When Grey Gardens opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 2006, it established itself as the only Broadway show ever based on a documentary. Winning Tony awards for its stars Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, the musical had a 306 performance run before it closed prematurely due to much-publicized poor producing. Thankfully, Albert Maysles, who created the original documentary about Big Edith and Little Edie Beale, brought his video camera around to document the gestation of the musical through its Broadway opening in a new film called Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway. This documentary is set to air on PBS as a part of its “Independent Lens” series next week. For those of us in NY with Channel 13, it airs on Tuesday, December 23 at 10PM. The channel 21 airings on WLIW will be on Wednesday, December 24 @ 9AM, 3PM and 8:PM and Thursday, December 25 @ 1AM. For those of you around the rest of the country, be sure and check your local listings at the PBS website.
As per Liz Smith in Variety:
“THE LONDON production of Grey Gardens is now “on” with a vengeance. Rights reverted from the original Broadway production and came back to the authors and composers. Music man Scott Frankel and star-producer Tony-winner Christine Ebersole took off for London to put little Edie Beale and her adventures on the West End. This musical will be a natural for the Brits who love eccentrics…”
So I guess now that the rights are no longer held by the Gondas, the show can flourish in London as well as on tour (Vicki Clark, are you reading? OK, probably not). It was a shame to see this show fold early, as it was my personal favorite of the 2006-07 season. The score is the best on Broadway since Piazza. The lyrics are outrageously brilliant. The assonance, the diction, the structure and rhyme schemes run the gamut of Cole Porter-Irving Berlin wit in the first act to the sophistication of Sondheim in the second. The care and craft that built this score is beyond mere words I place here in this space. If you look at it, its really a two-hander; each act is its own musical, but together as one emotionally turbulent and ultimately compelling evening.
The first act is fictionalized look at the Beale backstory, trying to give the audience some insight into these two eccentric women and how they ended up in the delapidation documented in the Maysles’ film. Taking cues from the musical icons of the era, we have a lovely pastiche score. “The Five-Fifteen” is one of the greatest opening numbers I’ve heard in years. Particularly it’s insanely catchy vamp (as part of the exit music, I left the theatre humming the rideout). The first act plays out like a Philip Barry dramedy set to music. While not as satisfying as the second act, it’s a clever and inventive way to give the film portion of the musical some context. I can’t imagine many people have seen the brilliant documentary, so it’s necessary for us to learn more about these two ladies than the mere fact that they are Jackie Onassis’ cousin and aunt. Also, in an age when musicals based on films are mere retreads of the films + songs, it was refreshing to see the creative team step back and try something different. (This is, also, the first time a documentary has ever been made into a musical).
The second act is where people have truly been astonished. Christine Ebersole’s performance was astounding. Playing Edith in the first act as a vindictive variation on Auntie Mame (complete with pure, unadulterated soprano tones), she enters the second act set 33 years later as Young Edie, in a complete transformation (to nasal character belt) that in itself usually stopped the show. Following the screenplay from the film, the second act is considerably stronger, even finding a dramatic arc the cinema verite documentary lacks. Ebersole as Edie will one day become synonymous with Martin as Peter Pan and Merman as Rose. It’s the stuff of legend. Mary Louise Wilson as aged Edith is also a marvel. Both actresses inhabit the characters of these women without merely imitating the film (though the physical and aural resemblances are uncanny), finding depth in the scene work and playing off each other (particularly with the delicious insults) like a finely played game of tennis. (After the remarkable critical reception and eventual Tony awards received by these actresses, I really don’t need to expound any further. I also just want to mention William Ivey Long’s indelible award winning costumes here as well).
I saw Grey Gardens three times on Broadway (the second time being the first performance post-Tony where Ebersole got a standing ovation at the top of the second act, something I was unaccustomed to but glad to be a part of). My first experience was through the documentary which, truth be told, stunned me completely. I was left wondering “What happened?” as most people I know feel after watching it. It was alternately hilarious and horrifying. I was first exposed to the score via the Off-Broadway recording. The show premiered at the Walter Kerr shortly afterward in what is the final version. I marveled at how they found the characters through song. “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” is the best list song we’ve had in decades. Not only does it follow the general terms of a list song, it surpasses it through its revelation of character. Little Edie’s philosophies on dress say much more about her opinions and thoughts than almost any other song in the show (save for the devastating “Around the World” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town” later in the second act). It has to be heard to be fully understood and appreciated. (I was thrilled too, to have a final Broadway recording that incorporates the revisions and cast changes made in transferring the show from Off-Broadway to on).
I’m really not going into in depth analysis of the score here, because that in itself would take up several blogs. See the documentary. Listen to the recording. Marvel in the genius. It’s exciting to know that the show will have life past its relatively short-lived and financially disastrous original Broadway run. London, tour, regional? So who cares if the inferior Spring Awakening won Best Musical. Doesn’t mean it was.
Win the revolution with style, kids.