Interview: Grey Gardens

2006-4-7-grey-gardens2From November 2006:

The multi award-winning new musical “Grey Gardens” sold out Playwrights Horizon’s last season, and has just opened in its Broadway transfer. If you haven’t heard, this daring show is an adaptation of the cult 1975 documentary of the some name; it tells he incredible story of Jackie O’s most outrageous relatives, her eccentric aunt and cousin Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her adult daughter “Little” Edie.  Once among the brightest names in the post-WW II social register, these two women became East Hampton’s most notorious recluses, living in a dilapidated 28-room mansion—called Grey Gardens. Set in two eras – in 1941 when the estate was in its prime and in 1973 when it was reduced to squalor – the musical tells the fascinating story of two indomitable individuals. 

So what inspired this adaptation? “Scott Frankel, the composer, it was his idea,” says Christine Ebersole – the ecstatically-acclaimed leading lady who plays “Big” Edie in Act One and “Little” Edie in Act Two. “Scott and I had never worked together before this. I really didn’t know him before I started working on this show. I’d only met him once, in the kitchen of (“Hairspray” creators) Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman’s apartment, years ago.”

Frankel himself says that, while he knew people who loved the movie, it was still a hard sell: “All my fashionista friends loved the movie. But when I came to talk to people in theater circles about it, I was greeted with ‘I don’t know what that is, I’ve never heard of it—they totally didn’t get it.’ Even when they had heard of it, when I talked about making it into a musical I was met with blank stares.”

His love of the film came from a deeper place than just an admiration for “Little” Edie’s ability to create oddly glamorous outfits from random fabrics (which the musical pays tribute to in the second act’s opening number “Revolutionary Costume for Today”) “The thing tha drew me to the property,” says Frankel, “more than the fashion elements and the fact that the Beales were outsiders, was the way that ‘Little’ Edie was so prescient, so insightful. When she talks about war, it really connects with what we’re seeing today. She was really a seer in some ways.”

Once he started work on it, Frankel had his share of challenges. “Will You,” the act one closer which already sounds like a standard “was very hard to write. It’s a very pure, simple song which, oddly enough made it harder for me. As a composer I tend to do better when I can be complex. I find it hard to be still, but I think I succeeded with that song.

“What I do think I do well is know when a song should be about the music and when it should be about the words. Some composers—no names, please—are humorless. They take a funny lyric and they don’t know how to keep it funny. I think I’m a relatively funny guy, and when I got the very funny lyrics my writing partner Michael Korie wrote for “Revolutionary Costume,” I knew that song needed to be about the words.”

They also knew who their leading lady had to be. “Christine was our first choice,” Frankel admits. “She has so many gifts in so many styles. I’ve seen a lot of what she’s done, on-stage and on-screen. I’ve seen her be tragic, funny, emotional, high-class, working class. So many different colors. Usually, though, any given role would only use one part of her talent. So we thought, how great to give this bravura performer a bravura role to play, something that uses everything she’s got. She’s one of those people for whom more is better. The more different things she has to do the more she rises to the challenge. We both wanted to give her the best material we possibly can.”

Christine was easy to convince. “I had been obsessed with this movie for quite a while before they asked me to be in the musical,” enthuses Ebersole. “I love these women so much, feel such devotion to them. It makes it easier in a way to serve them, so I’m not as concerned about what I personally may or may not succeed at.  And, really, that was the whole genesis of this thing, the love of these women from the whole creative team.”

“I do think Little Edie called it as she saw it,” she continues. “There are those who say she was crazy, there are those who say she was a visionary. I just sort of see it as her point of view. As for ‘Big’ Edie, who I play in the first act, I think you sort of get an insight into the strength of Big Edie’s character…they were, they didn’t compromise. I mean I think they had to compromise a lot because of the station that they were born into, but I don’t think they compromised their soul, they never sold their soul. And I also identify with Big Edie in terms of my own love of singing and performing for people.”

That sounds familiar—I remember Christine saying “Ask me to sing I’ll do 45 minutes” in one of her legendary cabaret acts. I remind her of this and she gives a hearty laugh. “It’s really true,” she laughs. “It’s terrible, but yes I definitely identify with that part of her personality. So terrible—but fun for me!”

Once they found out they were moving to Broadway, Frankel and Korie set about making the show better, a task which Scott found very congenial. “I’m a rewriter, he says. “I can’t just imagine writing a show like Elton John, who just plops his songs down as problems for the director and others to solve. Nooo! There are misfires, there are opportunities and ideas. It’s a living thing with me. I have great examples of people who rewrite fearlessly, and I think that’s really the only way to write a really good musical.”

Asked why this show has proved so popular, Ebersole turns philosophical. “I think these women really speak with the voice of the disenfranchised, which I don’t think is a fringe issue these days. I think that America in general is being disenfranchised, having less of a voice in the political process. I mean, even if you are a Bush supporter, you’re feeling it. Our democracy is being hijacked—let alone the Treasury! I think that ‘Grey Gardens’ is really about the artist, the non-conformist up against the machine. I do feel a special connection to this piece, I feel protective like a mother lion, very attached to it.”

There’s one thing both composer and star feel strongly about: This musical, which has already received a cast album, needs to be re-recorded. Christine muses “that’s the interesting thing about art: It’s never finished, it just stops—a show keeps growing until the day it closes. I don’t know what they’re going to do, whether they’re going to record it now, they’ve got more than three new songs, and new lyrics. “

Frankel leans into to emphasize this point: “I would LOOVE to hear this show re-recorded. This is really the first time I’ve been produced on any kind of scale, my work had won some awards. But I’m on Broadway now, moving out of the ‘aging promising composer’ category. I’m proud of the new songs we’ve written, and I’d really love to see them reach a wider audience.”

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