Off-Broadway hit arrives 2 months before its B’way opening
The backstory of “Grey Gardens” is almost as Gothic as what audiences are meant to see.
In the early 1970s, documentarians Albert and David Maysles peered inside the moldering East Hampton estate called Grey Gardens of Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter “Little” Edie. These cousins of the Kennedy clan made crazy look ordinary, sharing their dilapidated home with 52 stray cats, a few raccoons and debris that the Salvation Army wouldn’t give a second look at.
The film quickly became a cult classic a testament to the slow-motion train wreck of old money removed from reality.
Jump ahead 30-odd years. Doug Wright, the Dallas native who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for “I Am My Own Wife” his own remarkable documentary play about a transgender East German Nazi decided to adapt “Grey Gardens” for the stage. Not as a straight play, mind you, but as a musical a musical about a pair of spinsters who were bonkers. (Can “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: The Musical” be far behind?)
There have been kookier ideas that have been pulled off (a musical about felines! or of a Victor Hugo novel about a 19th century French rebellion!). But the February Off-Broadway bow of “Grey Gardens” met with a withering review from The New York Times. The show looked destined to close quickly and drift into obscurity.
Only no one but the Times critic felt that way.
The show’s star, Christine Ebersole, was lavished with some of the best reviews ever written about a stage performance, winning every major award for which she was eligible. The production closed, but not for long: In November, it opens on Broadway. Before that, however, comes the original Off-Broadway cast recording, which was released last week (PS Classics, $18.98).
It’s difficult to separate the story from the songs. Wright, with collaborators Scott Frankel (who wrote the score) and Michael Korie (lyrics), has expanded the scope of the movie beyond the present-day state of ruin. All of Act 1 is set in 1941, when the grounds of Grey Gardens are posh and lively with the promise of a wedding. Act 2 introduces the Beales as they are remembered to the world: Scatter-brained, sad, living in squalor.
The score especially in the second half conjures the Felliniesque spectacle of their lives with the infectious brilliance of Jerry Herman’s “Mame;” the songs “Better Fall Out of Love” and “Drift Away” could be passed off as undiscovered Cole Porter words sweet, clever and romantic.
That only comes, however, in between many songs that are upstaged by the seemingly atonal vocal tricks within the melodies something Sondheim has done for years, but which has become even more common lately (listen to Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza” for a recent example). One note doesn’t logically follow another. It’s as if the composer wants to make it impossible for the audience to guess what should come next.
Like Michael La Chuisa’s “The Wild Party,” songs may have the chords and meter of a flapper dance, but the tone is somber and foreboding. These people may be singing about happiness, but they don’t feel it.
Still, it only takes until the second song, “The Five-Fifteen,” to click with what garnered Ebersole sterling notices. By the time she gets to the first act closer, “Will You?” a song of lush, beautiful orchestrations and doleful lyrics you can practically taste the wonder of opening night.
The “Grey Gardens” score might not have the kind of easy hooks that Andrew Lloyd Webber can write in his sleep, but, like the film, it’s certain to find a devoted audience.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 25, 2006.