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Back to the Gardens: A Conversation with Grey Gardens composer Scott Frankel
by Richard Knight, Jr.

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From the moment that Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie Beale, first made their appearance in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, their fanatical following took hold and has never wavered. So compelling and original were these two—known as Big Edie and Little Edie—and the highly charged circumstances in which they lived that the film documented, that they, like Little Edie's unique fashion sense, have never gone out of style. The two women came from a background of privilege and wealth and continued to reside in only a few of the 28 rooms of their East Hampton estate Grey Gardens decades after Big Edie's money dried up after being divorced by her wealthy stockbroker husband. By the time filmmakers David and Albert Maysles came to film them in the early 1970s, the fortunes of the two Edie's had fallen into sharp decline and it was only through the intercession of their famous Kennedy aunt and cousin that the town of East Hampton was prevented from condemning the estate.

After prevailing over East Hampton, Big and Little Edie continued to live in squalor in the mansion (along with 52 cats) until Big Edie's death in 1977. Striking individuals both (Little Edie describes herself as a 'staunch character') the often-tempestuous relationship between the two captured on film by the Maysles brothers resonates like characters out of Dickens or Tennessee Williams (there's more than a little of Miss Havisham and Estella in their story). In the documentary the women often pass the time singing along to Big Edie's old demos (she had dreams of being an opera singer) while Little Edie demonstrates both her unique dance moves and one of a kind fashion sense (which has influenced many fashion designers since the film premiered).

The cult movie, which has always had a large gay following, went main stream in early 2006 with a hugely successful off-Broadway musical adaptation by three gay men: playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Act one of the show begins with Grey Gardens at its height in 1941. Big Edie is preparing to triumphantly announce Little Edie's engagement to Joe Kennedy, Jr., at a luncheon party (and sing several numbers accompanied by her gay pianist and companion Gould as well)—as soon as Mr. Beale returns home 'on the 5:15' train, that is. But Mr. Beale doesn't return home and Little Edie's chance to escape Grey Gardens is thwarted by her mother. Act Two recreates the documentary, complete with several haunting numbers, where at times past and present vividly merge.

Grey Gardens followed its triumphant Off Broadway run with a critically acclaimed transfer to Broadway late in 2006. It won Tony awards for both its leading ladies, Christine Ebersole as Little Edie and Mary Louise Wilson as Big Edie; it then closed at the end of July. A sheet music folio of song highlights was released and joining that is the just released, lavishly illustrated Grey Gardens: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical from publisher Hal Leonard.

Windy City Times recently spoke with Grey Gardens musical composer Scott Frankel. Frankel has worked as a conductor and music director on many Broadway shows but 'Grey Gardens' represents his first major musical on the boards. As he walked around Manhattan on a windy fall day where he resides Frankel talked about his work on the show and what lies in store for the musical version of 'Grey Gardens.'

Windy City Times: Grey Gardens was one of the most moving experiences I've had in the theatre, quite honesty.

Scott Frankel: Thank you so much. Did you see it on Broadway or Off?

WCT: I saw it on Broadway.

SF: Great. I think we made it better. It was amazing to have a chance to do some work on it—you don't usually get the chance to revisit the material. But when we transferred we had some time off in-between and we got to roll up our sleeves and fix some things that we were never totally satisfied with.

WCT: Well you really caught it. Every one of my theatre queen friends kept saying, 'You've really got to make the effort to get here to see this; Christine Ebersole is giving one of those legendary performances that are so rare' and it really, really was.

SF: Yes. I went back and looked at an old email I'd sent a friend after she had done a reading of it in 2005 and I wrote, 'Not since I saw Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd have I seen a female performance like this.' Both those women did incredible work—it's really an incredible duet.

WCT: Absolutely—Mary Louise Wilson as Big Edie was also tremendous. Why do you think gay men identify so strongly with both Big Edie and Little Edie? What is it about this story that draws us in?

SF: I think that in some ways both mother and daughter were outsiders in their way. Even though they were women of breeding and privilege they were kind of unconventional and didn't subscribe to societal standards of what wives and mothers should look like and behave like. They were both frustrated artists and that probably resonates with gay men and women who also have a kind of marginal—or had, maybe I should say past tense—a marginalized status. They also didn't care what people thought of them. They really wanted to be authentic and they were true to themselves and if the town of East Hampton look askance, so be it. So I think that kind of integrity also speaks loudly to gay men and women. Also ,the fact that Little Edie was able, despite the disappointments she had in her life, to face everyday in a fabulous outfit with some incredible headgear I think is inspirational, too. You know, when I have a bad day I curl up in the fetal position and draw the blinds and when she had a bad day she got right out there and put a skirt on upside down and a sweater on her head with that kind of style and energy she had. It was a perverse optimism in a way, also and I think that probably strikes a chord.

WCT: Yes—'staunch characters' [quoting from the show].

SF: Exactly.

WCT: I know you've told this story a thousand times but would you talk again about your 'aha!' moment when you decided Grey Gardens the documentary would make a terrific musical.

SF: I used to spend every summer in the '90s in Provincetown, and that's where I was first exposed to the movie. Among my friends there were really two groups of people in the world—did you know Grey Gardens and adore it or had you not heard of it. I quickly fell into group number one but I never thought it could be a musical. I was busy working on other projects but in 2000 I saw the documentary again. I'd seen it many times and every time you see it you see something different in it but I thought that the fact that they were both such exhibitionists and such frustrated performers—the mother a singer and the daughter fancied herself a dancer—I thought maybe there was a built in performing arts component. Maybe the fact that they were so desperate to burst out could really work very well in the framework of a musical. Plus the fact that that in the movie music is so important to them. They talk about music, they listen to American popular music standards, the mother sings along with demos she made when she was younger; the daughter dances to the marches. So the fact that they loved music also kind of nudged me into thinking that might also connect some of the dots. I thought that it had a great story and they were incredibly compelling characters but I had no idea how I was going to do it. That was the daunting part. [Laughs]

WCT: Yes and I read in one of your interviews that your writing partner, lyricist Michael Korie thought it was a crazy idea.

SF: Michael was okay with it but it was actually Doug—

WCT: Oh, that's right—Doug Wright who wrote the book.

SF: Yes. It took about a year and a half for Doug to get on board. He loved the movie but had absolutely no idea what I was thinking or how it could work onstage because you know I don't think a documentary had ever been turned into a stage musical before. So not only was there no template for it but the very fact that these women weren't actresses reading lines they were real in the documentary was different. Doug kept saying that he thought as soon as you were removed even one level from their true selves he thought the whole thing would fall apart. That by having actresses play them they would cease to be real somehow. It was actually when we hit on this notion of doing the first act that showed what their life was like at Grey Gardens before things went south—that was the thing that unlocked it for Doug. He thought that, particularly for an audience who didn't know the documentary, showing the stakes and giving a context and a back story would allow a more mainstream audience to become hooked by the story and you could see where they started out and where they ended up.

WCT: It was a brilliant stroke.

SF: The line in the film that unlocked that for me was when she says, 'It's awfully difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.' I mean first of all her sense of language was so incredible—that sounds like Tennessee Williams. They were both so educated and they read poetry and they were beautiful and smart. The movie so skillfully cuts between them in their younger days in the pictures and the oil portraiture of them when they were younger and then the camera pulls back. In one shot you get a sepia-toned photo and then the cat strewn litter in Edie's bedroom and you see the past and the present altogether. I didn't know how to do that until we came up with the first act.

WCT: They're both kind of Blanche DuBois characters.

SF: Oh, absolutely—they're kind of lyrical and a little tragic.

WCT: But tough, too. Can we talk about the character of Gould for a moment? Big Edie's gay accompanist? I think he's this forgotten character or maybe not as appreciated being in the shadow of the two Edie's. That beautiful song 'Drift Away' he sings that you wrote that hints at standards of the period…

SF: I love that song, too. That was the very last song I wrote for the show. That was a replacement song. In the documentary Gould is talked about but you only see like a three second shot of him. They show a picture and he may be wearing a seersucker suit; maybe a bowtie. He looks like a dandy and Edie says, 'Mother's accompanist Gould accompanied her to the movies but didn't provide other things for her.' But the notion of what it would be to be a gay man in 1941 to be able to be pass enough in that society we wanted to show and that actor playing him was fantastic and is tall and good looking. I also like the notion of a witty raconteur who facilitated Edie's performing ambitions but also was a real survivor and managed to latch onto a situation that he benefited from as well. Maybe he realized early on that he wasn't destined for a big career as a pianist or a composer and maybe this looked like a very good thing for him. We became interested in exploring the kind of special relationship they had. Big Edith has a line where she says to him, 'You've been more faithful to me than the man who promised to me' and all three authors—we were all seduced by the notion of a non-sexual but still incredibly intimate relationship. Because they really were soul mates Gould and Edith. They were partners in every way but one.

WCT: Well it resonated so strongly because we know so many gay men who have had this particular relationship with these divas; these women, famous and non-famous. It's not a relationship you often see portrayed. You played a character like this in Postcards from the Edge with Shirley MacLaine as the big star who's always ready to get up and perform. 'Well now, Doris sing something' and there you are ready at a moment's notice to play for her.

SF: Exactly. You point out rightly so that it's not just among performers—that maybe it's a friend of yours who is a florist or that friend of yours who is a hairstylist or an antique dealer. These women had confidantes who were gay men who they were very close to in a way that transcended sexuality. We got a little bit of flack from some people that wondered why three gay men were trotting out what some people felt was a kind of stock and somewhat tragic character of an alcoholic, self-loathing gay man. But I think there were self-loathing alcoholics in their early 40s who frequented bars and had provocative names and obviously couldn't be out in that era.

WCT: And these men still exist, I would guess.

SF: Yes, I think so, too. I'm always amazed when people apply a PC litmus test retroactively and it wasn't like that then. It's only in recent years that we can leave all that behind.

Grey Gardens continued at the link:

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