Florence Foster Jenkins was a terrible singer. People have mocked her for decades, but does she deserve the derision? The play Souvenir, produced by Cube Theatre at Thalian Hall, tells her story from the perspective of the man closest to her in the end-her Pianist, Cosme McMoon.
Four performances remain through May 6 at the Ruth & Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall: Thursday, Friday, Saturday @ 7:30pm & Sunday @ 3:00pm.
The show received praise from Star News and Encore Magazine. Tom Briggs cast Cindy Colucci and Michael Lauricella in the piece-and says he doesn't know anyone else in 500 miles who could perform the story so well.
Listen to Tom and Cindy above, and see our extended interview below.
Gina: Tom, how did you end up being the director of Souvenir?
Tom: Well, I read the play and just loved it, although it scared me to death. I've never done a two-hander play. I am known for big old musicals, big old plays. And you know, I'm drawn to things that initially scare me a little bit and this one really did. And of course my first thought was, well where are you going to find the two people who can do ... have the skill set to do that? And then I thought of Cindy and Michael, and if either one of them had said, no, I'm not in, well then I wouldn't have gone to Tony Rivenbark and pitched it because I don't know if anybody else within 500 miles of this berg who could do those two roles. Very specific skill sets.
Gina: So you pitched this to Tony?
Gina: I was thinking this was one of Tony's crazy ideas and somehow you got roped in, but this was your crazy idea.
Tom: I went to Tony and said, I want to direct Souvenir with Cindy and Michael. And he was like, great. So here we are. And it really, I'm so glad that I, you know, had the nerve to tackle it because it's been great fun and a lot of hard work mostly on the actors part. My job pretty much was to, you know, get out of their way and it's just been a blast and the audiences are loving it. So, which is really the most, I mean, that's who we do it for, right as the audience are final and most important collaborator. and it's just, it's just been a wild and wonderful, wonderful experience.
Cindy: I'm Cindy Colucci and I play the role of Florence Foster Jenkins.
Gina: What did you think when you were asked to play this role?
Cindy: I was tremendously flattered. I'm, the movie had already come out, but I have not seen it and I purposely have not seen it. So I knew who she was. So, you know, when he called me about it, I, yeah, I was, I was very flattered to be hand-picked.
Gina: And you actually know how to sing really well.
Cindy: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: You couldn't play this role if you weren't-
Cindy: No, you could not ...
Tom: Like, just a bad singer couldn't play this role. It's not easy as it seems.
Cindy: No it's very, very difficult. I had to learn the arias correctly and then learn how to sing them badly. Um, and that's really difficult.
Gina: Well, actually we were, I was talking with someone about how you're a great singer and it was like, I wonder if it's harder for her because she knows how to sing so well.
Cindy: Yeah, because you're, you know, you naturally want to gravitate towards the right note, so you have to make a concerted effort with every note. Um, she was notoriously flat. But there were many times when she did actually hit the note. Just not more than one ...
Tom: Not consistently.
Cindy: Not consistently yeah. So you know, the thing about her is, you know, how it was so close, but it just was not, wasn't there.
Gina: No cigar.
Cindy: Yeah, no cigar. And if you listen to her, she does sound different than I do in the play. I think for theatrical purposes, you do have to make, make it a little bit bigger than, than she normally was. I think if I tried to sing it exactly like she did, the audience would kind of fall asleep because her voice was very quiet and very light and airy and breathy. It doesn't necessarily translate to the stage where you do have to make it a little bit bigger than that.
Tom: Yeah, it really doesn't. Cindy and I talked about right at the beginning was about learning the Arias, I said learn them like you're doing your single senior recital in college because you can't break the rules until you know what the rules are. And she's done this brilliantly. It's just, I mean it's a handful. It's a real handful.
Gina: This is the thing. So I also have heard raves about the show and how amazing it is to watch. I'm wondering, well, how do people ... do people get annoyed by hearing this, the bad singing?
Cindy: They are in hysterics. It's so funny, you know, with it being in the, in the studio theater and a much smaller space, you see the audience much more up close and their reactions and people are just holding their mouths and rocking back and forth and burying their heads in the shoulder of the person next to them. And it occurred to me that must have been exactly what it was like for her to stand there and watch except that she wasn't in on the joke. And it's just, it's just hilarious. They're just dying.
Tom: It's butt funny. I mean, it is, butt funny.
Gina: So now, but tell me a little bit about Florence Foster Jenkins because she wasn't a bad person or anything. Tell me about her beyond the fact that she could not sing well.
Tom: Well she was a wealthy socialite in New York City in the thirties and forties and she fancied herself a Coloratura Soprano. And not in a vain way. It's just, well, the music she heard in her head, alas, was not what the audience heard. And that is a big part of what this play is about. She was so transparently confident in herself that you couldn't hardly disparage her without feeling badly.
Tom: I remember I first found out who she was when I was in college in the seventies, and her record was making the rounds and we'd all get together and drink and laugh at her, laugh at her. And then years later, I kind of felt bad. Because she wasn't trying to be funny.
Cindy: She was just clueless.
Tom: She just loved music. It was her life.
Gina: She loved singing, but she didn't have the skill to be a performer.
Tom: She began as a pianist and um, so she was musically inclined, but vocally not so much.
Gina: Tell me about her relationship with the gentlemen ...
Tom: Cosme Mcmoon
Tom: Cosme Mcmoon. Is this an actual character?
Cindy: He, well, he was her accompanist for 12 years until she died. Um, and Michael just such an amazing job with them because he's, he so mild-mannered and unassuming, even in real lifeand so, and then as opposed to Florence Foster Jenkins and myself who are larger than life, and so it's just a great, uh, it melds just beautifully. He was recommended by a friend who was related to her. She needed an accompanist and he went having no clue that she couldn't, you know, from the conversation that they had, he thought she was going to be this amazing singer and then they start and this hard noise comes out for mouth. And he's horrified, but she's so clueless.
Cindy: And so she is so endearing, he couldn't say no. And then as time went on, he became very protective of her and he knew what it was like. But, but he took care of her, and I think was, I think, you know, if you watch those on youtube, there is a documentary about her and he is interviewed and it's, it's really interesting to watch and, and Michael just does an amazing job of capturing the long suffering yet protective. Almost like an assistant.
Tom: And he grows into it. He takes the job because he has to pay the rent. He's 29 years old living in New York City and he's a songwriter, but nobody will sing his songs. And so he takes it for the, the job for the money, but then gradually, his affection for her grows and grows because of her utter belief in the music and the power, the transporting power of the music. And that's really what the play is about.
Cindy: And the whole thing is told from his perspective too, which I think is very-
Tom: It's a memory play. It's set in 1964, 20 years after she passed away, and he's working as a pianist and a piano bar and he's telling the story of his 12 years with Madam Flo. And so being a memory played, it gives you a lot of latitude, theatrically, which is great fun, you know, it's not a kitchen sink drama sort of thing.
Gina: How was this piece costumed?
Cindy: It's my favorite one. Just one of my favorite costume plots ever. I have 13 costume changes in less than two hours and half of them are in a span of five minutes and she's managed to make it so that we are able to do, well me with the help of two drugs, two dressers, Laurene and Josh, we've got it down to a science. You know, these and some of these things are hers there. There are things that she made. My favorite favorite gown is one that she actually made for herself. The movie, Somewhere in Time that came out in the early eighties with Jane Seymour. There is a weekend that is done to celebrate the film at the hotel where they filmed it all those years ago and the whole weekend in anyone who comes, you have to be dressed, it's fully immersive, you have to be dressed in, in that period, which is kind of like around the titanic, like 1910, around there. So this was one of the gowns that she had made for herself for that weekend and it's my, it's my favorite. It's, it's absolutely stunning.
Tom: But for all of the costumes or has a good sense of period.
Cindy: And she does her research.
Tom: Yes she does. And she's very kind to actors. She will show you to your best advantage and I'm, her costumes are just wonderful. And to see them go on and off and on off night. It's like how do they, it's magic. It really is. I mean 35 second costume change from a full thing to another full thing. Yeah. I'm telling you, we should just sell tickets to what's going on backstage if you don't mind. I'm going to charge extra for that. You're right. And then Troy's set is just so simple and yet so classic.
Tom: It was exactly what I wanted. Troy is great at everything. He's a great singer, great actor or director, set designer. With troy there are never any surprises. You tell him what you want and he tells you what he thinks, how he's going to do it, and then it shows up and it's exactly what you talked about. Yeah, I love that. That's not true of every designer in the world.
Gina: Or any anything in the world.
Cindy: You're right, you're right.