Life, Art and Musical Theatre — Grey Gardens

It amazes me what a higgledy-piggledy of sources have served as inspiration for musicals.

Little Shops of Horror, Cats, Sunset Boulevard are three examples of successful adaptations from odd starts. Stephen Sondheim has made a career crafting shows from subject matter that hardly seems suitable for orchestras and chorus lines — the history of presidential assassinations (Assassins), Admiral Perry’s forced opening of the Japanese market to American goods (Pacific Overtures), the story of the painting of La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat’s masterpiece (Sunday in the Park with George).

There are some efforts that while not “classics of the stage” still managed to achieve a modicum of success; Silence! The Musical, an achingly funny satire of the thriller Silence of the Lambs; Batboy based on stories of a half-boy, half-bat discovered living in a West Virginia cave as reported by the National Enquirer; there was even Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But while every one of these attempts found favor with some audiences somewhere, there are legions of others that sunk beneath critical distain and dismal box office returns.

These were all successes, and they are all exceptions that torment the rule.

Others however are short lived and fated to be swallowed up by a justifiable oblivion.

Octomom! The Musical, comes to mind, based on the life of Nadya Suleman, who with the help of fertility drugs grabbed at her 15 minutes of fame by giving birth to octuplets.

Grey Gardens-Ahmanson Theatre

Josh Young and Sarah Hunt in “Grey Gardens” The Musical (Photo by Craig Schwartz – Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

Sugar, a musical refitting of Some like It Hot.

Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that left the audience feeling like they’d been podded by extraterrestrials.

X an all singing, toe tapping rendering of the Mansion murders.

So basing a musical on the landmark documentary Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles, the first time a Broadway musical has ever taken its cue from one, definitely gets points for chutzpa; a production of which can be experienced now through August 14 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre.

Filmed from 1972 to 1973, the documentary is rooted in the “direct cinema” approach, meaning that the camera and crew is entrenched in the environment, and everything is filmed.

And it was a strange environment that the Maysles brothers found themselves in.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, known as “Big Edie” came from a moneyed family and was aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill.

Big Edie’s daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, known as “Little Edie,” was once an aspiring actress and debutante.

Situated in the affluent portion of East Hampton, New York, their home called Grey Gardens, had in the past been the scene of many a gala, and one of the hubs of the Hampton social scene.

But by the 1970’s all that had changed, and the life of both Big Edie and her daughter had spiraled downward.

Now the two women, their finances barely able to support them, dwelled—not unlike derelicts—among some of the most prosperous families in the country, with Grey Gardens serving as a reflection of their changed fortunes.

With walls rotted out, no running water or heat, infested by raccoons that scurried among the piles of decaying trash, a horde of cats that treated the mansion like a 28 room litter box and required the filmmakers to wear flea collars around their pant legs, today the mother and daughter would be featured on “Hoarders – Buried Alive.”

The world that the Maysles brothers entered with their recording equipment and cameras was one oppressed by shattered hopes and a miasma of self-delusion.

Little Edie, bald from a nervous disorder encased herself in the smothering sanctuary of denials.

Big Edie blunted the edges of reality in her steady reproaches of her daughter.

It was a bleak, unsettling vision in black and white.

The play is constructed from a patchwork of memorable scenes from the documentary, and the best of the dialogue is drawn directly from it.

Other than a bunch of songs what divides the film from the musical is the plays willingness to be a bit fast and loose with some facts, and the liberty of employing dramatic devices in the structuring of the piece and how it’s presented.

Grey Gardens-The Musical

Bryan Batt and Rachel York in “Grey Gardens” The Musical (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Having firmly established the Maysles’ film as the starting point in the opening moments of the first act, as well as introducing us to Big Edie (Betty Buckley) and Little Edie (Rachel York), Doug Wright, who penned the show’s book, then falls back on the reliable flashback returning us to 1941, when Grey Gardens still retained its opulence, and to the night when the long slow decline commenced.

In this show, Rachel York provides double duty filling the roles of both Little Edie in 1973, and the younger Big Edie in 1941, with Sarah Hunt in the role of the younger Little Edie.

The device of the same actress playing mother and daughter is a telling conceit.

You’ll encounter splendidly solid performances here.

Both Buckley and York are superb, and Hunt excellent as well.

The score by Scott Frankel with lyrics by Michael Korie is slick and craftsman like.

The music does everything you’d expect of a Broadway production, being upbeat when needed or poignant when called for, but you do not leave the theatre with any of the tunes so embedded in your memory that you’ll find yourself humming them on the drive home.

What one does take away with them when driving from the Music Center’s underground parking lot is a deep appreciation for the consummate artistry and flawless professionalism of the production with Jeff Cowie scenic designer, Howell Binkley lights, and Jon Weston on sound score bridging the distance between Grey Gardens at its height and after its fall.

Under Michael Wilson’s skilled and steady direction Grey Gardens the musical captures that gulf that stretches between hope and despair and becomes the fitting grave for dreams that die.

(NOTE: Pictured in Featured Image (L-R) Rachel York and Betty Buckley; Photo by Craig Schwartz – Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

Click HERE for Additional Information and Tickets.

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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