Last weekend my dear friends David and Hirschel took me to the closing performance of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at the Lyric, and to dinner following at Post 390. The occasion was my birthdenouement (birthdaynouement? When you make up a word, you can spell it as you choose. Which do you prefer?), the very end of Birthday 54 celebrations since they were out of town on the Actual Day. Chatting during intermission, I was astonished that David (who has been one of my closest friends lo these many years) had never heard the story of how I was introduced to the magical musical interpretations of FFJ. It astonished me more than learning that he had not heard ANY of her recordings! And then I had dinner with Craig on Wednesday night and he said he had never heard it - just as astonishing! So settle down, boys and girls, and I'll tell you a story.
Take your mind back to Easter Sunday, 1985 - 25 years before ye Fycebykke, long before laptop computers, a few years before compact discs. Cassette tapes are still cutting edge, and LPs are still everywhere. I am a 21-year-old college junior, and since the summer before I've been hanging around with a small group of women about ten years older than I.
As I recall, a lot of this hanging around involved Japanese cinema in Brookline, Culture Club, the Royal Wedding, genealogy, etc. And somewhere along the line one of them had referenced a singer named Florence Foster Jenkins. "Oh, she's wonderfully awful! So bad she's BAD!" I was told. I was intrigued, but nothing more was said, and the current of Life flowed onward to other things.
Came Easter Sunday, and a randomly casual Easter meal had been enjoyed in their Somerville kitchen. While one of them lazily washed strawberries one at a time, the meal had clearly reached the "Well, what on earth are we going to do next?" stage. And I suddenly blurted out "Why don't you put on that Florence Foster Jenkins record you told me about?" One lady immediately bolted for her room and shut the door. She knew what was coming. The rest of the party, with varying degrees of mirth or expectancy, trooped into the book-dominated living room where the stereo was. I sat myself down on an ottoman, with no idea what I was getting myself into. My life was about to change.
The first track on the album was the famous "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Magic Flute:
The finale that begins at 03:27 must be heard to be believed. I was convulsed in laughter, but worse (or better) was still to come. I'll spare linking you to all the tracks on the album, but I was howling by the time we got to the Bell Song from Lakme.
What can I say but "This is a test. This is a test of the emergency broadcasting system . . . " The note that begins at 04:24 simply beggars description, and I just could not control myself at that point. It was becoming difficult to breathe. But the real piece de resistance (or, in my case, the coup de grace) was what I think was the final track on that side, "Adele's Laughing Song" from Der Fledermaus.
At this point, perhaps for the only time in my life, I fell onto the floor laughing so hard it just didn't matter. In the words of Jan Hooks as Bette Davis, "I fell RIGHT out of my chair!" This must have been as she begins her Big Finish at 03:21; I think I fell to the floor at 03:37.
After that, I was hooked. Later that year I bought the album for myself; it's one of the two LPs I still own (wherever it is . . . ) even though I no longer have a stereo on which to play it. While I no longer go into hysterics, I still get a thrill every time I hear one of her recordings. She's so BAD!
But this was hardly a daily, or even an annual, indulgence. Florence isn't usually what is now called "top of mind." So I was surprised to read in the last 2000s that Souvenir was on Broadway. "Why," I asked, "would anyone write a play about Florence Foster Jenkins?" And when my friends Jason and Jack and I sat in the front row of the original Boston production at the Lyric, I found out. For me it's really the story of her long-suffering accompanist Cosmé McMoon, and the depth of the friendship these two performers allowed to flower as they worked together (at least according to the playwright). Seeing the revival (with the same outstanding cast, Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan), it was more emotional for me to recognize those moments.
But the performance in 2009 (or whatever year it was) was most memorable for me because I caught the carnations during Clavelitos! Clavelitos was one of Florence's favorite encores (which she never recorded, darn it). It involved tossing flowers into the audience from a little basket. And now I'll try to quote the album liner notes from memory: "On one occasion, in a moment of confusion, the little basket followed the blossoms into the audience. It, too, was received with spirit." (So now you know where "I will receive it with spirit!" comes from.) If Florence had to repeat it, the flowers (and the basket) had to be retrieved from the audience. And again, my memory of the liner notes: "At this point the behavior of the audience beggars description." I just love that!
Jason and Jack and I went to see the 2014 movie together. Let's face it, Mme. Meryl can do no wrong, and she was beautifully supported by Hugh Grant (as Florence's "husband" St. Clair Bayfield) and Simon Helberg (as Cosmé). It's a beautiful evocation of Florence's world. I'm glad I saw the movie, but I don't feel compelled to see it again.
The last two pieces of the puzzle of Florence Foster Jenkins, which i didn't even know existed, fell into place just this year. Over the summer I discovered her biography in my favorite used bookstore, Tim's Used Books. At last, the truth about her father's wealth and death, her brief career as a music teacher, her move to New York with her mother and their money, her (mostly self-created) niche in the music community, her coterie, her audience, her life as a hotel resident.
That book alluded to undiscovered movie footage of her recitals at the Ritz. Since the publication of that book, someone found them and they're on the Yewytbbe! And you'll see at one point she appears to be tossing flowers into the audience (and perhaps a basket) - the Clavelitos!
Florence Foster Jenkins represents the sense of absurdity and delight we all need. If Leigh Barrett were to come to my house as Florence and sing "Adele's Laughing Song," I know I would kiss the hem of her gown in gratitude and not stop crying . . . or laughing.
Just keep me from falling on the floor this time.