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Gloriously Awful

Gloriously Awful

Above: “That sounded perfect to me!”
Stars of the new film Florence Foster Jenkins… Meryl Streep (singing), Hugh Grant (listening) & Simon Helberg (piano). Photo: Pathe UK

There won’t be many amateur societies unfamiliar with the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, ‘the worst singer in the world.’ Peter Quilter’s international smash hit play, Glorious!, which premiered back in 2005, has since been performed in more than twenty countries around the world selling, in the process, over a million tickets.

Back in the UK, for several years now Glorious! has regularly been one of Samuel French’s most-licensed titles performed by the non-professional theatre sector – and you can bet an even bigger surge of license applications will be on its way over the coming months. Why?…

British director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Queen, Philomena) teams up with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant for the first time as the inspirational, poignant, heart-warming true story about love, music and the pursuit of dreams comes to the big screen opening in cinemas from 6 May.

With a screenplay by Nicholas Martin, who was hooked by the ‘glorious’ chasm between Florence Foster Jenkins’ self-belief and her startling failings as a singer, Sardines is fortunate indeed to bring you an interview with the stars of the film as well as their director, writer and producer…

Set in 1940s New York, Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of the legendary New York heiress and socialite who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else it was hilariously awful. Her ‘husband’ and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor, was determined to protect his beloved Florence from the truth. But when Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair knew he faced his greatest challenge.

“I heard a song on YouTube,” says screenwriter, Nicholas Martin. “I was struck by the sincerity of her voice and I found it very moving, very funny and very sad. I kept going back to listen to it and wanted to find out about her life. It was then I realised the story of her journey to performing at Carnegie Hall would make a compelling musical film.”

Researching into the life of Jenkins, Martin was struck by Florence’s astonishing force of personality – “She was like the sun at the centre with all the planets in orbit around her” – and by her relationship with her “husband”, St. Clair Bayfield, whose diaries revealed his deep love for Florence despite living with another woman. With the accompanist Cosme McMoon, the trio became the centre of New York artistic society, first with her eccentric Tableaux Vivants – which always featured Florence as the central artistic muse – and later with her infamous musical recitals.

“Florence was a significant character in art and music in New York during the Second World War and she gave a lot of money to support the arts, including the provision of musical instruments to underprivileged children” explains Martin. “She also introduced a lot of very wealthy people to the world of music and persuaded them to contribute financially to the support of music in the city. She gave 1,000 tickets to her Carnegie Hall concert to the war veterans and many of them had the time of their lives. Apparently they nearly died laughing as the evening was so brilliant and bizarre! But did Florence herself know how she really sounded? That‘s for the audience to decide.”

Six months after beginning his research, Martin had a screenplay. “A friend told me producer Michael Kuhn knew a lot about music so we sent it to him. He liked it and Stephen soon followed. I said only one person can play Florence and that’s Meryl Streep, otherwise we might just as well go home. I knew she loved music and I knew she loved iconic characters and I had a hunch she would go for it. When Michael rang me and said, congratulations you’ve got your movie; I knew what he meant immediately. It was a miraculous moment in my life! We had to wait for her to be available but that gave us time to really work on the script and made it much much better.”

The film came together extremely quickly as Stephen Frears comments: “Nicholas must have been amazed as we all just turned up and said yes – me, the producers, Meryl and Hugh. It doesn’t usually happen as easily as that. But his screenplay is grown up, it’s mature. Nicholas wrote with an eye to people having a good time so he was always conscious of entertaining people as he wrote it.”

Stephen Frears found Florence an engrossing character: “Florence was a rich woman, a socialite who did a lot for music during the war; she supported the renowned conductor Toscanini and was a philanthropist. She’s always reminded me of Margaret Dumont, the actress – and comic foil – Groucho Marx used to chase after, just preposterous but touching at the same time. There were groups of people in New York who needed culture during the terrible times of the war and she kept people’s spirits up by laying on these amateur evenings. She sees Lily Pons, a French singer with an amazing voice, perform and she is inspired to take up singing again and have lessons – and then the true horror emerges!

“The central characters of Florence and Bayfield are ridiculous, touching and preposterous at the same time but they work well together. Bayfield was an unsuccessful actor when they met and clicked – he found a way to live and she found a man who loves her and looks after her even though he may be a philanderer, what more could she want?”

For her part Meryl Streep was familiar with Florence Foster Jenkins, but it was the prospect of working with Stephen Frears that most appealed: “I have a vague memory at my first year of drama school of people passing around a recording of Florence singing. I remember some sort of screech that we were all screaming about. Stephen called me and said ‘I have a part for you, it’s the worst opera singer in the world’ and I was thrilled. I said yes before I read the script because I’ve always wanted to work with Stephen. He has a reputation among actors as someone you really want to work with.”

The calamitous singing aside, the story for Streep had a very tender core. “It’s about a long and happy relationship between two people whose self-interest was equally served by the relationship as by their honest feeling and affection for each other. The story has so much real emotion to it.

“The real Florence Foster Jenkins was the ultimate club lady,” continues Streep. “Those were the days when the professions were not open to women so there were women of means who to keep themselves busy did charitable good works. Florence was a great patron of the arts in New York and that’s how she moved up through the social echelons of society. She kept the musical life of the city alive – she underwrote concerts at Carnegie Hall and spread around the money she had inherited from her husband and father.”

More than just a philanthropist, however, Jenkins was also a woman determined to fulfill her true passion. “Florence was a person who kept something we all have when we are children – when you can’t really do anything that well, but you hurl yourself into the imagining of it and take delight in the doing,” says Streep. “It’s the purist meaning of the word amateur. She only sang for her friends and hand- picked audiences – the only exception being the Carnegie Hall performance – because she couldn’t sing that well but she loved it and loved music and there’s something of that delight in our script.”

The film marks the second collaboration between Hugh Grant and the producer Michael Kuhn following their first over twenty years ago. “I haven’t worked with Hugh since I first met him on Four Weddings and a Funeral in ’94. You don’t succeed as a star of light comedy for such a long time or on such a scale without some deep seated ability – you have to be good at drama and you have to be good at comedy – and it was important that Bayfield be both touching and funny as that’s the essence of this film. Hugh is a master at that; he’s really impressive.”

“I was vaguely aware of Florence Foster Jenkins,” says Hugh. “I remember years ago my cousin sent me this tape of the worst singer in the world and thinking it was up there in the funniest things I’d ever heard. But I wasn’t doing much acting because I was involved in the ‘Hacked Off’ press transparency campaign. One of our supporters is Stephen Frears and he used to come to some of our events and would say ‘We should do a film together’ and I‘d tell him I wasn‘t really acting any more. But he sent me Nicholas Martin’s script which was truly brilliant, genuinely funny and real and touching. Meryl Streep was already cast as Florence so I had to do it.”

Hugh Grant plays Foster Jenkins’ ‘husband’ and manager. “Bayfield is an impresario but he also has a wonderful sense of the absurd,” says Frears. “Florence and Bayfield live in a bubble and he was always very concerned to protect her and that the bubble shouldn’t be pricked. I say she needed protecting but the truth is she played at Carnegie Hall and got away with it.”

“I was genuinely fascinated by Bayfield,” says Grant, “and I quite liked being him, which is not always the case with characters I‘ve played. In real life and in the film, Bayfield is the illegitimate grandson of an Earl, a bit of a failure. He roamed the world being a failed actor and ended up in New York pretty penniless. And then he met Florence, an heiress who sponsored the musical life of New York, and they hit it off.

“I think he played up his aristocratic roots more than he should have as well as his bohemian actor thing and she fell for all that, but he was charmed by her and they became a double act and, even though they never formally married, they lasted as a couple for 30-40 years,” continues Grant. “He’s a man who is puffed up with false self-esteem based on Florence’s position and wealth and renown – he’s a man of straw – and I found that amusing. But it’s very obvious who wears the trousers in the relationship – Florence needs him when she’s performing, but ultimately she’s the one with the money.

“He supports and protects her while she’s performing in concerts, which are not just bad, but hilariously bad. The key was to edit her audiences so that it is only people who will love and approve of her, people from her own musical societies and not the general public, who are invited. That way, she never gets to know just how bad she is.”

Working opposite Streep was, says Grant, “Bloody frightening! Not only is she a star, but she’s also probably the greatest screen actor ever in the history of the world. So there is this aura around her. It’s amazing to watch her, you feel like you are watching Leonardo da Vinci drawing; there is absolutely nothing she can’t do and the thing that struck me most was that every single take she did was completely different from the one before. She never thinks, Oh, I didn’t quite get that I’ll do it again better; it’s always re-invented each time and I was particularly impressed by that.”

“It was all frightening,” laughs Grant. “Working with Meryl Streep was obviously frightening and I was a little bit frightened of Stephen too as he’s got a bit of a reputation of making classy award-winning films, which is not really where I come from. I had to do a certain amount of serious acting in this and so it was all extremely intimidating for me. I ended up doing about a year’s worth of prep as we had to wait quite a while for Meryl to be available and it was the most prepared I’ve been for a film!”

The third character in the unique ménage that makes up the film is Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. The multi-talented and versatile Simon Helberg, best known for the American TV series The Big Bang Theory was cast in the role.

“Early on the film’s composer Alexandre Desplat told me not to cast an actor who couldn’t play piano at a high level,” says Frears. “My casting director in New York said ‘You want Simon Helberg.’ I met him and realised how funny and brilliant he is. He met Meryl and she immediately adored him. You can sense the warmth and affection between them.”

“It was a point of genius by the New York casting agent to think of Simon Helberg,” concurs Kuhn, “as not only is he a really great comic actor, but also a really great pianist. We really lucked out with him because watching someone just pretending to play the piano is awful.”

Helberg came to the film not knowing anything about the characters but the screenplay and the chance to work opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and with Stephen Frears sealed the deal for him. “When I read the script I ran the gamut of emotions. I laughed hysterically, I cried, I found it incredibly profound. It’s about a love of music but also a love of life and how our own perception of life wins out however much it may be off key. It reminded me of a line in Being There, ‘Life is a state of mind.’ There’s a purity to Florence, there’s no cynicism, it’s all for the music, she’s a dreamer. And Meryl is one of the most charming people ever to exist so that combination is pretty irresistible.”

Streep repays the compliment. “I didn’t know much about him when we first met but we hit it off right away. He’s so funny and smart. The movie comes alive when Simon is on screen as his character is seeing the movie from the audience point of view,” she says. “We’re very lucky to have Simon as he’s a brilliant comic, but he can also play these very difficult piano pieces. Stephen was right we couldn’t have done it without an actor who wasn’t an accomplished pianist. He had the hardest job of all as he has to play difficult pieces as well as react to what’s going on in the room. He’s just brilliant. He’s so alive and the playing is impeccable; he never made a mistake which is astonishing.”

Hugh Grant adds: “Simon was a genius piece of casting. He was perfect for the role and on top of that he’s a concert standard pianist! I hope people appreciate those are his hands playing the piano.”
Helberg was enchanted by the eccentricity of all the characters in the film, particularly McMoon. “They are these odd little flowers who bloom when Florence comes into their lives. She brings out all the best qualities in them. McMoon is a fish out of water and has no clue what he’s entering into at all. He’s fresh off the bus. He’s a good piano player but perhaps not concert level. He finds out immediately he’s entered the Twilight Zone and has no idea what is going on. He shares a love of music with Florence and there is no judgment in him, they both have an innocence. It’s fun to watch him wriggle around and try and get out of performing at the concert… he’s sweating a lot and that comes naturally to me.”

When it came to preparing for the shoot, Meryl Streep was required to master the art of singing badly. Streep trained as a singer and, as Stephen Frears points out, “to be able to sing badly you first have to be able to sing well.”

For the actress, it was a challenge she relished taking on. “I thought it would be a piece of cake as I can’t really sing that well, but it was much more difficult,” says Streep. “First of all Florence tackled the most difficult arias in the canon of operatic diva performances – she does The Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the Indian Bell Song from Lakme by Delibes. What makes it amusing is how close she comes – her voice approaches adequate – so it’s just when it goes wildly off that it gets hilarious. What interested me was that she was almost there and in her mind’s eye she was achieving it and that’s what kept her going.”

Streep trained with vocal coach Arthur Levy, beginning with singing them as well as she could. “Then we went off into the landscape of mistakes,” she says. “I didn’t think how Florence Foster Jenkins would have sang the arias I thought about how my Florence would have approached them. I remember hearing Irving Berlin playing his music and he was singing along and he was wildly off pitch! That made me think that maybe there’s that disconnect even in very accomplished musicians.”

For Streep it was the poignancy of Jenkins’ desire that struck a chord: “What’s heartbreaking – and heartbreakingly funny – is the aspiration. You can hear her take a breath, just a little bit too late to hit the note, but you can hear the aspiration, the desire, the love of music and how close she comes – that’s what’s so great.”

The astonishing thing was how close Streep came to sounding like the real Florence. “The first extraordinary moment was when Meryl began working on her singing voice to find the character of Florence through the music. It was vital that we get a sense of the real Florence through the voice and one afternoon she sent a sound clip of her singing as Florence and I couldn’t believe how she’d captured the tragedy and hilarity of Florence and I thought that’s it we’re fine, this is going to be great,” says Nicholas Martin.

“Despite a lifetime of lessons Florence still had a dreadful technique and does what all awful singers do which is force their voice,” says Martin. “She had this sub-glottal air pressure – which we describe as “defying medical science” in the film – where her chords didn’t phonate freely and were tense the whole time. Occasionally she would hit a good high note so there was this mixture of quite nice singing mixed with absolutely dreadful stuff. She would sing in Russian, German, French and Italian even though she couldn’t pronounce any of the words, so she would bludgeon her way through with total confidence and absolute sincerity.”

Hugh Grant, for one, was confident Streep could pull it off with panache. “I knew Meryl would be brilliant as she’s never been anything less, but it did occur to me how difficult it would be to reproduce bad singing that isn’t just bad singing but funny bad singing, as it would be easy to ham it up and go for laughs,” he says. “What makes the real Florence funny is that she really meant every word of it. The first time I heard Meryl do it was at the read through and it was sheer genius – she was giving it her all, believing in it, loving it but being unspeakably terrible.”

For Simon Helberg in the role of piano accompanist Cosme McMoon, the performance scenes proved a complex juggling game of acting and playing the piano. “Florence doesn’t have a sense of rhythm or pitch so Meryl would intentionally stumble all over the place and I would have to follow her – it was a little like tandem rock climbing, a sort of mirroring exercise. Her job was insanely hard, to be almost right but just off enough that it makes you cringe.”

The process of achieving this delicate balancing act was made easier with Stephen Frears at the helm. “Stephen gives you great latitude in terms of performance,” says Streep. “But if he wasn’t happy he would ask you to do it again, he just wouldn’t tell you how to do it. He has the confidence of all the great directors that I’ve worked with, that there’s no worry about whether they’ve made the right decision, they know it when they see it. That confidence gives actors the confidence to feel OK to give their all and expose themselves emotionally because you trust that he’s there and he’s got a really good eye. I really loved working with him.”

Frears’ deceptively laid-back attitude also struck home with the cast. “Stephen is extraordinarily unopinionated for a director, which is rather nice,” says Hugh Grant. “He doesn’t want to talk about back story or motivation; he just lets you get on with it.”

For Simon Helberg, it was Frears’ pace of work that impressed. “Stephen works incredibly fast so it’s almost as though the film is a living being!” he says. “It’s scary at first but it keeps it fun and alive. Stephen is totally collaborative but totally visionary; he’s not confused about what he should do, but sometimes he’ll ask what you think of the scene and it makes for a special atmosphere as everyone is trying to make the best film they can. He really understands about being a conductor; there’s no constant tinkering, it’s a well-oiled machine. He’s self-deprecating; it’s the balance of being serious about what you do, but not taking it too seriously.”

With filming complete, the team has high hopes for the film “It was heaven watching the film with an audience for the first time,” says Frears. “They laughed at more things than I expected them to. I think all the actors are wonderful and I was lucky to make this film with this cast and crew.”

Michael Kuhn agrees: “I think a story about an eccentric is not enough to make a good film. You need something more. Florence’s famous deathbed saying, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing”, is a very profound thought – if you love something, you should do it, even if you’re not very good at it. The film is also about kindness and about how a man who was down on his luck was given a life by this eccentric woman and in return she found someone to make her dreams come true. And all of us respond to someone who is ‘technicolor’ when they come into our life as they light up our world.”

Florence Foster Jenkins opens in cinemas all over the UK from 6 May