Upon discovering that Frankston Arts Centre is showing Glorious! next month, a play about the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, I immediately booked tickets. I recall how much I loved the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. The biographical film is set in the 1940s and is based on the heart-warming and funny story of a wealthy New York heiress who becomes well-known for her off-pitch voice but is determined to sing anyway.
In Glorious! Australian actress Diana McLean, who is best-known for The Young Doctors, Number 96 and All Saints, stars as Florence. The play was premiered in 2005 and its success has taken it over the world to over two million audience members. Nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2005, the production has been described by The Independent as “infectiously joyous … At once hysterically funny and strangely moving”. There is nothing quite like live theatre to captivate the senses and convey the nuances of a good story.
Much has been written about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins and yet, the details seem to vary depending on who is telling the story. What is certain is that young Florence Foster was born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1868, and when her father died in 1909, she was left with an inheritance that gave her the freedom to pursue her love of singing in New York. She used her finances to support local opera companies and exclusive clubs, and funded her own concerts, including her sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall just days before her death at age 76.
Florence contracted syphilis, an incurable disease at the time, which precipitated an end to her marriage to Frank Thornton Jenkins. Despite this, she kept the Jenkins name throughout her life. In New York, Florence met actor St. Clair Bayfield who became her manager and with which she had an obscure life-long partnership.
It is thought that Bayfield, amongst others, gave Florence a false sense of confidence in her abilities and protected her from public criticism. Despite her inability to pitch notes correctly, sing rhythmically or sustain musical phrases, it remains a contentious issue whether Florence realised how badly she sang or whether she realised that her audiences’ enjoyment was in comedy-value rather than appreciation. Florence’s poor health is purported to be a contributing factor to her lack of perception, but it is possible that being ill simply made her all the more determined to do what she loved despite what others thought of her.
Florence Foster Jenkins loved singing with her heart and soul. Her story appeals to the heart of each of us who enjoys pursuing an activity in which we have little talent. It is the expression and participation amongst others with shared interest that is important, giving a sense of joy, empowerment and satisfaction. If Florence did know how bad she sounded and yet sang anyway for the pure joy of performing, she leaves a legacy far greater than being known for poor vocal skills. The story of Florence Foster Jenkins teaches us to never let a lack of talent stop us from pursuing our dreams.
I look forward to seeing Diana McLean bring to life the hilarity and eccentricities of Florence Foster Jenkins in Glorious!
Glorious! is showing at the Frankston Arts Centre on Thursday 5th April at 7:30pm.