Off-beat play on an off-key singer

British actress Leigh McDonald plays New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, while home-grown actor Hossan Leong takes on the role of her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in Souvenir.
British actress Leigh McDonald plays New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, while home-grown actor Hossan Leong takes on the role of her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in Souvenir.PHOTO: SING'THEATRE

Souvenir, based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, hits the right notes

It takes a good performer to sing badly and British actress Leigh McDonald is taking on that challenge. In Sing'theatre's production of Souvenir, opening this week, she plays an early-20th-century socialite who became famous for her off-tune concerts.

The play also stars Hossan Leong and is directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall. It runs from tomorrow to Sept 29 at the KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT.

Souvenir is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a flamboyant New York socialite who put on lavish tableaux and private vocal recitals in which she took a starring role.

Until her death in 1944, her wealth protected her from the truth - that she could not sing and, in fact, was tone-deaf - and allowed her to make recordings of her singing, as a souvenir for her friends.

Some of these recordings have survived on YouTube, notably her take on Mozart's famous Queen Of The Night aria, described as a "massacre of Mozart" by the "world's most inept opera singer".

Cast and director wince while hearing the clip. "When you hear that, you don't laugh. You're in pain," says McDonald, who sang and acted in Sing'theatre's well-received revue, A Singaporean In Paris (2010). She also played the American painter who befriends Dowager Empress Cixi in the homegrown musical, Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (2002 and 2003).

"I'm quite daunted, if I'm being honest," adds the actress, who is in her 50s. "It's funny, the thing you try not to do all your life, go off the note, I have to do it."

Jenkins' story inspired the 2016 movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. The Sing'theatre production, based on a script by Stephen Temperley, tells the story from the perspective of Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

  • BOOK IT / SOUVENIR

  • WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Tomorrow till Sept 29, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 4 and 8pm (Saturdays), Sundays (4pm)

    ADMISSION: $35 to $59 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

McMoon, played by Leong, was a skilful pianist who needed a job and ended up staying with Jenkins for 12 years, adapting his playing to make up for deficiencies in her singing. The 49-year-old actor says: "There's this naivete in her that endears her to him. It's like, 'Okay, I should protect her.'"

Director Scott-Blackhall adds: "It's a bit of a love story, the love of the craft, the passion."

Jenkins was loved even as she was mocked. Songwriter Cole Porter was reportedly a regular at her vocal recitals and her fame grew so much that in 1944, at age 76, weeks before she died, she held her first public performance at Carnegie Hall.

She made people laugh, explain cast and director, and laughter was much-needed in those decades which marked two World Wars and the Great Depression.

"She was so pure and lovely and honest," says Leong. "She really thought she could sing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2018, with the headline 'Off-beat play on an off-key singer'. Print Edition | Subscribe