She became known as ‘The First Lady of the Sliding Scale’. New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins packed out the iconic Carnegie Hall in October 1944, with fans – even the famous, including Cole Porter – flocking to see the amateur soprano perform. In fact, so many people turned up to see Jenkins that thousands were turned away.
The thing about Jenkins was that she couldn’t actually sing. While she regarded herself a talented coloratura soprano and had, by that time, been giving public performances for over three decades, her vocals were most unpleasant. In fact, Donald Collup, who created a documentary focusing on Jenkin’s life, described her singing as being characterised by “glottal stops, an absence of vibrato, hit-and-run register breaks, sliding up and arrival just short of a climactic high note, transforming the letter ‘r’ into a vowel, and … completely unintelligible diction.”
But Jenkins had a loyal following and was a prominent member of several women’s clubs of the day. When she performed in public and members of the audience raucously laughed, she dismissed it as the behaviour of troublemakers who had been deliberately planted by her adversaries. Jenkins’ considerable self-assurance meant she could not be deterred.
Last year, Stephen Frears directed a biographical film with Meryl Streep taking on the role of Jenkins. While that film has raised Jenkins’ profile in recent times, a play written by Peter Quilter, entitled Glorious!, hit London’s West End stage in 2005 and was an Olivier Award-nominated hit that has since been seen by more than two million people across 21 countries.
About two years after its stage premiere, a new version of Glorious! was created to be performed by a cast of only three. It’s this iteration of the play that is currently travelling Australia in a production by Christine Harris and HIT Productions. Now playing at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, the tour will soon make stops in Brisbane, Surfers Paradise, Leitchville, and Wagga Wagga.
Directed by Denny Lawrence, Glorious! focuses on the latter part of the singer’s life. It begins with pianist Cosmé McMoon (Mitchell Roberts), her best known accompanist, meeting Jenkins (Diana McLean) for the first time in her impressive New York City home. At the time, McMoon is earning a living playing background music in a restaurant and Jenkins makes a generous financial offer to him to come and work for her as her accompanist on her recordings as well as at her recitals.
As the story develops, we see Jenkins in the recording studio, we see her performing at her recitals for her peers (who only heap praise on her), and we see her take to the Carnegie Hall stage for her one-night-only event in 1944.
In the role of Jenkins, McLean is wonderful. She creates an eccentric but hugely likeable character, who cannot be dissuaded from her delusions of grandeur. Whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. But while this woman has such a steadfast belief that she is gifted in a way that she clearly is not, you do not hope to see her illusions shattered. When a detractor, Mrs Verrinder-Gedge (Felicity Soper) interrupts a recital in an effort to put a stop to her singing endeavours, we don’t sit and revel in that as an audience, because there’s something endearing about McLean’s Jenkins, not to mention the harmless nature of her pursuits. In portraying the character in such a manner, it’s easy to understand why she may have had a sizeable number of people around her, shielding her from her harshest critiques as best they could.
Roberts’ portrayal of McMoon is charming and believable, particularly in the way we see him come to develop his own affection for Jenkins, and there’s also good chemistry between them. And playing not only Mrs Verrinder-Gedge, but also Dorothy, a loyal friend of Jenkins, and Maria, Jenkins’ Mexican housemaid and cook, Soper demonstrates her impressive talent, making the most she can out of each of these minor roles.
An issue with Glorious! lies in the unnecessarily limited window it gives you into Jenkin’s rather remarkable life. Originally from Pennsylvania, she was considered a child prodigy pianist, who was set on a career in music from an early age. Her father, unfortunately, wouldn’t entertain those ambitions, refusing to allow her to study music. Before she was 18-years-old, Jenkins had run away from home to go off and live with a doctor in Philadelphia. The marriage was short-lived, but Jenkins later became involved long-term with a British actor, St Clair Bayfield. And when it came to Jenkins’ genuine musical talent as a piano player, it’s said that she became unable to continue playing as a result of an injury to her hand.
While Bayfield made an appearance in both the 2016 film and the original staging of Glorious!, he is not a part of this three-person version. Similarly, not a huge amount is given away as far as Jenkins’ earlier life is concerned. Given the details we know, it seems as though an opportunity has been missed to enhance the script with a fuller picture of Jenkins’ life. Why was Jenkins so completely convinced she was not only able to sing, but an expert in her craft, despite more than a few people in her audiences giving her strong indications to the contrary? How was she able to so easily dismiss the accumulation of criticism? It may be that a look back at more of her life actually leaves these questions entirely unanswered, but it could also provide much-needed context to her behaviour later on down the track. I couldn’t help but feel the script would have been coloured by a deeper dive into Jenkins’ story.
Having said that, Glorious! is an entertaining piece that is well performed and prompts proper laughter at several times throughout. At this point in time, every opportunity to have a good laugh should be grabbed!
Glorious! plays Brisbane’s QUT Gardens Theatre on September 12 and 13, The Arts Centre Gold Coast on September 16, Leitchville Memorial Hall on September 20, and Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre on September 23