A Q&A With Grey Gardens Playwright Doug Wright

Vital Voice, July 08 2016

Free Spirits or Basket Cases? Pathetic Victims or Fab Fashion Icons?

There is a wide variance of opinion about the late recluse “Big” Edie Bouvier Beale and her outrageously eccentric daughter, “Little” Edie. Both women, fading members of American aristocracy, and relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, have passed on. Their celebrity outlives them. Since being “discovered” in the 1970’s, living in impoverished squalor with dozens of cats, they’ve been immortalized several times over.

The Beales starred as themselves in the 1975 film documentary Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles. Later came a 2009 made-for-TV movie about them, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. And in 2006, a musical on the Beales reached Broadway and garnered several Tony Awards. The Beales resurface in the St. Louis premiere of the musical Grey Gardens which opens July 8 through the 30th at The Wool Studio Theatre at The JCC in a Max & Louie Production.

Its creators are composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright. Stellie Siteman, Artistic Director of Max & Louie Productions, interviewed Doug Wright.

How did Grey “Gardens” based on the landmark documentary by Albert and David Maysles occur as an idea for a musical?

My dear friend and college classmate Scott Frankel brought the idea to life. He enlisted lyricist Michael Korie and me. At first, I was wildly against the idea. I felt the film was so idiosyncratic and singular that it would never translate felicitously to the stage. Its strength, I felt, lay in its verisimilitude and, like it or not, the theater is about artifice. But Scott pointed out something wonderfully observant and sly; in the documentary, the two women communicate gorgeously through Twentieth Century American popular song; they sing almost as if they’re already in a musical. I find that surprisingly persuasive.

What was your response when approached to come on board as librettist?

I had enormous trepidation. The documentary is non-narrative; it is brilliant stream-of-consciousness filmmaking. To turn it into a musical, I knew it would need greater narrative integrity; audiences want a tangible story, not just a series of revealing scenes, however nuanced, terrifying or voyeuristic. Once again, it was Scott who had the “eureka” moment. He suggested telling the story in two acts: the first would be set during the heyday of life at Grey Gardens, and the second act would happen during its chilling, most dilapidated years.

The second act cleverly recreates the documentary, but how did the first act come together? Did you take much artistic license?

Everything that occurs in our first act is historically accurate; Big Edie did love to sing at parties. Little Edie enjoyed a brief engagement to Joe Kennedy which abruptly ended under mysterious circumstances. Phelan Beale divorced his wife by telegram to marry his mistress in Mexico. But these fateful events did NOT occur on the same climactic afternoon. That is our invention.

In the second act exact sentences spoken in the documentary lead into musical numbers. Did the songs come naturally?

The film is full of wonderful, ingenious and telling lines. Little Edie was a kind of mad poet, and she spoke as if she were performing a play jointly authored by Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett. Diehard fans of the film can quote it verbatim. Lyricist Michael Korie and I agreed that the best way to honor the movie’s most quotable moments was to place them in song. As spoken dialogue, they’d be familiar to audiences. But as lyrics set to sumptuous melodies, they would be genuinely surprising, and audiences could discover them anew. I think “Jerry Likes My Corn” is a great example of that technique.

Why do you think the film became such a phenomenon? The documentary is often criticized for being exploitative.

Big and Little Edie both defended the Maysles Brothers against accusations of exploitation; they said the film was an almost perfect portrait of their relationship. I have a more complicated response, I suppose. Artists are forever exploiting situations, fictive or otherwise, in their quest to find truth. And in a brave, uncensored way the two Beale women show us the most comprehensive, resonant and heartbreaking record of any mother-daughter relationship. I think the film is a very valuable psychological and cultural record.

This piece affects different audiences in different ways. What reactions have stood out?

We thought the musical would bring out the hardcore fans of the film and it did. But we were most heartened when mothers and daughters started to attend it with fascination and reverence. Hopefully, the musical reaches beyond its very particular, haunting tale to point to universal experiences all parents and children share.

Have you had any reaction from the Bouviers, or the Beales? Jerry? How would “Little” Edie and “Big” Edie have felt about the Musical?

Little Edie gave us her blessing to go ahead with the show just before she died; I wish she’d gotten to see it. The Bouvier relatives came on opening night on Broadway and were very gracious. Jerry is now a cab driver in New York City and took a keen interest in the production. About 10:45 in the evening, he’d swing by the theater to pick up passengers on their way home. If they spoke appreciatively about the production, he’d reveal his true identity…and if they didn’t care for it, he drove them home in stony silence!

How does this show speak to the Gay Community?

Little Edie has become a gay icon, I think, because she managed to find both glamour and beauty in the constraints of a very limited existence. She takes old bath towels and fashions magnificent turbans; she recreates Busby Berkeley dance numbers alone in her living room. Like so many gay men, she knows how to take crumbs and turn them into a banquet. And we love her for that.

What are you working on now?

Scott, Michael and I are in rehearsals for a brand new musical! It chronicles the fifty-year rivalry between cosmetic doyennes Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. It’s called WAR PAINT and opens this summer at the Goodman Theater. The show stars Christine Ebersole (who originated the role of Little Edie) as Arden and Patti LuPone as Rubinstein.

What are the chances of your coming to St. Louis (July 8-30) for the St. Louis Premiere of “Grey Gardens”?

I’m so honored and thrilled that De [Kaplan] and Stellie [Siteman] are producing this show in St. Louis; their production of my play QUILLS was simply splendid, and I so trust them with my work. How I wish I could attend “Grey Gardens!” We’ll be in Chicago, in previews with the new show, which may well prove prohibitive. But to all the denizens of Grey Gardens, we send our love and best wishes for a phenomenal run!

Grey Gardens – The Musical, July 8-30. Tickets available at maxandlouie.com or 1-800-838-3006.