"People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." The line is famously attributed to New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, whose notable lack of singing ability has been immortalized — first on Broadway by Judy Kaye in the Stephen Temperley play Souvenir, and now on the silver screen by Meryl Streep in the new film Florence Foster Jenkins, opening August 12.
The film, which also stars Hugh Grant as Jenkins' adoring husband St. Clair Bayfield and Simon Helberg as her enabling accompanist Cosmé McMoon, follows Jenkins through the later years of her vocal delusions, performing concerts for finely curated groups of friends until finally, at the age of 76, fulfilling her dream of singing at the legendary Carnegie Hall where mocking critics took their long-awaited punches.
While humorous imitations of Madame Florence's renditions of "Queen of the Night" and the like have been the trademark of the Jenkins narrative, her story, whether on stage or on screen, is always laced with sincere admiration. History has decisively forgiven her lack of talent in reverence of her blind fortitude and indefatigable passion, turning her from the butt of a joke into an unlikely hero.
Nowhere is that kind of cockeyed optimism valued more strongly than on Broadway, the land of dreams and greater fools — so it's no wonder the Broadway community jumped aboard the Florence Foster Jenkins bandwagon to share some of that spirit with aspiring young artists through the #MyCarnegieMoment campaign.
Two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, last seen on Broadway in the title role of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, reached out to her 60,000 Twitter followers and selected Lara Akal (from Osnes' hometown in Minessota) and Connecticut natives Juan Ayala and Lauren Lichac to make their Carnegie Hall debuts. Their solo performances on the iconic stage followed a one-on-one coaching session with Osnes, who — as someone who won her Broadway debut in Grease after winning a reality competition show at the age of 21 — jumped at the chance to lend her expertise.
"I got super excited about it and immediately jumped on board," said Osnes. "It can be a little daunting, but it's also so rewarding and fulfilling as a performer to get to sing on this iconic stage. It's one of those bucket list things you get to check off."
Osnes made her own Carnegie Hall debut in 2008 during her run in Grease, performing with the New York Pops for a concert honoring Broadway producers James M. and James L. Nederlander. "It was like dream come true," she recalled. "I sang "Hopelessly Devoted" with the orchestra. It was amazing, [but] I was very nervous."
From the wings of the stage, Osnes watched her young protégés perform their songs — Akal singing "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid, Ayala singing Stranger from Big Fish, and Lichac singing "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd.
"What I tried to tell these kids today is that we've been given a gift, and this is an opportunity to share it on one of the most iconic stages in the world," said Osnes. Then taking some inspiration from the woman of the hour (being sure to add the caveat "These kids can all sing well"), she said, "Florence sings with heart. The love that you have for the music — that's what needs to shine through today."
Aside from the traditional formula of "practice, practice, practice," that Florence Foster Jenkins brand of heart just may be that extra ingredient that will get you to Carnegie Hall.
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