While the recent 66th Annual Grammy Awards celebrated the best in music from the past year, Runway Theatre is set to celebrate the so-called “worst singer in the world” when its latest production takes the stage on Feb. 9.
“Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World” is a comedy based on the real-life tale of a New York City socialite who can’t ever seem to hit the right note, except when it comes to capturing the hearts and minds of those around her. Despite not being able to hold a tune, Florence Foster Jenkins winds up holding the attention of the city as her unlikely career takes her all the way to a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall.
“Florence Foster Jenkins was the worst singer ever, but that did not stop her from singing,” Janette Oswald, who stars as Jenkins in the Runway Theatre production, said. She described Jenkins in the show as “optimistic and excited,” with the kind of personality that helped bring her fans and friends alike.
“I just feel like that’s the way that she gets all the fans that she has is that she’s such a great person that everybody just wants to be around her and decides to mostly forgive her bad singing,” Oswald said.
Oswald has wanted to perform as Jenkins for years, dating back to seeing the 2016 Meryl Streep-led film “Florence Foster Jenkins.” When she found out about the auditions for the Runway Theatre production, however, she wound up facing a rather ironic roadblock. The theater was looking for someone who could sing well and would then learn to sing poorly for the show.
“I don’t sing well, but I am very good at singing badly,” Oswald said.
Undeterred, Oswald reached out to the show’s director, Byron Holder, on Facebook and asked if she would be wasting the theater’s time if she auditioned. Holder told her to try out, and Oswald soon found herself with the role.
“It’s hysterical,” Leigh Wyatt Moore, who plays Jenkins’ fictional best friend Dorothy, said of seeing and hearing the show come to life at rehearsals.
Moore described how much she’s enjoyed working on the show and playing Dorothy, especially considering that she and Oswald are close friends off the stage as well. She explained that the show is far from a musical, noting the lack of full songs or giant group numbers, instead referring to how its comedic elements are its true strength.
“There’s some really funny stuff in the show,” Oswald said, echoing Moore by describing how the play utilizes plenty of double entendres and humor that “only grown-ups will get.” “That should be the draw, not my singing.”
Beyond the comedy, “Glorious!” focuses on Jenkins’ friends and musical collaborators, taking cues from her real life to help tell an ultimately heartwarming and inspirational story about the importance of friendship and perseverance.
The show dives into many of Jenkins’ personal relationships. It also touches on one of the more significant questions that comes with her story in whether or not she and her friends realized her lack of vocal skill.
“As far as (her) singing, I do believe that she really thought she sang well,” Moore said, adding that she plays Dorothy as if she has a similar belief in Jenkins but chooses to focus more on her role as a supportive friend with her performance. She compared it to how contestants on “American Idol” who obviously can’t sing become angry when criticized by the judges.
In fact, Jenkins’ own father didn’t believe in her singing ability. As a result, she never received support from him in her pursuits, instead inheriting money after his passing that would go on to help sustain her career.
Beyond that strained relationship, Jenkins also married as a teenager, contracting syphilis from her husband prior to the end of their relationship.
Six years after the separation, she met actor St. Clair Bayfield (Greg Phillips), who would become her partner and manager. She would also meet Cosmé McMoon (Brendan Tetter), the pianist who would accompany her throughout her career.
Oswald and Moore singled out Tetter’s performance as McMoon, praising him for his piano playing in the production and his efforts at developing the character.
“I would like (audiences) to become invested in Cosmé’s journey because he begins not a believer and he ends up loving Florence, and I believe that part of the message is family is who you want them to be,” Oswald said, calling the play a story about “perseverance and doing what you want against all odds and making your life what you want it to be.”
Both Oswald and Moore hope the show’s heart and humor make the comedy as fun for audiences as it has been for the cast.
“I just want (audiences) to have fun because we’re having fun on stage,” Moore said.
The Runway Theatre production of “Glorious! The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the Worst Singer in the World” runs from Feb. 9-25. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.runwaytheatre.com/.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.