Grey Gardens: how a hit musical adapts the cult 1975 documentary

Published in The Independent on Sunday on January 3, 2016

“If there’s anything worse than a staunch woman … S-T-A-U-N-C-H – there’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken. No matter what. ” So said “Little Edie” Beale in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens – but generations of viewers have not agreed with her, taking this staunch woman fully to their hearts. So much so that it spawned a hit musical.

First staged in New York in 2006, it transferred to Broadway and was nominated for 10 Tonys – and this week, finally, it is getting its first UK production at the Southwark Playhouse in London, starring Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell.

Now considered a camp classic, the documentary wormed its way into the tumbledown home of Little Edie, Edith Bouvier Beale, aged 54, and her mother, also Edith Bouvier Beale, aka Big Edie, 79. Film-makers – brothers Albert and David Maysles – chanced upon the reclusive pair when they were shooting a film about Jackie Kennedy; they were her aunt and first cousin. The Beales were socialites who had lost their wealth, but continued to live in a 28-room mansion in East Hampton, albeit in squalor and alongside 52 cats and a number of racoons.

The film captures how these true eccentrics were locked in a co-dependency that was – on both sides – simultaneously deeply loving and damaging. They bicker and fret, but also sing and dance, eat liver pâté and ice-cream in bed, and rake back over their youth. Before they retreated from the world, Big Edie was a singer, and Little Edie a model; both beauties in their youth, they’re still notably stylish in the film. Little Edie, who fashioned distinctive outfits out of swimsuits, towels and upside-down skirts, is still regularly cited as an inspiration by fashion designers; Marc Jacobs named a bag after her.

That’s just one part of the documentary’s long after-life: it was also expanded into a HBO drama in 2009 with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and prompted a song by Rufus Wainwright. But the most feted adaptation is the musical, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. Suffice it to say, director Thom Southerland is more than a little excited to be finally staging it here – the project has been in the pipeline for more than three years, while he waited for his dream cast and venue to be available.

“To me, the two best people to play these roles are Jenna and Sheila, and fortunately they were both interested,” he says in a break from rehearsals. “The source material is so iconic, and the musical itself has become iconic. I was drawn to the musical because it gave me an insight into these characters far more than the documentary ever did.”

A bold claim – but it’s worth noting that the show goes much farther than the film, with the entire first half offering an invented version of the Beales’ backstory. It’s set in 1941, at Little Edie’s engagement party to Joe Kennedy Jnr, older brother of John F and Robert. It’s thought Joe Kennedy really did propose to her, but there’s a hefty dollop of imaginative speculation here – justified by the fact that the pair told their own outlandish stories about their lives. But it also allows the audience to see these rare creatures in the highly conventional society that they were born into – and in a neat casting twist, Jenna Russell plays Big Edie in the first half, and Little Edie in the second.

“It’s about aristocracy – and in America, that’s mainly a political aristocracy, where the women were traded to link families and forward careers,” says Hancock. “These women fell foul of that because they were so creative and different. They’re actually happier in the second half where they’re not having to behave themselves. It’s almost a Shakespearean thing, where you go into the forest and suddenly madness is released.”

Shakespearean madness may be a good way of looking at it. “Little Edie obviously had mental-health issues but I don’t know what they were, and I don’t want to label it either,” says Russell. “And you don’t laugh at her; I think they’ll be a lot of understanding and genuine love for her. We all know people like that – she’s just an extreme version. And what an extraordinary woman, to be so at home in herself. She is a staunch character, and she celebrates herself.”

While some critics have suggested the documentary is exploitative of two vulnerable people, for its fans this celebratory attitude to being exactly who you are is what has made the film endure – and it’s what really motors the musical, says Southerland. “There is that fascination we have with the hoarder next door, a voyeuristic aspect to it: how did American royalty fall so far, so fast? [But] for me Grey Gardens is about individualism – being proud of who you are. Even within a house which the health department calls unfit for human habitation, you can find two characters who actually are incredibly content and deeply in love with each other.”

How will they create the two contrasting worlds, then: the Grey Gardens of 1941, a chic mansion full of pretty debutantes, and the Grey Gardens of 1975, filthy and foul? The change may not be as delineated as all that – they aren’t starting off in a pristine drawing-room …

“[The women] live in this fantasy world, and Tom Rogers, our designer, has come up with a setting that is evocative of the fact that they don’t really see what’s in front of them,” says Southerland. He doesn’t want to give it away – but promises Frankel’s score also helps. “The music is an absolute treat. It gives us tone, location, time, and emotional intensity too. I can picture this massive mansion because it’s there in every single note.”

Grey Gardens fans can be assured of one element of exact homage, however: Russell already has Little Edie’s accent down. It is, Russell suggests, “kind of made up! I can’t find anyone else that’s like her. You hear it in Jackie Kennedy when she first got into the White House – I don’t know if that was the schools they went to. But then Little Edie has strong Brooklyn tones, and an extraordinary delivery.”

Hancock confesses to finding their idiosyncratic idiom tricky to learn. “It’s written almost like Beckett or Pinter, it’s all over the place, with non sequiturs, and their turn-of-phrase is absolutely their own. It’s very bizarre.” The task is even more mountainous for Russell, who as well as playing two separate roles, sings a staggering 17 musical numbers. “We complain that we don’t get great parts, so when you get them you go, ‘I’ve just got to do my work’. But it’s terrifying! I’m not gonna lie – I’m not sleeping very well.”

Documentary, as a form, doesn’t often lend itself to musical adaptation – indeed, Grey Gardens was the first ever musical based on a doc to be staged on Broadway. Still, in the film we see that performance is at the heart of these women’s identities; they sing and dance for the camera. They surely would love to know they’d been turned into a hit musical.

Hancock thinks so. “When she saw the film, Little Edie said, ‘What a pity there isn’t more music in it …’ I think they would have loved it being a musical; I have a feeling they would have thought that was absolutely right.”

‘Grey Gardens’ , Southwark Playhouse, 2 Jan to 6 Feb;

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