18 December 2008

Listening to ‘Grey Gardens’

When Scott Frankel first told me he was writing a musical based on the Maysles Brothers’ film, Grey Gardens, I was skeptical. Make a musical out of a documentary? Why not start with something easier — like Nanook of the North?

I’d never seen Grey Gardens at the time. But one look was all it took to make me a believer. The film depicts Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, in their ramshackle, eponymous mansion in East Hampton. Reclusive, eccentric, possibly mad, Big Edie and Little Edie sing constantly — to music no one else can hear. Scott’s score (to lyrics by Michael Korie, with a book by Doug Wright) permits us to enter into the madness, and to locate ourselves within the Beales.

‘Grits’ in the worst possible taste: Ebersole as Big Edie in Act I

The show ran both Off- and on Broadway, and I saw it both at Playwrights Horizons in 2006 and at the Walter Kerr in 2007. In both productions, I marveled at the powerhouse performances of its leading ladies, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both of whom won Tony Awards for the show. Now Albert Maysles has produced a new documentary about the making of the musical; it airs Tuesday, December 23, as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, and I urge you to watch.

The Beales came to public attention when the town of East Hampton tried to condemn Grey Gardens, which had fallen into disrepair and squalor, and was overrun with cats and raccoons, besides. Big Edie’s more glamorous niece, Jacqueline Onassis, bailed them out, but not before the story hit the New York tabloids. By the time Albert and David Maysles filmed the Beales in 1975, the scandal had died down (though the house was still a wreck), and the women reminisce, bicker, and philosophize with élan. It’s one of the oddest pictures I’ve ever seen.

The success of the documentary rekindled Little Edie’s dreams of a career in show business. Ultimately, she never quite managed stardom in any conventional sense, but she set trends in the fashion world with her highly distinctive style, and her “staunch” character in the face of adversity has made her a role model for generations of gay men. She explains both style and substance in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” the opening number of Act II.

The musical begins on the eve of Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy, in the summer of 1941 (a reminder that the Kennedy–Bouvier connection got off to an early start). Big Edie is portrayed in Act I by the same actress who then plays Little Edie in Act II, set in 1975. The tangled similarities between mother and daughter — the qualities that unite the women and drive them to distraction — are made flesh for us. Scott’s score pretty much traces the development of the Broadway musical, as Big Edie prepares numbers to sing at the engagement party in Act I; my favorite, “Hominy Grits,” is pitch-perfect in its utter lack of taste. (In the old days, such numbers were called — brace yourselves — “coon songs.”) The music gets more complex as the show progresses, and by the time we get to the emotionally charged “Around the World” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” in Act II, Scott reveals a raw lyricism that leaves few unmoved.

Like mother, like daughter, like us:
Ebersole (Little Edie) and Wilson (Big Edie) in Act II

I’ve known Scott since 1986, when he was a rehearsal pianist for Rags, and his success is thrilling to me. Like the women and the movie that inspired it, Grey Gardens is defiantly odd; at times, it was hard to believe that such a strange piece was playing in a commercial theater. But, by golly, there it was, and it was glorious to see that Broadway still could find room for individuality, amid all the mass-produced entertainment machines that clog that fabled artery today. Scott’s got a new show, Happiness, coming in February to Lincoln Center Theater. I can’t wait.

No comments: