Keeping the Line Between the Past and the Present

Nina Shen Rastogi

Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright talks to Performance Oriented about his new stage adaptation of Grey Gardens; or, How to Make 'Morbid Eccentrics' Sing and Dance.

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."

Doug Wright

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."

* * *

Grey Gardens opens at Playwrights Horizons, New York, on March 8, and plays through April 9.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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