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First Look: Verite Vamping: 'Grey Gardens' Blooms Onstage

By Tamara Krinsky

From the musical Grey Gardens, based on the documentary by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, the musical had its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

One of the biggest trends in the theater world over the past few years has been "the movical," the creation of stage musicals based on previously existing films. Spamalot found its inspiration in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast began life as animated Disney films, and the musical version of The Wedding Singer will hit theaters in May 2006. This past March, Grey Gardens, the beloved cult documentary by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, became the first nonfiction film to be given the "movical" treatment.

The original 1975 film tells the story of the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter, "Little" Edie. Once among the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register, the two become East Hampton's most notorious recluses, sealed up in Grey Gardens, their 28-room dilapidated mansion.

Composer Scott Frankel, a longtime fan of the documentary, was first inspired to turn it into a stage musical when he had a "light bulb moment" in 2002. "I had seen it recently again with a friend, and it all of a sudden occurred to me that both ladies were so tremendously stage-struck," Frankel explains. "They both had show business aspirations and such an incredible affection for American popular culture in song and in dance. They were also such exhibitionists at heart, so presentational in the way they would deliver their musical moments that I thought, ‘Maybe there's a way to build something around those impulses in the film.'"

At the time, Albert Maysles was just about to give the rights for Grey Gardens to an opera composer. Frankel made his case for a more popular, less highbrow adaptation based on the types of American standards the two Edies sing in the film, such as "Tea for Two" and "People Will Say We're in Love." Frankel explains, "I love opera, but I went in and I said, ‘You know, what they really loved was popular music.' I gave my best pitch and I guess it was successful because he decided not to go with the opera."

Once Frankel had the permission to move ahead with the project, he brought aboard writer Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Quills) and lyricist Michael Korie (Doll, Meet Mister Future, Zhivago). Wright and Frankel were friends from college who had flirted with the thought of working together for over 20 years. "I was initially reluctant because I so revere the documentary and I didn't want to get it wrong," says Wright.

The trio faced several challenges in moving the piece from screen to stage. "Cinema vérité offers verisimilitude--real people in real time being absolutely spontaneous," notes Wright. "Theater is all about artifice. You're supplanting everything that's truthful in the movie with something that's artificial in theater. Two actresses play the women, you're on a set of Grey Gardens, there are lighting and effects. We needed a correlative that gave the musical its own strength and integrity. To do that, we created a somewhat more linear narrative, and tried to amplify the movie's themes."

Other issues included making the piece palatable to those not familiar with the film, as well as dealing with the notion of "truth" onstage. As the team explored giving the musical a more narrative structure, they found themselves making the older Edie the villain of the story. Maysles stepped in with a key piece of advice, cautioning Wright, Frankel and Korie against siding with either character. He urged them to think of Grey Gardens as a love story between two women. "Maysles said to us, ‘Consider for a moment the possibility that they're both right,'" Wright recalls.

This allowed the three artists to tap into the more universal theme of parent-child relationships, specifically the unique and disturbing brew of love, competition, support and resentment that seems to be part of the mother-daughter dynamic. To further explore this, the trio took perhaps the biggest gamble: the creation of a first act that shows Edie and Little Edie before Grey Gardens was sealed up like a mausoleum. Says Frankel, "The question for me that hangs over the film is, How did this happen and why did it happen? The thing that's so genius in the film is that Maysles will cut from the filth and garbage-strewn bedroom to a close-up of a photograph of the Edies as young, beautiful women, and it's just so shocking. He's able to make the point so instantly."

While Frankel knew that creating an act dedicated to exploring the women's backstory might be shocking to devotees of the film, he also took care to incorporate favorite moments from the documentary that would appeal to its fan base. For example, he's included iconic lines such as, "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." He's also created fantasy sequences for key scenes, such as when Little Edie puts a record on and all of a sudden she's dancing with a full Marine band onstage.

Directed by Tony Award nominee Michael Greif (Rent), Grey Gardens opened at Playwrights Horizons in March, and at press time was scheduled to run through April 23.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.