Performing Arts

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In 1973, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles visited Grey Gardens, a dilapidated 28-room mansion on Long Island, to shoot a documentary about two eccentric women. Edith Bouvier Beale, or Big Edie, and her daughter Little Edie Beale were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When the Maysles arrived, the two were living with more than 50 cats in relative squalor, bickering, dancing and singing.

(Soundbite of movie Grey Gardens)

HANSEN: The documentary became a cult favorite. And this Tuesday an off-Broadway musical based on Grey Gardens opens at Playwrights Horizons in New York. A few weeks ago the show's three creators sat down to talk to us about the production, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and Doug Wright, who wrote the book for Grey Gardens. Doug Wright explained how he came to know the two Edies.

Mr. DOUG WRIGHT (Writer, Grey Gardens): I was in a Brooklyn video store and I remember I was just hungry for something to watch and I went to the documentary shelf and there was this odd little woman in an ill-fitting snood staring out at me from a stack of DVDs and a tattered fur coat standing before what looked like a haunted mansion, almost challenging me to take her home. And so I did, and what followed were 90 of the most hilarious, harrowing and ultimately touching moments that I'd experienced in recent memory.

HANSEN: Michael Korie?

Mr. MICHAEL KORIE (Lyricist, Grey Gardens): I had seen the documentary of Grey Gardens and was very intrigued, but I never thought of it as a musical at all until Scott Frankel mentioned it and I thought it was an insane idea.

HANSEN: Scott Frankel, it was your idea to turn Grey Gardens into a musical?

Mr. SCOTT FRANKEL (Composer, Grey Gardens): Guilty as charged.

HANSEN: What on earth possessed you?

Mr. FRANKEL: I just thought since both women were so colorful and stage struck in their way, the mother was a chanteuse in her youth and liked to sing sometimes inappropriate but parlor songs in her salon, that the daughter keeps insisting in the documentary that she wanted to be a great dancer.

And I thought that they also had an incredible exhibitionist performing energy to them, not to mention a real affection for American popular music, particularly the standards of the 30s and 40s. And I thought all those things coupled together, since they were sometimes perhaps frustrated performers, but performers nevertheless, that that would lend itself to a musical, and that we could tell the story and we could weave these performing instincts into it that might lend itself naturally.

(Soundbite from musical Grey Gardens):

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) There's a clear future, great disparity, ought to keep us happy as, happy as, as a clam...

HANSEN: What was the first piece of music you wrote for the show?

Mr. FRANKEL: Mike and I wrote a song called Two Peas in a Pod. If you know the documentary, the mother listens very intently to Tea for Two, and rather than try to use the existing music from the film, which of course would be a bit of a rights' nightmare, but I also thought if we're reinventing for the stage, we really ought to reinvent it on our terms, but still have an affectionate wink to the movie. So instead of Tea for Two we have Two Peas in a Pod.

(Soundbite from musical Grey Gardens)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) We're a bowl of peaches and cream. The Dodgers in Brooklyn, a permanent team. India and Gandhi, Dagwood and his Blondie, two peas in a pod.

HANSEN: Michael Korie, you thought that this was an idea from another planet and yet you acquiesced apparently to Scott's idea and began to write...

Mr. KORIE: Well, I'm always interested in new ways of telling stories through music, and though I thought it was insane, that was perhaps the greatest draw for me. I didn't have the answers. They didn't really come until after a year of discussion, and what we evolved into was I think a very original way of telling a story where basically you have to view the entire show to know what the story is about. I'm finding that our audiences are on the edge of the seat because they don't know exactly where we're going and how we're going to pull it all together until the last 15 minutes of the show. And that is very gratifying to me.

HANSEN: Doug Wright, let's talk a little bit about the book. The first act is almost an operetta and the second act is more in the style of the documentary, where Christine Ebersole as Little Edie is addressing the audience and the audience is playing the part of the camera. What was behind the decision to structure Grey Gardens in this different way?

Mr. WRIGHT: I'd resisted joining the project because I felt like the film was edited in a free-associative way and a non-narrative way. And obviously, when you put material on the stage, it needs at least the shape of story.

So one day Michael and Scott were at lunch and Scott had the inspired idea of splitting the evening into two very autonomous acts, the first set in 1941 when the house was at its heyday, and the second in 1973 when the documentary was filmed.

When you watch the film, some of the most striking and stunning moments are when the women pull out scrapbooks of the past and you see them in sepia photographs and you see the house in all of its splendor. And what we've done with the musical is we've plucked all those sepia photos and placed them uniformly in Act 1 and all of the grainy colored documentary footage becomes Act 2.

(Soundbite from musical Grey Gardens)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (in Grey Gardens) I have to get my voice exactly back the way it was when I was 45 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (in Grey Gardens) I have to get my voice exactly back the way it was when I made this record. Exactly like it was when I was 45 years old. Face it, kid, time is a speed. You can't get it back. You can't. Oh, yes I can. Oh, yes. My voice is beautifully trained. I never strained it...

HANSEN: Act 2, the words are taken directly from the documentary. Were there things that you knew you had to keep and then how did you decide what to keep and what to give away?

Mr. WRIGHT: It's a great question and in fact I would posit that there are almost as many lines from the film in the first act. You just hear them in a radically different context so you might not recognize them as the famous bon mots from the movie. The lines we opted to keep from the film weren't because they're beloved chestnuts by the hardcore fans, but because we felt they were the lines that contained the most astute psychological truth about the women themselves.

(Soundbite from musical Grey Gardens):

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (in Grey Gardens) Everything a person could want. You've got writing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: (in Grey Gardens) No, I want freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (in Grey Gardens) Well, you can't get it when you're being supported.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: (in Grey Gardens) You can't?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (in Grey Gardens) You can't get any freedom when you're being supported.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: (in Grey Gardens) Well, I think you're not free when you're not being supported.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (in Grey Gardens) Nope, you can't.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: (in Grey Gardens) It's all for both ways I'm thinking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: (in Grey Gardens) I have no complaints. I've got everything a person could want right here. oh, you had a rich husband you should've stayed with him. I had a perfect marriage, beautiful children, terribly successful marriage...

Mr. WRIGHT: The over-arching question that hangs over the documentary is how did this happen to them? How did this happen to, not only American royalty, that they're Bouviers, that they in some ways were our first family, that coupled with these images in the film of the women when they had beauty and youth and promise and they're current decrepit surroundings and filth, the challenge of the documentary becomes an issue of truth. Whose version of the truth, it becomes very subjective, and I think that sometimes even as you watch Grey Gardens, the more information you think you have, the less sure you are about exactly what happened.

HANSEN: Michael Korie, in adapting a documentary film to a musical form, where were you looking for inspiration for lyrics for a song to give, for example, Little Edie something that is better sung than fed?

Mr. KORIE: Thirty years passes between Act 1 and Act 2, and people change a lot during that. I was interested in planting seeds in Act 1 of what Little Edie would become and what Edith would become in Act 2, but not showing it to be the same thing 30 years before.

(Soundbite of musical Grey Gardens):

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) and I'm still a girl (unintelligible) in my carnival crowd. (Unintelligible) I'm hurting. Then glance in the mirror and who do I see, a middle-aged woman inhabiting me, because it's winter in summertime.

HANSEN: Is the heart of this story of their relationship?

Mr. KORIE: The filmmaker Albert Maysles suggested to us that one reason for the movie's enduring popularity above and beyond its camp, iconic status, is the fact it's a deeply compelling mother/daughter love story. And that's what interested us, because we may have not lives as eccentric as the two Edies, but we all have parents and we all know what that relationship is and I think that the remarkable thing about parenting, whether they mean to or not, parents both inflict the lasting wounds and also tenderly and lovingly apply the bandages. And that at the end I think is the story of Grey Gardens.

HANSEN: Doug Wright wrote the book, Michael Korie wrote the lyrics and Scott Frankel wrote the music for the new musical Grey Gardens. The show opens Tuesday at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Big Edie was 80 years old when she died in 1977. Little Edie sold the Grey Gardens estate in 1979 and moved to Florida. Before Little Edie died in 2002 at the age of 84, she gave her blessing to the Grey Gardens musical. To see photos and hear a song from the stage production of Grey Gardens, visit our web site, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.

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