After the Philharmonic rehearsal ended at 12:30 PM, I took the subway down to Times Square and headed over to the Lyceum Theater, where Souvenir, a two-person musical show about the heiress and deluded soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, is playing. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, she put on a series of recitals, first at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and eventually in Carnegie Hall, which were so bad they became the among the most sought-after tickets in New York. Jenkins didn’t understand her singing was bad and ignored any fedback to suggest it was until she realized at the end of her Carnegie Hall concert (from which thousands were turned away) that she was, in fact, being laughed at. About a month after that concert, she died from a heart attack while shopping. Her recordings are still played at music-student parties and have been known to cause laughter-induced baldder control problems.
Judy Kaye plays Jenkins, and Donald Corren her pianist/coach Cosme McMoon, who tells the story in flashbacks. Both gave spectacular performances. Kaye’s imitation of Jenkins off-key attempts at singing is dead-on. How she can do this show eight times a week is a mystery to me. There was no amplification (thank God!) and while there wasn’t that much genuine singing, it still seems as though it would be a great strain on the voice.
All the obvious and inevitable laughs were there, of course, but the play is also a bittersweet meditation on both the joys of creating one’s own reality (Jenkins) and the struggle to persevere and make a meaningful life when great external rewards and recognition do not come one’s way (McMoon). Jenkins is portrayed not as just a self-indulgent rich woman but a naïve musical Don Quixote, with McMoon her increasingly admiring Sancho Panza. It is a great show, entertaining and touching, and richly deserving of its critical success. I hope it runs a long time. The matinee audience was quite full, and I was grateful that there was a promotional ticket price offered through an ad in the Times: $45 got me a fourth-row seat on the center aisle, which meant I didn’t have to stand for an hour in the windy cold in the TKTS line. (That promotional offer at this busiest time in the Broadway season doesn’t bode well for a long run, so see it quick if you have the chance.)