Grey Gardens, an estate in the Hamptons, gained national attention through the mid 70’s documentary by David and Albert Maysles. The brothers were originally contacted by Jacqueline Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill, who were hoping to drum up some interest by the brothers for the sisters’ own self-promotion. In the course of the meetings, the film makers were introduced to the sisters’ reclusive relatives, their aunt Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, their cousin, “Little” Edie Beale, the residents of the deteriorating Grey Gardens. The Maysles were more fascinated by the eccentric pair than by the famous Bouvier sisters whose every move through the years had garnered attention in the press. The Maysles technique was to simply follow and record the words and actions of the reclusive women. No interpretive or explanatory voice overs, no interviews with outsiders, the women spoke for themselves.
The two women, born to American aristocracy, now living in filth and a strange sort of poverty, captured the attention of the public and the press. In 2006, HBO presented an acclaimed made-for-TV movie with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange based on the documentary. The HBO version included the back story on the two Ediths. In the musical “Grey Gardens,” currently playing at the Ahmanson, Act I is the glittering back story with hints at the decay to come. Act II is the gritty tragedy their lives became with many lines lifted directly from the original documentary. The documentary, the HBO film, and the musical all share the title, “Grey Gardens.”
Act I: The time is World War II. The scene is the elegant parlor of Grey Gardens in its glory. The circumstance is the morning of a party mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (Rachel York) is giving to celebrate the engagement of her daughter, “Little” Edie Beale (Sarah Hunt) to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (Josh Young). In latter years “Little” Edie claimed the so-called engagement; in fact, she only met young Kennedy once. But back to the story we see on stage. While the party is ostensibly for the daughter, mother Edith clearly sees herself as the star. She is planning to sing nine pieces during the party and is rehearsing with her live-in, gay, accompanist. The grand dame is deaf to her daughter’s pleas not to sing; their relationship is clearly one of stifling enmeshment. The senior Edith, while professing maternal love, is not one to share center stage. She undermines the relationship between her daughter and her beau. Michael Korie’s lyrics are replete with Oscar Wilde-like witticisms such as, “You drive her suitors away like a social disease.” The lyrics far outpace Scott Frankel’s derivative score. “Little” Edie pouts and proclaims independence while manipulating and never straying far from the apron strings of her mother (who probably never sets foot in the kitchen). For context, 10-year-old Lee Bouvier (Peyton Ella)and her 12-year-old sister Jackie (Katie Silverman) flit engagingly through the scene.
Theirs is a familiar family dynamic played out to a disastrous end in Act II. It is 20 plus years later. The dialogue and the basis of many of the lyrics are lifted directly from the oft lauded ‘70’s documentary. Perhaps the most touching is Edie’s lament as she contemplates “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” a phrase lifted directly from something Edie said in the documentary. Act II is not as catchy as Act I, but more authentic.
In an interesting piece of casting Rachel York who played the 40 something mother of Act I, now plays the 56-year-old daughter. York absolutely captures the tone and cadence of the real Edie, but sadly not her bizarre affect as seen in the documentary. Nor do Ilona Somogyi’s costumes quite capture the absolutely wacky attire of the real Edie, nor the slovenly presentation and decrepitude of her mother. The musical reflects the basic problems in their relationship, but misses “Little” Edie’s underlying pathology which can be seen by any lay person watching the documentary. Perhaps as compensation, Jeff Cowie’s set is even more obviously decayed than the actual Grey Gardens seen in the film. These departures seem to undermine the tragedy of the real story.
In an interview with Director Michael Wilson he states, “When I first saw [the documentary], I was dragged to it as a young, gay initiate in my 20’s … It was a bunch of gay men camping it up and laughing … mostly with these women.” Though Wilson claims to have only “felt the pain of these ladies” when he viewed the documentary again 25 years later, the “Grey Gardens” on stage at the Ahmanson is played largely for laughs. Too bad. The real “Grey Gardens” is an American tragedy, maybe better presented as a drama, than as a musical.