Was Florence Foster Jenkins the world’s worst singer or a Glorious performer? An interview with Peter Quilter

peter quilter

Peter Quilter’s plays have been presented in major theatres in 38 countries around the world. He has had a it show on Broadway which received 3 Tony Nominations, three successful plays in London’s West End and has been nominated twice for the Olivier Award. We caught up with Peter to discuss his play Glorious! and to delve into the endless appeal of Florence Foster Jenkins, the worlds most beloved terrible singer.


What initially interested you in the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and what led to the creation of your play Glorious?

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 to see if I could find out more about her. When I mentioned her name, everyone in the shop turned around and smiled. 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 she 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 is at times quite a raucous comedy, but it still retains a heart-warming level of compassion for it’s primary lead. How were you able to tell Florence’s story retaining the inherent comedy but not falling into a mocking or cruel tone?

I wanted the audience to begin by mocking her, 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 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.

glorious

The Real Florence Foster Jenkins

You have previously written about towering divas such as Judy Garland – did you find any similarities between those musical stars whom we remember with such reverence and Florence Foster Jenkins who is perhaps remembered less so?

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 essentially 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.

Could you elaborate on the characters that you have depicted in the play and what the cast requirements would be for a company who might be interested in staging it?

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 understands what she’s saying anyway!

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A programme for Florence Foster Jenkins’ sell-out performance at Carnegie Hall

How could people approach the staging of Glorious?

It’s 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 sets. It’s up to you. The show has played in grand 2000 seat opera houses and also 50 seat pub theatres. So just scale the show to whatever suits you.

Glorious! has been performed around the world. Where exactly has it been performed and how many people have seen it?

The show has now been seen in theatres by two million people. It has also been broadcast “live” on foreign television where it was watched by several million more. The cities where it has played include Sydney, Manila, Moscow, Johannesburg, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bucharest, Bratislava, Warsaw, Tallinn, Helsinki, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Plus of course it had a run in London’s West End in 2005/2006 starring Maureen Lipman who was, well, glorious as Florence Foster Jenkins. It played 6 months at the Duchess Theatre and was nominated for the Olivier Award as Best New Comedy. You are doubtless already aware of the new Meryl Streep movie about Florence which has created a whole new wave of interest in the play. So I think “Glorious!” will be singing its heart out for a good while yet.

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Meryl Streep in the film Florence Foster Jenkins directed by Stephen Frears

Glorious! Is available to be performed and can be found at the Samuel French website here

Peter Quilter’s webpage for Glorious!

 

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