Souvenir returns to the Lyric a decade later
After 20 years as producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, there’s plenty of material that Spiro Veloudos could have chosen for the production that would commemorate his milestone. For Boston’s resident Stephen Sondheim expert, I’d have put my money on any one of the many Sondheim masterworks that have come to define both the Lyric and Veloudos’ tenure.
He chose, instead, to revive a small play about a woman with an—er—big voice that was popular with Lyric audiences and a personal favorite for Veloudos. Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins is a sort of imagined look at oddity and cult figure Jenkins and her relationship with longtime accompanist Cosmé McMoon. Recreating (or refining) their performances are Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan, two beloved stalwarts of the Boston stage.
Florence Foster Jenkins has proved to be one of the unlikeliest and most enduring cultural oddities of the 20th century. A music lover her entire life, Jenkins’ father refused to bankroll her vocal studies, insisting instead that she focus on what she was already good at: playing the piano. But when her father died in 1909 and Jenkins came into control of a trust that her father set up for her, she poured all of her time and money into becoming a singer. The thing is, Jenkins had absolutely zero talent for singing. (One critic called her the “anti-Callas.”)
She met McMoon in 1932 and began to perform regularly at private concerts around New York City and annually at the Ritz-Carlton. She was an eccentric socialite that immersed herself in the wealthy New York society, and over the next decade amassed a certain kind of fame and a bevy of devoted fans, one of whom was Cole Porter, who reportedly never missed a concert.
There were plenty of detractors, hecklers, and bad press surrounding Jenkins’ performances, but those close to her did their best to protect her from all of that. Whether or not she knew she couldn’t sing is something that is still debated today, but she once said: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Jenkins’ odd place in pop culture was cemented in 1944 when she famously rented out Carnegie Hall for the biggest performance of her life. Tickets sold out in two hours.
The New York Post called it a weird mass joke, and another critic wrote that “Jenkins was exquisitely bad, so bad that it added up to quite a good evening of theater.” Of course, Jenkins didn’t do it for the critics. Five days after Carnegie Hall, Jenkins suffered a heart attack; the following month, she died.
She lived on, though, through anecdotes of her friends and supporters and through recordings she made that are still available today. Just last year, Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated for playing Jenkins on screen. Say what you will about her “singing,” but Lady Florence has demonstrated remarkable staying power.
But Souvenir, which Veloudos first directed at the Lyric a decade ago in 2007, is less a look into the life and times of Jenkins and instead focuses on her fascinating relationship with McMoon. Set 20 years after her death, McMoon looks back and tries to figure out just why he stuck with her for so long and why, after so many years, he is unable to totally shake her off. “People used to say to me, ‘Why does she do it?’” asks McMoon in the play. “I always thought the better question was, ‘Why did I?’”
The question I had, though, was, why Souvenir? Why again and why now?
“I wanted to do something for my 20th anniversary season that was really special to me,” said Veloudos. “There were a number of shows that I could have chosen, but I chose Souvenir for two reasons: One, I find the story fascinating; the other reason is that I get to work with two of my favorite actors. And it’s grown up a little bit. We’re all 10 years older, and we’re all 10 years more experienced. Even the set has grown up from what it was 10 years ago.”
Oddly enough, Souvenir is also the most requested show by Lyric audience members. But so special was the experience the first time around that Veloudos only wanted to do the show again if Barrett (who won an Elliot Norton Award for her performance) and McGarrahan were on board. If not, he says, he’d have chosen something else.
“I like it because it’s so compact and intimate, and we can work on the acting as opposed to a big musical where it’s all about everything else,” said Veloudos. “But this? I’ve got the best of all worlds. I’ve got Leigh Barrett singing badly, which I think is a really wonderful thing, and I’ve got Will McGarrahan playing piano like a virtuoso.”
But this Souvenir is no mere lazy remount. While much of the staging will be similar, there are aspects of the play that resonate differently a decade later for all involved. And for Veloudos, he looks forward to peeling back the layers of these complex people in a way that he simply ran out of time to do the last time around.
“It’s a live medium,” said Barrett, “and like we keep saying, you’re just naturally going to find new things. I will say that it’s still basically the same lovely piece that people enjoyed 10 years ago and people want to come back and experience that again. They’re going to get the same thing, only deeper.”
For Barrett, who is fresh off an incredible run in the Lyric’s production of Gypsy, it is the vulnerability of artists that is resonating with her differently this time. And for McGarrahan, this production does a better job of answering some of his character’s questions.
“He’s telling the story at the club on the anniversary of her death,” said McGarrahan. “The main question is: Why do I still care about this crazy lady? She was a horrible singer, she can’t be of any consequence. She’s a joke, right? Everyone laughs, so why is it important? And why is it important to me? There’s lots of reasons that he does what he does, the first one being he needs a job, but it keeps changing as the play goes on. Why do you still care about things 30 years later?”
The challenge with Souvenir is that while there are campy and cartoonish moments, the tenderness of these real people must float to the top. Otherwise, it’s not much of a play.
“That can get very long and boring,” said Barrett. “To me, the play has always been, yes, she sings and doesn’t sing well, but it’s about this relationship. I think it’s an interesting journey for the audience to take, to start out at that laughing, pointing place and get to the next place, which is about seeing the artist as a human being.”
“It has the tendency to be stereotyped,” added Veloudos. “It’s easy to make Florence Foster Jenkins a cartoon. Easy. We saw Meryl Streep do it. But the thing is, it’s difficult to find the reality of this person, the kind of fears that she has, the confidence that she has. It would be easy to make Cosmé a character of a gay piano player that’s in love with some eccentric woman, but that’s not the story that I wanted to tell, and I know that’s not the story that Leigh or Will wanted to tell. But it would be easy to do that, and I think lesser actors would have jumped at that chance. I’m glad I don’t have lesser actors.”
SOUVENIR. THROUGH 11.19 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY OF BOSTON, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM