection becomes reaction, and soon Cosmé is twenty-four again, and sitting in Florence’s music room in her Ritz Carlton suite. Florence – aunt of one of Cosmé’s running buddies – is explaining that she has long given charitable concerts with her friends in attendance, but that they have encouraged her to broaden her stage, and to do so she must be accompanied by a better pianist than the one she had been using. She especially wants to do Mozart’s “Queen of the Night”, as she had a dream in which she sang it, to Mozart’s approval.
And so Cosmé sits down at the piano, and Florence opens her mouth and emits a lethal injection of music. No – that’s not right. Music is an act of harmony with nature, but what Florence sings is a declaration of war against God. It is the caterwauling of cats in heat, it is a pack of dogs baying after an ambulance, it is a gaggle of insane dentists, high on nitrous oxide and bent on revenge against their unsedated patients. If it is music, then the sound of jackhammers is music, or the bawling of politicians, or the droning of preachers sermonizing after an all-night bender. It is pigs being slaughtered, it is aural waterboarding, it is a hoarding of misery.
To Florence, it is the music of the spheres. When Cosmé, horrified but polite (he is desperate for cash, and she has a ton of it) notes that there was “a certain want of…accuracy” she pooh-poohs the notion of accuracy entirely, decrying it as a “modern” invention which the music world unwisely embraces at the expense of “the spirit.” And then, goddam her, she sings some more. For twelve years, she sings some more.
This is at once the glory of the play and the principal failing of the Bay Theater’s production. Florence imagines herself to be a great singer because she wants to be one, and because she dreamed that Mozart thought she was. Her imagination defeats her intelligence – it is no contest, really – and she is oblivious to the hoots of derision (admittedly well disguised) in the audience. It is the triumph of Professor Harold Hill’s “think method” of musicology, and an exquisite piece of “dark play,” in which everyone knows they are watching theater except the one person. But it is only an extreme example of a common phenomenon. Artist wannabes, without training or discipline and usually without talent, producing schlock, some of it commercially successful, are not too far from their “camp” cousins, who aver that they are producing something “so bad it’s good” (but which they would try to pass off as good in a minute if they thought they’d get away with it), and they in turn are not too far from Florence Foster Jenkins.
The real Florence Foster Jenkins, anyway. The problem with Bay Theatre’s production is that it gives us a cartoon Florence, and, by necessity, a cartoon Cosmé as well. Schaefer, in real life an excellent singer, gives full vent to Jenkins’ awfulness (a sample of which you may hear below but not to the lunatic joy which made it possible. Her smile seems to be painted on, and her gestures – not just the ones she uses in concert, but the ones when she is in the rehearsal room, alone with Cosmé – are contrived. Similarly, Petrarca, who does good work when he breaks down the fourth wall and talks with the audience, and who plays a mean piano, is not fully authentic with Florence. He has a single look of horrified fascination, which sometimes comes over his face even before Florence sings, and his reactions – staggering against the wall when he hears that Florence has been invited to sing at Carnegie Hall, for example – are hard to buy. In a word, our two actors mug.
It may be hard for real artists to see the mania behind people like Florence Foster Jenkins: they get the badness but not the madness. To artists like Schaefer, Petrarca and director Lucinda Merry-Browne, artistic success is always within reach. But for you to understand the impulse which drove Florence Foster Jenkins to stand on the grand stage and croakingly slaughter the greatest music in history, remember the standing ovation you got after your sixth-grade production of It’s a Wonderful Life, when everything was possible.
By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Lucinda Merry-Brown
Produced by The Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor