Brian Eno once said that, while only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, everyone who did went out and formed a band. Well, relatively few people have seen the cult classic Grey Gardens, but I’m willing to bet that everyone who has seen it has, at some point, tried to turn a skirt into a turban.
The bewildering and beloved 1976 documentary fervently embraced by fashionistas, film students, and gay men alike introduced the world to the 79-year-old Edith Bouvier Beale and her equally singular daughter, “Little” Edie. Cousins to the slick American princesses Jackie O and Lee Radziwill, the singing and dancing Edies were the crème de la crème of New England society until at some point, and for reasons never fully understood, they began to withdraw from the bright world of garden parties and cotillions into a private, increasingly bizarre world of their own making.
When Albert and David Maysles (of Gimme Shelter fame) began filming them after abandoning a Radziwill-proposed film about the glossier members of the Bouvier line the Edies had been living in almost total seclusion in Grey Gardens, their disintegrating and cat-infested East Hampton mansion, for nearly twenty years. The resulting film unfolds in a series of rambling vignettes, the excesses of which would make even Tennessee Williams blush. In between flirting with the camera and bickering with one another, the ladies perform like consummate, if somewhat dusty professionals: Big Edie warbles her greatest hits from the ‘40s while Little Edie performs military marches and models the “revolutionary costumes” she would become so famous for get-ups which included towels tied around her head and fastened with a brooch, or dresses buttoned backwards and hiked up over fishnet stockings. The film, which seems to ricochet between parody and pathos, provides a disquietingly intimate portrait of two women on the verge of an apparent breakdown.
And now it’s a musical.
It sounds like a punch line in a particularly bad drag show. (Why not Mommy Dearest on Ice? Someone already call dibs on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane: The Ballet?) That this musical instead turns out to be, in its premiere production at Playwrights Horizons, a sensitive, intelligent, and deeply moving piece of theater is nothing short of a small miracle.
But then, if you’re looking for someone to take on an outré topic and turn it into something that turns on the critics, Doug Wright is your go-to guy. The Dallas-born playwright has always been drawn to unrepentantly eccentric characters, from the Marquis de Sade in Quills, his breakout play, to Charlotte van Mahlsdorf, the sweet transvestite-cum-Stasi agent of I Am My Own Wife, which won Wright both the 2004 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award. But although he enjoys the ogle, Wright’s interest in his characters is never simply a prurient one. “I’m interested in iconoclasts, and people who live in deliberate opposition to the dominant culture,” he says during our interview. “I love people who are so singular they force society to reassess itself. And I think the Edies do that.”
Wright who, with his soft outline and trim goatee, suggests Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons if Comic Book Guy had grown up, lost the gut, and gotten that Ph.D., after all wasn’t always sold on the idea of a Grey Gardens adaptation. Composer Scott Frankel, who had been harboring dreams of a musical version for years, had already enlisted the help of his long-time writing partner, lyricist Michael Korie, when he approached Wright about writing the book (that is, all the spoken, non-sung dialogue in a musical). Wright initially demurred. “For about a year I said no; I really felt like it couldn’t be done.” His concerns were less about the project’s potential camp factor and more about the documentary’s freewheeling structure, which seemed resistant to dramatic shape. “To my conservative mind at least, the theater requires story. The documentary is rich in eccentricity and insight, but not on narrative and so I was very frightened of it. I also had such high regard for the movie; I was afraid that any attempt to adapt it would somehow make it less than it was.”
Then Frankel and Korie hit upon the musical’s structuring conceit: the first act would take place 30 years before the events of the film, when Big Edie was still a stylish East Hampton wife and Little Edie was still “Body Beautiful Beale”, the gorgeous young socialite who entertained marriage proposals from a Getty, a Rockefeller, and a Kennedy of her very own: JFK’s elder brother, Joe. The second act would then leap forward to 1973 and portray the women in all their familiar hothouse glory, giving literal form to one of Little Edie’s many philosophical asides from the documentary, and one of her most oft-quoted aphorisms: “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean?” (The snippet may be familiar to some PopMatters readers from having been sampled on the Rufus Wainwright song, “Grey Gardens.”) “That galvanized me,” Wright says. “I thought, that’s the beginning of narrative shape. Now I can see a way through the morass of this material, toward something theatrical.”
The split-time structure allows the musical to tackle the great, unspoken question that haunts the film: How the fuck did this all happen? While the documentary is content to let the issue hang in the air, monstrous and unresolved, the musical attempts to suggest some of the reasons behind the women’s shocking transformation. In the musical’s first act, several devastating events that are only obliquely alluded to in the film Little Edie’s broken engagement to Joe Kennedy; Big Edie’s disinheritance by her father; Phelan Beale’s decision get a Mexican divorce and then notify his wife of the news via telegram are collapsed into a single, cataclysmic afternoon, which begins with preparations for an engagement party and ends with crepe paper in your eyes.
By suggesting a causal link between the fictionalized afternoon in 1941 and the recorded events of 1973, the creators of the musical not only fashion a narrative arc for their play but also provide a psychological gloss on the Edies themselves. At the same time, Wright says, “we didn’t want to be so simplistic as to suggest that, you know, their relationships failed, so they became morbidly eccentric recluses for the next 30 years ... I hope there’s a balance between planting the seeds of their rather profound and shocking journey without reducing its mystery.”
The musical’s structure also allows for a more pointed condemnation of the social pressures that contributed to the Edies’ situation. The first act, with its frank depictions of casual misogyny and racism (for a recital in honor of her daughter’s engagement, Big Edie prepares a little minstrel ditty about how “all God’s chillun love hominy grits”), paints an unflattering portrait of high-class America in the ‘40s. “Which is the more oppressive, the Grey Gardens of the first act, or the Grey Gardens of the second?” Wright poses. “You could argue that endlessly, which is good.”
Christine Ebersole as “Little” Edie Beale and Mary Louise Wilson as Edith Bouvier Beale in a scene from the new musical Grey Gardens.
Photo: Joan Marcus
“Little Edie seems to regard Grey Gardens as a kind of prison, but I think the prison was the culture she was born into,” Wright avers. “I think she was a free-thinking woman, I think she was a highly sexualized woman, and I think the expression of any of those drives was something the culture roundly punished and rendered pathological. So it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: they told her she was inappropriate, they told her she was crazy, they told her she was too impetuous, they told her she was too sexual-so she became all of those things.”
The oppressive social dimensions of the Edies’ predicament gain a new poignancy due to the ardency with which the gay community has adopted the film. All three of the show’s writers are gay (“deeply gay”, as Frankel deadpanned at a recent event at the New York LGBT Center), and are acutely aware of the women’s symbolic power as gay icons. But if Little Edie demonstrates how to survive in a hostile world through “the delicate application of style to trauma”, as Wright put it at that same event, I always wondered if there wasn’t something problematic about the campy cult of personality that surrounds Little Edie, a woman so clearly damaged and disturbed by her own life. Do you have to ignore or disavow those parts of Edie, I asked, if you’re going to adore her?
“In the musical we certainly wanted to accord the women the full measure of their humanity, and that means their demons as much as their attributes. And I think” and here Wright takes a long pause “it’s possible to laugh at Little Edie, and celebrate her through kind of jaundiced or cynical eyes, and we didn’t want to do that. We really wanted to take her as seriously as we could.” (If you doubt this, just try to keep your upper lip from quivering during “Around the World”, Little Edie’s heart-stoppingly direct ballad in the second act. One gets the eerie but satisfying feeling that, as channeled through Christine Ebersole’s remarkable performance, Little Edie is finally being recognized as the virtuoso she always believed herself to be.)
“At the same time,” Wright goes on, “you want to gratify fans of the film. So I think Little Edie is funny; I think she’s caustic; I think she’s unexpected; I think she’s loopy. But I also hope in our second act she achieves real pathos and stature, because I think she had all those things. So I think that it’s hard, because and it’s not fashionable to say this, but I think when you’re growing up gay in this culture, the culture does damage you. And so if we celebrate her damage, it’s because we share it, and not because it’s different.”
But when it comes to really inflicting damage, of course, no one can top the people that birthed you. First and foremost, Grey Gardens is a story about parents and children and what Wright calls “the tender and tortured nature of that relationship.”
And yet, while they may fuck you up, your mom and dad, the creators of the show weren’t only interested in depicting how the Edies’ pain and resentment had calcified over the years. Before he gave his blessing to the musical, Albert, the surviving Maysles brother, made them swear that Grey Gardens would remain “a mother-daughter love story.” The writing team realized that, when Little Edie says to her mother, “You ruined my life and I love you,” both statements have to ring equally true.
“I’ll watch the film once and think, wow, Big Edie was really a toxic narcissist who forced her daughter to live according to her rules, and in doing so undermined her daughter’s entire life,” Wright says. “And then I’ll watch the documentary a second time and think, wow, Little Edie was really ill-equipped to live in the world; thank God her mother gave her sanctuary. And I think at the end of the day, both things are true. They’re not mutually exclusive. I think that, together, the Edies forged their path in a very perversely symbiotic way. And I think they forged each other. They were each other’s hand of God, in a way.”
The stage version of Grey Gardens ends up trading one kind of intimacy the suffocating closeness of the film camera for a very different one: an empathetic, emotional recognition of the Edies’ situation. By emphasizing the universal elements of the mother-daughter relationship, Wright, Frankel, and Korie prevent us from seeing the Edies at arm’s length. Take away the pissing cats, the threadbare glamour, and the hysterical theatrics, and what you’re left with looks a lot more familiar. “I hope parents leave with troubling and persistent memories of their children,” Wright says. “And I hope children leave with troubling and persistent thoughts of their parents. And then we’ll have achieved our goal, I think.”
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Grey Gardens opens at Playwrights Horizons, New York, on March 8, and plays through April 9.