The Daily Beast’s singing sensation Jen Yamato on how she made it all the way to the Carnegie Hall stage. Eat your heart out, Florence Foster Jenkins. “>
Getting to Carnegie Hall, the old joke runs, takes practise, practise, practise. Or: You can be invited to take a once-in-a-lifetime prow on the most famous stage in New York City by a movie studio promoting the Meryl Streep period biopic Florence Foster Jenkins , a flick about a remarkable beginning of this century lady of remarkably dubious vocal talent who managed to sell out Carnegie Hall despite having what many still consider the worlds worst voice.
Thats the tragicomic legend of Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite and lifelong music devotee who befriended and financed the great composers of the early 20 th century and dreamed of becoming a world-class soprano herself. When a debilitating hand injury cut short a youthful piano career, she molded herself into a middle-aged patroness-songbird whose shriekingly pitchy recitals were nevertheless celebrated by circles of close, forgiving, maybe delusional sympathizers.
According to the Stephen Frears-directed drama, Jenkins was a friendly if complicated lady who loved to throw potato salad lunches and utterly lived for music. She was, very probably, a delight.In 1944, at the age of 76, Jenkins dared to take her lifelong dream to Carnegie Hall. In front of a sold-out mob of thousands, she sang screechy, cacophonous opera. But for the first time the audience included mainstream music critics not in her pocket. The review demolished her. As Flo-Fo-Jenks story runs, the shocked socialite suffered a heart attack weeks later and succumbed within months.
Did Jenkins perish of a broken heart or a wounded ego, her indomitable spirit crushed by those bully critics? Well, it mightve been the syphilis shed contracted on her wedding night at the age of 17, or the drug doctors prescribed at the time for told conditiona restorative cocktail of mercury and arsenic, which also likely ruined her voice, hearing, and nervous system.
Yet in Florence Foster Jenkins , the incomparable Meryl Streep manages not only the impossible for Meryl Streepto sing awfully, on purposeshe also lends a deeply human spirit to the woman who, yes, coasted on privilege for years, but also faced down the ultimate challenge for any intrepid soul attempting the extraordinary at health risks of utter failing: Smiling in the faces of her haters. People may say I cant sing, Jenkins is said to have once told, but no one can ever say I didnt sing.
Thats the admirably unsinkable view thats stuck with me in the month since I accepted Paramounts offer to take the very same stage at Carnegie Hall to warble a ditty for posterity. Singing at Carnegie Hall is an impossible dream for so many actual singers who toil and persevere their entire lives for a chance like this. Who was I to say no?
Well, what can I say? Insane supposes run through your mind when you know youre about to do something risky in front of strangerseven if Carnegies main hallway, with 2,804 seats on five pristine levels that have hosted legendary performances since 1891, was completely empty for me. As I awaited my Carnegie moment I marveled at the other singers took their turn in the spotlight, like YouTube sensation James Wright Chanel, who slayed with a transcendent rendition of The Wind Beneath My Wings. The moment he finished he strolled offstage in a goddamn cape, his run not only done but demolished in every way.
My buddy Devin Faraci, one of a handful of fellow journalists brought in to take the stage alongside a whole lot of talented trained musical theater veterans, professional singers, and the Broadway cast of The Color Purple , sang Bruce Springsteens Born To Run accompanied by a flawless pianist named Bette, who, we were told, happen to be Bette Midlers pianist. As you do on a Tuesday morning. Ive insured him sing Springsteen a thousand times in karaoke bars, and yet hearing it performed onstage with a live piano and committed, full-bodied gusto, it rung out with a vibrant new life of its own and shook the rafters at Carnegie Hall.
Singing in a hallowed cathedral like Carnegie Hall is not, in fact, anything like singing karaoke. Theres no safety in the dark , no shared communal shame of other plebes belting out liquor-fueled pop tunes with abandon, because youre all in this together and hey , no one ever expects to hear good singing at karaoke. At karaoke, Im fearless. I will accept all challenges. And Ive seen incredible things, sharing in the unabashed humanity of strangers singing awfully, and sometimes wonderfully, together.
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