(December 18, 2005)

Really Good at Singing Really Bad

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Judy Kaye has made a career singing just right.

She won the Tony Award playing Carlotta in "Phantom of the Opera" and was in the original cast of "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway.

So how does a singer known for her precision approach a role that calls for bad singing?

Precisely and happily.

Judy Kaye has been portraying Florence Foster Jenkins - the mid-20th-century socialite who gained fame as an atrocious singer - for more than a year, playing the York Theater, the Berkshires and now the Lyceum, in Stephen Temperley's play "Souvenir."

The key to Jenkins, she says, is that she was "happy in her work. That's the most important clue for me. That's what I feel I need to get right. It's the most fun I've ever had in a role and it's the best role I ever had."

She's doing it while singing flat, singing sharp, singing slow when the composer wanted fast and fast when the composer called for slow. It's the early rounds of "American Idol," set to Verdi or Mozart.

She's really, really, really bad.

Temperley's script leaves just how bad up to the actress. In describing Jenkins' performance, he writes only that it is a "series of wild shrieks and hoots."

The rest was up to Judy Kaye.

At the audition, Kaye recalls, conductor Jack Lee played Shubert's "Ave Maria" in one key and said, "Now pick any key you like and sing the same song while I play and stick to your guns."

What won Kaye the part, and what she developed in rehearsal, was an off-key, off-tempo, off-kilter style of singing that was, she says, kind of second nature.

"Singers, actors and dancers - especially after a couple of belts - will pretend they're bad," she says. "We'll always do that. It's just for fun. You start going off.

"The thing is to do it eight times a week and do it, if not exactly the same, close enough so that you're reproducing the work every night. The same as you're creating the character every night, you're also creating her musical mistakes or variations."

Co-star Donald Corren, who as the show's other character, Cosme McMoon, is charged with with accompanying "Madame Flo" at the piano, marvels at Kaye's attack.

"She is singing this like an opera singer approaches an aria. It's as if she's following a score that was written with those notes and those inflections. ... Her consistency is unbelievable."

"That could be all over the place," he says, "but it's not. It's amazing to work with her."

While "Souvenir" is subtitled a "fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins," there is a factual basis for some of "Souvenir."

"She would rearrange melodies sometimes, to suit how she was feeling," Kaye says. "If she didn't have the high note, she would just not sing it. That is a matter of historical fact.

So is the fact that she made best-selling records.

"She was an old lady when she made those recordings," Kaye adds, "but I understand she wasn't a whole lot better when she was younger."

While it may appear that Kaye is putting her voice at risk with her scoops, hoots and shrieks, she insists it isn't so.

"I shouldn't hurt myself doing this because pitch is made in the brain. Rhythm is made in the brain. It's not made in your throat, so I should not hurt myself."

When she squawks, she squawks carefully, she says.

"I find, interestingly, doing eight of these a week is making me stronger vocally.

"I've been doing this a long time," she says with a laugh, adding that while she has had coaches to learn operatic roles, she hasn't "studied or had a vocal coach since college."

She credits the public schools in her native Phoenix and one private teacher she had while a student at UCLA. After two years, "he said, `I've taught you everything I have to tell you. You should be able to get through any situation, any cold, any flu. If you have a problem, you have my number."

"It was an amazing thing to do," Kaye says. "Either he wanted me out - he couldn't take any more of me - or he was incredibly generous. Because it's very easy for teachers to keep taking your money and keeping you around there."

Judy Kaye's voice - the good one - is heard in concert dates. Last summer, she sang Harold Arlen songs at Caramoor in Katonah, accompanied by her musical director, Dennis Buck. She's played Mamaroneck's Emelin Theater, too.

She has had many accompanists. The dynamic is complex, she says. "It's a very, very intimate relationship that a singer, a musician, has with an accompanist. There's a kind of love-making that happens when the music is flowing and it's right. It's a communion."

Corren, the man accompanying Kaye in "Souvenir," does not have an easy chore keeping a straight face as the actress breathes life into an over-the-top character who sings the life out of any song she attempts. It took many rehearsals to keep from breaking up at Kaye's antics, Corren admits.

But there's a love story at work, too, both actors say.

"It's a valentine to anyone who believes in themselves," says Corren. "We watch a man who has some talent but doesn't believe in himself encounter a woman who has no talent and believes in herself 150 percent and never wavers."

Kaye isn't playing it for laughs, though she gets plenty. "But it has to all come from a real place or it isn't funny," she says.

There is a sweetness to the relationship in "Souvenir" that Corren says resonates with audiences.

"We always do the Cosme-Florence thing with anyone we love. How much truth do you tell? How much of your perception do you hide?

"`Sure, those pants look great on you. No, no, they do. You look just as thin as you think. You do.' Only in `Souvenir' it's `Yes, you can sing in Carnegie Hall.' It's the same thing."

Temperley's genius, he says, is to make Cosme aware of her lack of talent and then have to watch her sing at Carnegie Hall.

"I've talked to people who I knew to be quite tone-deaf," Kaye says. "And I'd ask them: `When you're in the shower and you're singing "I Could Have Danced All Night," what are you hearing?' "And they're hearing Julie Andrews singing `I Could Have Danced All Night.'

"The point the play makes," she says, "is that what matters most is what you hear in your head. If it's good to you, it's good. If it gives you joy, then it's right."

Even if it's really, really, really wrong.