‘Glorious!’ to the ears of the listener

Beverly Craveiro plays Cosme McMoon and Nathalie Blossom stars as Florence Foster Jenkins in "Glorious!" which opens this Thursday at the Malibu Stage Company.

Zuma Repertory Theatre presents a play about an awful singer.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

On Oct. 25, 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins, a self-styled chanteuse and doyenne of New York City’s classical music societies, performed a recital at Carnegie Hall that was not only completely sold-out, but that turned away another 2,000 patrons at the door.

The fact that Jenkins had zero sense of pitch or rhythm, was incapable of sustaining a note and was described by critics as the “first lady of the sliding scale” or as a singer who “sounds like a cuckoo in its cups” did not deter her fans, nor Jenkins herself, from delighting in her image as an “Angel of Inspiration.”

Whether mad as a hatter or spectacularly deluded, Jenkins was a diva with serene faith in her destiny. The Zuma Repertory Theatre is bringing her story to Malibu in the Los Angeles premiere of “Glorious!,” written by Peter Quilter.

“Florence would say, ‘Every artist has his detractors,'” ZRT founder and show producer Rick Johnson said. “There’s something about someone who declares she can accept criticism with a shrug and simply state, ‘They are just not right. I’m going forward.'”

Just how bad Jenkins really sounded was captured in several 78 rpm recordings she made in the ’30s and ’40s, reissued on CDs, and is the source of countless YouTube hits.

“But she didn’t hear that,” said actress Nathalie Blossom, who plays Jenkins in “Glorious!”. “Florence truly thought she was wonderful. It’s not that someone is tone deaf, but that they hear the music inside themselves.”

Such artless narcissism attracted the attention of British playwright Peter Quilter, who had already penned several comedies, including a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” and “Boyband,” about the pop music industry.

Quilter’s musical drama about Judy Garland’s final months, “End of the Rainbow,” was an international touring hit, and “Glorious!” was nominated for the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in London in 2005.

Director Diane Carroll believes that “Glorious!” is more about Jenkins’ musical vision -however oblivious to quality -and her eccentric life than an indictment of her self-obsession.

“This play is more a celebration of Florence’s life and accomplishments,” Carroll said. “She attracted tremendous loyalty. Her accompanist [the lyrically named Cosmé McMoon] was with her for 24 years.”

McMoon was also heard on recordings adjusting to Jenkins’ odd tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. However, there was nothing he could do about her massacring foreign languages when singing arias by Mozart and Verdi.

Jenkins also enjoyed many years of deep devotion from her actor-turned-manager boyfriend St. Clair Bayfield, keeping him in style in a Manhattan apartment after receiving a substantial inheritance from her wealthy, but disapproving parents.

Will Carney, who plays St. Clair, said he wasn’t sure whether to root for or against Florence, upon first reading the script.

“I guess I have trouble with moneyed aristocracy buying their own history, which is what Florence did after she became wealthy,” Carney said. “It’s quite poignant, in a way. Florence always wanted her father’s love. So after he died, she took his fortune and spent it all on elaborate performance halls and recitals. She was saying, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do. It broke my heart that you would deny me this love.'”

Of his own role, Carney said, “Well, I play an out-of-work actor. It wasn’t too much of a stretch.”

In casting this play, an obvious concern would be finding an actress with enough musical training to be able to recreate Jenkins’ signature awfulness.

“It was easier than you can imagine,” Blossom said, who jokingly refuses to divulge the name of her voice teacher in case he “sues for defamation.”

“I have a fairly good sense of pitch,” she said. “So I try to overstep and make her notes go sharp. I’ve had experience in this before. In high school, a friend and I would take simple songs and sing them all completely flat, just to drive our parents crazy.”

Blossom said she searched to find Jenkins’ humanity.

“She was a survivor in a grim way,” Blossom said. “She was a prodigy on the piano as a child, but an accident left one arm too weak to play as a concert pianist. So she started to sing and was totally opposed by her family.”

Jenkins’ father went so far as to cut her off financially, but Jenkins eloped with a doctor. However, her husband also tried to discourage her career choice. The marriage didn’t last long and Jenkins doggedly pursued performance opportunities, frequently costumed in outlandish outfits of tinsel and tulle.

“People would laugh hysterically during her recitals and all Florence heard was adulation,” Blossom said. “Florence heard the voice in her heart, which, really, made her pure.”

“Glorious!” opens this Thursday, and will show Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway. Tickets and more information can obtained by calling 800.383.3006 or online at www.brownpapertickets.com