Grey Gardens received its European premiere at the Southwark Playhouse opened on 2 January and has quickly proved to be the first must-see show of 2016. This quirky musical takes its inspiration from the 1975 feature-length documentary of the same name – indeed, it’s the first Broadway musical based on a documentary – turning the spotlight on two fading members of American aristocracy, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale: aunt and cousin, respectively, of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
In their crumbling 14-room mansion in East Hampton, Long Island – the Grey Gardens of the title – the bickering mother and daughter relive their past glories and plot their return to fame, all the while wrangling the countless cats and raccoons that have infested their once-glorious home. The musical version – which is already sold out for its entire run at Southwark – stars Sheila Hancock as Big Edie and Jenna Russell as Little Edie, and contrives an Act I flashback to the 1940s in order to show just how privileged these two society women were, highlighting also the extent of their fall from society life.
Its creators are composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright. Frankel and Korie are responsible for shows such as Far From Heaven, Finding Neverland and Happiness, while Wright – an Academy Award nominee for his script for the movie Quills, and a Pulitzer winner for his play I Am My Own Wife – provided the books for the musicals The Little Mermaid and Hands on a Hard Body.
On the day after opening night, the trio joined Craig Glenday on Tom Rogers’ beautifully dilapidated set at Southwark to discuss the show’s genesis and reception. Craig started by asking how the London audience received the premiere.
Michael Korie: We were here last night and the audience loved it – they all stood up at the end and that’s good enough for me. I don’t go out of my way to read reviews any more. If they send them, I’ll read, but I don’t stay up all night and buy the early morning newspapers!
Doug Wright: We’re very fortunate: it’s been seen in Tokyo, and in Rio and various other locations, and it’s always particularly exciting to watch it in a foreign country because this is when you really see the universal vérité in the work. How every family has that lone eccentric or that cantankerous, challenging individual that they try to either rehabilitate or conceal from the world. I think that’s cross cultural.
Scott Frankel: Although, that said, there was a friend of mine last night, a Brit, who thought that sometimes those things aren’t talked about in public in this country, if there’s something ‘off’ about someone or if there’s something in one’s family. He thought it was interesting that we were shining a light on some behaviours that are not discussed openly here.
Now of course we have reality television everywhere, but the film was an early version of that, going inside someone’s home and exposing or shining a light on someone’s life.
The interesting thing is that both women were educated and spoke such a beautiful language. We don’t sound like that today but they did. [Attempting Little Edie’s unique accent] “It’s awfully difficult to keep the line between the past and present.” It’s a pearl of a sentence! It’s sounds like it’s from a play. There’s something so theatrical about them, their language, how they talk. They’re larger than life.
Who came up with the idea to create a musical from this source material?
DW: The mad man in the hat there! [points to Scott].
SF: Guilty! I was always fascinated by these women; the fact that they were both so hungry to be understood and wanted an audience so badly, that they were both such exhibitionists and performers. I thought maybe an audience in the theatre could function the same way that the cameras function in the documentary… that they finally had a way to show themselves off to someone else, to be seen and heard. I think that that’s what both women wanted, to be seen and heard. And if you’re living in close confines with someone, that person sees and hears you but there’s too much baggage there: you want to be validated by other people. So that and the fact that they both loved music so much – music and dancing – made me want to write a show. I still had no idea how we were going to make it into a musical, though, and everyone thought I was insane. Well, I am insane!
The documentary is often criticised for being exploitative, although I personally don’t think it is…
SF: And the women didn’t either. There was the suggestion at the time that they were duped into participating in the documentary and that they didn’t know how exposed they’d be but they wrote a letter to The New York Times – it was never published but we’ve seen it – and it says we were not duped and we fully participated in this, knowing exactly what we wanted to show.
We’re fond of recounting that Little Edie once said that she “adored the documentary” but that she wished there was more singing and dancing. So we like to think that we’ve obliged her by writing a musical.
SF: I think she’d love it, but she’d want to be in it!
MK: She knew that a musical would be happening before she died. Albert Maysles [the filmmaker responsible for the original documentary] wrote and told her.
DW: And she said something really memorable. “It must be historic…”
SF: Yes, she said “I’d be thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!” She hand wrote it in a very girlish script. She said: “I’d be thrilled, thrilled, thrilled” – exclamation point – “with the idea of Grey Gardens as a musical. It must have all of mother’s sheet music and songs. With all that I didn’t have, my live was still joyous.” A rather nice, posthumous blessing hanging over us!
What did you think of the casting here at Southwark?
MK: Oh my goodness, it’s wonderful!
DW: Staggering. All three writers were delighted. It’s such an honour to have such significant talents apply themselves to our work. I mean, to think that Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell took on these roles is just, for us, moving. We’re incredibly touched that they’ve applied their formidable talents to our work. And the rest of the cast is extraordinary.
SF: They way we conceived it, Jenna plays the mother in Act I and the daughter in the second. In the States, some people call this the King Lear of musical theatre female roles because there’s so much singing – and so many different kinds of singing. In the Act I she has to sing soprano stuff and she has to do the ridiculous ‘Hominy Grits’ song, then in the Act II she has completely different material: high, low, difficult. So it’s a big sing, as we say.
Jenna must be exhausted every night…
SF: Yes, but she doesn’t seem to be. And she vapes! [Mimes inhaling an e-cigarette]. We were doing the lighting last week and she asked [inhales dramatically] “Do you think Edith would vape?” I said no, but vape away!
In this country, there’s a bit of a prejudice against actors in musicals. Because there’s the suggestion here that real actors are doing the classics and the standard plays, at the National or the RSC, or what have you. Then [with flamboyant flourish] there’s musicals, which are somehow less worthy. In the States, there’s more of a blur. A piece like this that needs great singing but also makes huge acting demands. It’s what Doug always wants, which is actors first, singers second. Even I as the composer understand that they have to be able to act. And this company does both wonderfully.
I’m a big fan of Sondheim, who also swears by this rule…
SF: Sondheim started the blur. It’s not like Guys and Dolls, where if you’ve got a great voice and can dance, you don’t have to be able to play Ibsen. In this – and Sondheim started it – you need to be able to do both just as well.
What do you think of Jenna’s accent?
DW: It’s unnervingly accurate.
MK: It’s not just having an American accent, it’s an American aristocracy Long Island accent! There’s actually some really ugly sounds in there. But Jenna’s totally got it.
How did you three meet?
DW: Our deep, dark secret was that we went to university together. Scott and I –
SF [interrupting]: We’re not going to say what year!
DW: – have known each other for an embarrassingly long time, and this is the relative newbie [indicates Michael]. You two have been working together for how many years?
Have you had any reaction from the Bouviers or the Beales?
MK: Yes. Lee Radziwill [a cousin of the Bouvier-Beales who appears in the original documentary and is depicted as a young girl in the musical] came to see it, as did many of the cousins. There are a great many cousins of the Bouviers! Gould’s brother showed up [Gould was Edith’s live-in composer friend] and, most surprising, the real Jerry [the Bouvier-Beale’s young factotum, known by Little Edie as The Marble Faun]!
SF: The Marble Faun! Jerry read in the newspaper about the musical and he contacted us and said ‘I happen to be the real Jerry, the teenage handyman who helped them around the house’. He’s currently a cab driver in New York City – and a visual artist – and we got to know him very well. He was deeply supportive of the show.
When the show was running on Broadway, he’d bring his cab to the kerb outside the Walter Kerr Theater about 10:45pm and pick up patrons as they left. If they said warm things about the show on the ride home, he’d disclose his identity!. If they were critical, he’d never tell them. But it amused us greatly to know that the actual Jerry was driving patrons home from the theatre.
MK: The cousins would come to the show and hang out afterwards to talk. ‘Why did she lose her hair?’ ‘It was alopecia.’ ‘No, she pulled it out.’ Lee Radziwill went backstage into the dressing room to visit with the star [Christine Ebersole] when it was on Broadway and they chatted for about half an hour. ‘What did you talk about?’ I asked. Christine said: ‘How moved she was to see herself as a child, to see her grandmother, her cousins and her aunt, and how sad it was.’
SF: Jerry was moved by it as well. He looks at that time that he spent as a kid with these two women who kinda mothered him –
MK: He loved them.
SF: – but also used him as a pawn to get at each other. Their competition reared itself over Jerry as well. But he has great affection for the musical.
MK: He said it changed his life. He said that he’d always had an ambition to be a sculptor, and after the musical he enrolled in the Arts Student League [of New York] and actually had a show of stones that he had sculpted.
DW: Edie’s brothers had passed but their sons came, the Beales.
SF: Yes, either Bud or Phelan Jnr’s sons.
MK: And the new owners of the house came, and their children.
Did you get to visit the real Grey Gardens?
SF: We did! We got to go, and they were very kind. Of course, it’s been completely cleaned up and renovated, but there’s a beautiful walled garden that she talks about in the documentary – the Spanish walled garden – that’s still there. They let us go up into the attic for a poke around. It’s a bit of a crawl space, but there were steamer trunks that had ‘PB’ written on them, for Phelan Beale, and stuff that was there from 60 years ago. You kinda got a whiff of the past in there.
When you watch the documentary, you can see that the home is in a hideous state. And particularly Edith’s bed…
SF: The amazing thing is that is after the clean up!
DW: Jackie and Aristotle [Onassis] gave them an enormous sum to clean up and they did, but within months the house had fallen back into its previous condition, because that’s how they elected to live. And people were quite critical of Jackie for not taking better care of them, but I think she made best efforts. We all know those stubborn, idiosyncratic relatives on our respective family trees who you try to help, but if you try too hard they pull you down with them so you finally have to sever ties.
SF: I think that’s what people see in this show. Even though they’re American aristocracy, I think people see their own relationship with their parents, who are maybe very proud or very stubborn or very controlling or more outrageous as they get older.
Or see themselves…
SF: Yes, they see themselves.
And I wonder how actors relate to the show, because many will have the same – dare I say – desperate need for an audience, and to be validated. Or are clinging to a distant memory of who they used to be.
SF: That’s a very good point. Sheila in particular is very conscious of this when [Big Edie] says; ‘I’ve got to get my voice back exactly the way it was 45 years ago.’ Sheila’s had an amazing career, but she’s not a sentimental woman in any way. So to bring that colour to it, to think back to her own career, shows a great understanding of the role. What was it she said? She told me: ‘I used to play blonde titty roles!’ So when that character and the actress talk about the glory days of the past, that’s really interesting.
How difficult was it converting the story? Did you take much artist license?
DW: Well, it’s true that Edie was briefly engaged to Joe Kennedy, and it’s true that Phelan Beale got a Mexican divorce and left his wife, and it’s true that Edith was an overbearing mother who would take over parties with singalongs, it’s just not necessarily true that all of those things happened on the same fateful afternoon!
It was deeply challenging because the documentary is a really brilliant bit of psychological portraiture, but it’s not conventional narrative storytelling. So as the book writer I was loathe to approach the material because I thought it was not adaptable. I thought that the film was such a particular beast but without a conventional beginning, middle and end there was no way to attack it. These gentlemen generously came to me on more than one occasion and said ‘would you work with us?’ and I kept saying no. But then they offered a kind of breakthrough that I’m still grateful for. Scott can explain!
SF: In the film, the camera goes on a close-up of a photograph of them when they were both young and beautiful, and there’s the oil painting of the mother when she was young and beautiful, then the camera pulls back and you see that these portraits are in this horrible, disgusting, decrepit environment. There’s a quote in the movie about keeping the line between the past and the present, and here you see the past and the present all in one frame. I kept trying to wrack my brain about how to do this on stage. We all felt that it was necessary to know what their lives were like earlier to see what changed and what was lost. Then Michael and I had this notion of going back in time to the early 1940s and seeing the house in its heyday when the women were young and beautiful and had promise, and the country had promise – we [the United States] weren’t in the war yet.
DW: It was so dramatic! I can remember that you two had gone to lunch then called me very excitedly and said: ‘You have to come over, you have to come over!’ I rushed over to Scott’s and they’d brought the paper tablecloth from their lunch together. Written on it was one giant box that said ‘1941’ and another giant box that said ‘1973’. They held up the tablecloth and said: ‘We’ve discovered the show!’ I found it entirely persuasive and that’s the afternoon I said: ‘We can do this!’
Having the flashback scenes make it all the more tragic – more so than the documentary – because you see how far these two women have fallen…
SF: Doug very carefully plants the seeds of some of the issues that come to light in Act II between the mother and daughter. You begin to see the start of the competition and jealousy and some of the fear of being alone and some of the mental instability. Then in Act II, it just explodes.
DW: I’m fond of saying that the most complicated, Byzantine love stories are almost always between parents and children – even more than between spouses, sometimes. These are relationships that reward and vex and thrill and torture us for our lifetime, and I think this is a mother-daughter love story in the most exquisitely painful way. I hope that’s where some of its universality lies.
SF: I do remember Sheila’s daughter came to see the show and I asked her if she recognised any bits from their own relationship. She said: ‘Oh yes, I do!’ I told her I didn’t want to know which bits, it’s too personal!
When did you start working on the show?
SF: We got the rights in 2002 and we had a draft after about a year and a half.
Grey Gardens was commissioned by Playwrights Horizons. How important are these experimental theatre programmes to new writers?
DW: In the New York theatre community, the non-profit societies like Playwrights Horizons and the Manhattan Theatre Club are really the theatre’s lifeblood. We all feel a great responsibility to these theatres, and a debt of gratitude.They’re the ones who give new writers opportunities, to take risks on unconventional material like this.
SF: We knew it was special, and sometimes the special ones don’t immediately find their way otherwise.
MK: The initial press reaction when it was first announced was incredulous. ‘What do they think they are doing!?’ We would never be able to do this in a commercial environment. And this was the perfect place to open it here in London, on the Fringe.
SF: The great thing is that everybody on the staff and in the cast all want to be here. We know they’re not doing it for the money! Even the orchestra. Everybody’s come up to me to say how much the show speaks to them and how much they want to be here. That is so wonderfully rewarding and just what you want to hear. It’s a special, unusual piece. Sheila gave a hilarious quote: ‘I’m 82 and doing the Fringe?! I must be mad!”
DW: Our producer Danielle [Tarento] has been so proactive about assembling an exquisite team and supporting Thom [Southerland] in his vision for the work.
SF: She’s a real force, Danielle. Even to watch her in the room, she’s the first one with a broom, the first one to move the furniture, she’s on top of all it. It’s been a real privilege to watch.
How did you approach the musical styles for the show?
SF: The music that they listen to on the phonograph in the film is Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, ‘Tea for Two’, ‘You and the Night and the Music’, Rodgers and Hammerstein, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’. So the great songs of the 20s, 30s and 40s. We consciously wanted to – without making it a pastiche – nod our head to these great songs and evoke their style and beauty. Then in Act II it’s much more eclectic. There’s the gospel number for Norman Vincent Peale, there’s the corn number ‘Jerry Likes My Corn’, ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’… It goes all over the place in Act II, in a hopefully unpredictable way.
SF: It does seem to be connecting with audiences.
Are we ever going to get Hands on a Hard Body over here?
DW: Oh yes, that was me! And no, it’s never found a home in London yet.
SF: This would be a very good place for it! Speak to Thom!
DW: Maybe there’ll be future interest in it. It’s a show I’m terribly proud of. It had a short run on Broadway but is having a wonderful life across the country in the States, and I hope it makes it in Europe one day.
SF: There’s definitely an appetite here for stories that are American…
DW: Americans aren’t always thought to have much capacity for self-criticism or reflection – we’re so full of brio, so there’s something refreshing about works that take a certain circumspect view of our culture and suggest that we can celebrate the glory but also see the challenges that America presents to the world. I think that those shows are sometimes especially welcome.
SF: Can we take this opportunity to apologise for Donald Trump? I hope you will accept our apologies. We hate him too! It’s a nightmare – you couldn’t make him up. It’s like a fever dream or a hallucination.
MK: It’s not Donald Trump – he’s been Donald Trump all these years – it’s that he awoken something in the American people that we thought had gone. But it’s so there and so toxic and now it has a voice.
Readers may also be interested in:
Grey Gardens – Southwark Playhouse, London – Review