by Stela Burdt, Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member
This summer I had two of the greatest honors an artist could ask for; one was portraying Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir and the other was bringing my own child to a full length theatrical performance for the first time in his life.
When we first chose Souvenir, I fell in love with the idea of an off-pitch singer who was absolutely indomitable in her desire to be a successful opera diva, but I didn’t know just how special the relationship between Cosme and Florence was until we first performed it for audiences. It wasn’t only Madame Flo’s child-like belief in herself that moved people, but also the true, loving friendship that developed between Florence and her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Despite all the off-key notes and tense moments, their friendship stood the test of time and deepened into a true partnership. If only we could all be so lucky as to have a friendship as strong as theirs, the world, I believe, would be a much better place.
While I was having fun collaborating on Souvenir, my husband, Scott Dixon, was working on The Three Musketeers. At home, our young son of five and a half years, was absolutely smitten by the idea that his dad was learning swordplay. Scott and I showed Kieran, whom we call Little Bear, a couple of movie versions of The Three Musketeers, and read him bits from an abridged version of the novel, to help prepare him for seeing the show live on stage. When it came time to bring him to the theatre, he’d already memorized the names of all three Musketeers and D’Artagnan (he even says it with a French accent!).
At first, I was anxious about how Little Bear would react. He’s very outgoing and I was nervous he would talk too much during the show. We came with two of his friends, and they all insisted we sit in the front row. My stomach was in knots. Little Bear, however, was completely engaged. Did he wiggle around? Yup, and he even moved seats to crawl into my lap. He whispered into my ear fairly often, sometimes to ask a question about what he was seeing, but often to report who was a bad guy and who was a good guy. The big moment came right before the end of Act One. The Musketeers say the traditional “All For One”, and Sabine responds with “And One for All!” HOWEVER, in the pause between the men speaking and her response, Little Bear enthusiastically jumped right in and yelled “AND ONE FOR ALL!” Callie, who portrays Sabine, waited a moment, then finished the act by saying her line. The entire cast was on stage, holding their expressions as best they could, though their twinkling eyes clearly showed they were about to crack up at Little Bear’s expression of love for the Musketeers.
So we’ve had a fun summer at our house. Little Bear has also seen Souvenir and on occasion he would mention “that show where you are the funny singing lady, Mommy.” When we wrapped up our production recently, I realized this was probably the show I have had the hardest time saying goodbye to in my entire acting career. I think this was the first one that spoke so deeply to me because of how deeply it impacted our audiences, even younger children. Following one performance, I was given a homemade cookie baked by a young girl in the audience. She said to me, “well, you just did something really nice for me by putting on such a great show so I thought I’d do something nice for you.” I did not want those special times to end. But as Madame Flo says “If only the music could go on forever, Cosme. But of course it can’t. Of course it has to end.” And so it did, until I realized the music would go on, just in a way I never expected it to.
Last week, as he was practicing his piano, Little Bear asked me to come stand near him. “Mommy, I’m doing Souvenir so you be the funny singing lady.” I was gob-smacked. He wanted to play Souvenir, not be a musketeer today?! I took a breath, and began to sing. Florence took the stage once more, in her very own living room, with her very own son. I sang off-key for him, and when the song was done he insisted I talk like the funny lady, and so we got ready to head off to school with me talking with my Madame Flo mid-Atlantic accent.
And so we continue to make Art. And it changes us and moves us. And it changes and moves the people—even the youngest among us—who listen to us too.