Last year, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant starred in a biographical film about Florence Foster Jenkins, an American heiress and socialite who became an opera singer, despite the fact that her singing ability was, in reality, extremely poor. In the 1940s, she even played one of the world’s most iconic venues to a full house.
“When she sang at [New York’s] Carnegie Hall, because of the reputation of her being so dreadful, they not only filled it, but they turned thousands of people away,” stage and screen veteran Diana McLean tells Theatre People.
“People just couldn’t believe that this was happening. It was only one night, and they turned up in the thousands.”
The film was inspired by the 2005 stage comedy Glorious!, written by Peter Quilter. That play premiered on London’s West End and went on to be nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. To date, it’s been seen by more than two million people across six continents.
HIT Productions is now behind an Australian tour of Glorious!, starring McLean (as Florence), Mitchell Roberts and Felicity Soper. On Tuesday, the tour stops at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres for a limited run.
“It’s a very funny piece.” McLean says. “It’s not the film, it’s probably funnier than the film, I think – more jokes for the stage. It’s a good night out, people are having a big laugh at it and I’m enjoying it!”
While the 2016 film has bolstered Florence’s contemporary profile, McLean says she herself was aware of her back in the 1960s.
“Florence was a very interesting character,” McLean says. “I think she was very headstrong … She ran away from home in the late 1800s at age 16 [and] ran off with a doctor and married him, which was pretty amazing stuff in those days because she came from a very wealthy family in Pennsylvania. She wanted to sing even then and her father, in his wisdom, had absolutely forbidden it. She was actually a very good pianist and very accomplished, but he wasn’t having any of the singing.”
McLean continues: “So, she ran off with this doctor and he gave her syphilis … It caused her to be completely bald and the treatment in those days was horrific. They gave them mercury and arsenic and all sorts of things. So, she would probably have been in a lot of pain, and she had tinnitus so her hearing wasn’t very good. But I think it was just her over-inflated idea of her own worth that made her plough on.”
Ultimately, Florence arrived in New York, where her mother joined her and assisted her financially. And then, her father died.
“To Florence’s delight, he left her a huge amount of money, so she was socially very acceptable and she joined lots of women’s clubs, which gave her standing in society.”
McLean says Florence then began to sing the odd aria, and it was from there that things took off.
“She became such a figure of fun, but they loved her as well … She was so awful, people couldn’t believe it, so they flocked to see her at any given moment. She had lots of followers.”
What does McLean think makes the story of Florence Foster Jenkins such a great piece for the stage?
“The fact that she was so dreadful and she was so convinced of her own talent,” she says. “She could hear herself as absolutely magnificent, she didn’t hear anything else. She was convinced that she was a great singer. She thought she was better than most of the other opera singers. She called herself a coloratura soprano.”
McLean is thoroughly enjoying having the chance to bring Florence to life on stage in Glorious!
“I like Florence. I think you have to like the character you’re playing, and the moment I read the script, I liked her,” she says. “There’s something about her, and obviously there was something about her that all the people in the clubs and societies liked too. There was something endearing about her complete belief in her own talent.”
McLean refers to an epithet by which Florence was known – ‘the first lady of the sliding scale” – and the fact that she did have some awareness of the broader perception of her vocal ‘talent’.
“She did say, ‘Some people may say I cannot sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing’,” McLean says. “So she was vaguely aware of it, but refusing to actually recognise it as a fact. She was completely deluded.”
The show has been well received by Australian audiences.
“So far, everyone has just laughed themselves silly, and you need a good laugh these days with everything that’s going on in the world, I think,” she says. “I’ve had a few friends there who are actually opera singers, who have had tears rolling down their cheeks.
“It’s a funny, light-hearted night at the theatre … I hope people enjoy themselves.”
GLORIOUS! – PARRAMATTA SEASON DETAILS
When: 7.30pm on 5th to 9th September; 1.30pm on 7th September; and 2.15pm on 9th September
Location: Riverside Theatres – Corner Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Tickets: Adult $52, Concession $47, 30 & Under $38 (Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60)
Discounts available for Riverside Theatres’ Members.
Bookings: www.riversideparramatta.com.au or from the Box Office (02) 8839 3399