By Gary Wien
George Street Playhouse is bringing a pair of Broadway veterans to New Brunswick for Souvenir, their latest production that will run from February 27th through March 25th. The play features Liz McCartney (Mamma Mia, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Jim Walton (Merrily We Roll Along, And The World Goes Round) as the society doyenne and aspiring singer Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist Cosme. The kicker is that Florence sings really, really badly. We're talking American Idol first week bad, but she's convinced she can do it.
We had a chance to talk with Jim Walton a few weeks before the show opened. Jim is probably best remembered for his portrayal of Franklin Shepard, the lead role in Steven Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along but his credits in musical theatre don't end there. He's done several on and off-Broadway shows in New York City as well as regional theatre across the country. In other words, he knows good singing... so what's it like for a true musical theatre professional to hear really awful singing? Read on...
Tell me about Souvenir. Liz McCartney plays a singer who can't sing very well.
That's correct. Liz McCartney is playing Florence Foster Jenkins in the 1900s in New York City. She was a New York City socialite who inherited money from her father's death and decided that she wanted to sing. It was her lifelong ambition, but she didn't start until she was in her sixties because he wouldn't let her sing. Apparently he didn't like her voice.
She took up singing and was very, very bad at it and was deluded enough not to know how terrible it was. Either that or she was just so into the thrill of singing and the music that she was just lost in it.
It's ironic to do a play like this in the era of American Idol where people see a lot of really awful singers.
Absolutely! People get so caught up in the music or the rhythm and harmonies that they don't know their voice really isn't very good.
How does your character get involved? Does she hire you?
Yes. She needs an accompanist to play for one of her recitals that she's going to do at the Ritz-Carlton where she lives. He goes and interviews for her and she sings for him. She's terrible but he doesn't have the backbone to say you're really lousy. He's also rather enthralled by her lack of awareness and her belief in her self. Her confidence is so supreme and he has his own insecurities. I think that's what is so interesting about the play. It's a human story that she's overly confident with little skill while he has a lot of skill and lacks confidence. In a sense, they're perfectly mated for each other, but that's also the source of the drama.
David Saint (Artistic Director of George Street) has said he loved the play and thought it was hysterically funny. Since both of you have such wonderful experience in musicals, how difficult was it to make it through rehearsals when these awful sounds are coming from Liz? Was it hard to keep a straight face?
Sometimes, it was! Two days ago, I was playing for her and I don't remember what song it was but I turned my face upstage just so I could laugh outright. And it's not always the same with what she does. She'll actually sing a phrase differently but it'll be just as bad as it ever was! It's very funny.
What was it like working with Liz?
Oh, it's wonderful. She is very easy to get on with; she's very funny and works hard. It's just the two of us, so it's very focused. Usually in a show there's at least 6 to 8 people and commonly there's up to 20 people and you're in 2 or 3 rooms rehearsing. This is a very controlled situation.
Are you both on stage the whole time?
I am on stage the whole time. I do not leave the stage once - not once. She leaves a lot. She has costume changes while I wear the same costume. While she's off stage I have monologues. It's a great challenge because it's a lot to manage. It's a big, big part.
I think this is the first time in my career that I've played a part where I've never left the stage.
It seems as though musicals with smaller casts tend to have more of a dramatic feel to them.
Yes, that's a good observation. It's almost like the smaller the show; the focus not only narrows but I think has to go deeper.
So maybe the show becomes a bit less about the music and more about the characters involved?
Yes. Somehow something has to give the audience its money's worth and a dance show with two people would be strange. You could do it and I'm sure it's been done, but it becomes more about the character and their journey. The bigger shows are about size and spectacle.
What was it like working with director Anders Cato?
He's wonderful! The bottom line is that he respects the play and respects the process of transferring it from the page to the stage. It sure makes it easier to go to work every day for me.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at email@example.com.