From Maureen Lipman to Meryl Streep: The Story of the Worst Singer in the World
Below, playwright Peter Quilter discusses his comedy Glorious!, which explores the hilarious and remarkable story of the world’s worst opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins - who is now the subject of a film starring Meryl Streep. Read below to learn about Florence's story, where Peter found his inspiration, his casting advice and more.
Florence was a terrible, terrible singer. I had heard one of her hilarious original recordings and went into the shop of the English National Opera in London to see if I could find out more about her. When I mentioned her name, everyone in the shop turned around and beamed at me with a huge smile. I knew at that very moment that there was something special here. It is a great story of triumph over adversity and it’s one of those amazing tales that make people instantly laugh at the absurdity of all. But even more interesting is the fact that Florence Foster Jenkins was such a happy woman. She defied all her critics and soldiered on to pursue her dreams. So while very funny, it is also a very touching and uplifting story. And those elements are wonderful material for a play.
Glorious! had its world premiere in Birmingham England in September 2005. It starred the beloved British comedy actress Maureen Lipman. The show transferred immediately to the West End, where it ran until the following summer. The play has since been performed around the world in cities as diverse as Sydney, Moscow, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Warsaw, Caracas, Bucharest and Berlin. It has also been performed at seven National Theatres. The play has also had many wonderful productions in North America, including runs in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Atlanta, Dallas, etc. At the last count, it had been seen on stage by an estimated two million people. It’s an extraordinary journey for a story about a delusional woman who was famous not for her gifts but for her entire lack of talent. But the success of the play demonstrates how audiences in all languages fall in love with Florence, her spirit, her determination, and the triumphant way in which she blindly followed her desires in the face of endless laughter. Which she never really heard. She always claimed that she could only hear the applause.
The icing on the cake is that the play has provided inspiration for the new movie “Florence Foster Jenkins," which hits American cinemas this month, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and directed by the brilliant Stephen Frears.
In common with the movie, Glorious! has a great deal of compassion for its leading lady. I wanted the audience to begin by essentially mocking Florence, but to gradually fall in love with her. I use the character of Cosme (her pianist) to guide the audience on this journey. He feels much the same way as we do. Initially finding her lack of ability rather ludicrous. But during the play he comes to admire her tenacity and determination and her positive spirit. So as we relate to Cosme, we find ourselves also falling for this wonderful, eccentric woman. By the time she sings her big aria at the end of the show (the Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute) the audiences are cheering and applauding and some are even crying.
It’s the second time that I’ve tackled a biographical subject. The first was Judy Garland, the subject of my Broadway play End of the Rainbow. I’m fascinated by the backstage stories of these performers, whether legendary Hollywood stars or floundering amateurs. What they all have in common is the desperate need to perform, as though their lives depended on it. But you have to approach each subject on their own terms. My play End of the Rainbow is at its core a serious drama, whereas Glorious! is a heart-warming comedy. The way the characters handle the fame and the demands of performing is what defines them. For some it is a pathway to joy and celebration, for others it is a demon that they battle with.
[caption id="attachment_5568" align="aligncenter" width="650"] GLORIOUS! at the Duchess Theatre in London.[/caption]
Glorious! is already regularly produced by regional theaters and is also becoming popular amongst amateur and community groups. So let’s talk a little bit about casting. There is sometimes an assumption that the actress playing Florence has to be a singer. This is not the case. The play has indeed been performed by opera singers, but also very successfully by women who have never sung before. Some approach the songs musically and others approach it from a purely comic perspective. There are various ways to sing a song badly. So if you have a very funny actress in the company, don’t be deterred if she can’t sing. She’ll find a way to make this work. Florence has been played by a huge variety of actresses, aged between 40 and 80. So the age is flexible too, but if you cast her younger, get yourself a good wig!
The character of Cosme also has some flexibility. He can be aged anywhere from 20 to 60. In the show, he plays the piano, but the vast majority of companies have him only pretending to do this (using a dummy piano) with the piano music pre-recorded. The other characters are St Clair (Florence’s colourful boyfriend), Dorothy (her eccentric friend), Mrs Verrinder-Gedge (her mortal enemy) and Maria (her Mexican maid). For Maria, you don’t need to find an actress who speaks Spanish. It can be learned phonetically and doesn’t need to be accurate as nobody on stage understands what she’s saying anyway. But there’s some nice juicy Spanish dialogue in there, to be enjoyed by those in the audience who understand it. I live in Spain, so I had plenty of fun with this!
As for the staging, Glorious! is one of those plays that can be staged simply or extravagantly. There are several sets, but they can be depicted minimally. Or, if you like to be more ambitious, you could build big blockbusting settings. It’s up to you. The show has played in grand 2,000 seat opera houses and also tiny 50 seat studio theaters. So companies can just scale the show to whatever suits them.
I hope you will venture out this summer and enjoy the Meryl Streep movie about Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s such a charmingly ridiculous story, so bizarre in nature, but also so incredibly joyous. Florence is a kind of hero for people everywhere who love to sing, or paint, or play sports, or dance – but somehow don’t have the ability or talent for it that they always hoped to have. She teaches us that life is to be lived, and that critics and negative attitudes should be ignored. Just do what’s in your heart, live your dreams, and whether you’re good at it or not, you will surely find the experience to be, well, glorious…!