The Brain Trust Trio Behind Grey Gardens
Interviews with Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright
Three remarkable men have generated Grey Gardens, now in its area premiere at the Ordway. The Tony Award-winning musical both speculates on and draws from actual material about the plight of “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis. The Beales plummeted from aristocratic elegance in the 1940s to squalor in their decrepit Long Island mansion by the 1970s.The 1975 Maysles Brothers documentary about the pair was instrumental in the development of the musical at New York’s Playwrights Horizon and its subsequent transfer to Broadway. Grey Gardens appeals to our nostalgic impulse, yet compels us, subversively, to see life at its most elemental—a paradox rare in plays, musical or nonmusical. It’s something that only theatrical masters can pull off.
Composer Scott Frankel was the first of the trio to see the possibilities in the Grey Gardens story. Lyricist Michael Korie is beloved for his opera librettos for Harvey Milk and The Grapes of Wrath. Musical book writer Doug Wright is best-known for his transgender masterpiece I Am My Own Wife. All three were Tony-nominated for Grey Gardens.
I recently spoke with these three men separately by phone.
Interview with Scott Frankel
When did you become interested in the subject of Grey Gardens?
I saw the documentary in the early- to mid-’90s, and was always fascinated by the Edies. I first saw the documentary in Provincetown. It now has a wider mainstream audience. About 2000 and 2001, I started to think about it, because of the fact that they were frustrated performers—that could serve as a kind of an engine for turning it into a musical.
It’s extraordinary for a musical, and such a successful one at that, to be drawn from a documentary. Can you describe how you achieved that?
The first act is the back story set in the ’40s. It’s a very conscious effort to evoke that period—Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin—like a movie musical or a stage musical of the period. Act Two goes away from that with an eerie, bittersweet, harmonic sense.
Interview with Michael Korie
You’ve taken a very realistic, gritty documentary, and turned it into a big musical. How did you do that?
Well, it may sound crazy, but Scott Frankel, the composer, had the idea.
I was already interested in documentary-to-music theater, because I had been a journalist when I was a kid, and I worked on the Harvey Milk opera, where I interviewed real-life people, and turned that into opera. I feel that yesterday’s fact is tomorrow’s myth in this speeded-up world we live in. So, I’m interested in documentary and true-to-life things, and not changing the names to protect the innocent.
But how it came about: Scott Frankel had the idea, and he called me up to say, “What do you think?”
I had seen the documentary years before, and even for me, it was a little bit daunting to think about. But I watched it again, and when it came to the scene in the documentary where Mama Edith was cooking corn in a hot plate next to her bed for Jerry the handyman, while her daughter was sitting on the other bed fiddling around with her shoe, I said, “Oops! Here we have everything we need for a musical, because you have this mother/daughter relationship that has problems. You have the mother claiming what a good mother she is, because she’s cooking corn, and saying what a good surrogate son Jerry is at the expense of the daughter.”
And I said, “My God! There are so many things going on here that I don’t know how to turn it into a musical, but I know there’s a musical in it—and not just a campy musical.”
I wanted a musical that was real and I told Scott Frankel. Though I had written librettos for operas, I don’t want to even begin to think about how to write a book for this. Let’s get a great playwright and we got Doug Wright interested. But it took a year of convincing him to do it because he didn’t see a way into it. Until we finally came up with what might seem obvious but wasn’t to us, which is chronology. Doing Grey Gardens before the fall and Grey Gardens after. And that seemed very modern. There are great mysteries why little Edie became the person she did. Why these two women fell on hard times and we weren’t interested in giving alot of easy answers to that. We wanted the audience to make the connections themselves. And so the intermission where 30 years go by. Alot happens in those 30 years. And you have to sort of put the seeds that we planted in Act I together with the manifestation of the weeds that grew out of Act II.
Something that’s especially striking about Grey Gardens now, just this very spring, even moreso than when it was on Broadway just a few years ago, is the economic downturn. This musical hits a raw nerve now with our economy on its spiral downward, like few musicals.
You know, you’re the first journalist to ever point that out. We can now really understand first hand that situation.
It hits this collective fear and fascinates us at the same time.
This may sound a little pretentious or whatever, but the three of us looked at the Grey Gardens house as a microcosm of America. In its heyday, when all was beautiful and it looked like a spread from Town And Country. And post-Watergate. And post-Vietnam. Post-assassinations, when the very fabric of America was weathered and we were questioning our values. So the house’s decline reflects our decline of faith in the beliefs we once had. We even wrote aong about that. Doug asked me to write a song called The House We Live In in Act II and that was to kind’ve nail that point.
Note: Heads up. Michael Korie will return with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, with whom he created The Grapes of Wrath, for the Minnesota Opera 2010-11 commission of The Garden of the Finzi Continis in St. Paul. Yes, that Finzi Continis! The one made into the timeless Vittorio de Sica film about creeping fascism in Mussolini’s Italy.
Presently, despite the fact that Harvey Milk is an acclaimed opera, there is no production pending anywhere. Opera costs are prohibitive and the economy is in dire straits. But who knows, Kushner’s in town and they say there are Angels in America.
Interview with Doug Wright
You have a gift for examining in your plays people and viewpoints of people who have fallen through the cracks. You look at the humanity of those who have fallen to the wayside in the eyes of others: Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife; even the Marquis de Sade while imprisoned, in Quills; and certainly the women of Grey Gardens. Where does this capacity to understand outsiders come from?
I think sometimes the more marginal people in our culture actually tell the largest truths. We think of the Edies as relatively extreme, and yet on closer examination, they’re not that different than we are. Their habits are just more entrenched, and maybe a little more baroque, but they’re still ultimately very human people.
In talking about the Edies, I often think about my Aunt Mary Louise in Texas. She was a big hoarder who liked to collect newspapers to the point where they were stacked in columns all around her house. It was really becoming a health hazard, and the whole family was really put out by it. But I think what she was doing was very human and very relatable. She was just always confident that she didn’t have time to read the paper today, but she’d read it tomorrow. And it became her way of kind of hoarding time. So, suddenly, an activity that seems eccentric on the surface was actually very human.
We have a tendency to pathologize such behavior, or make it into a neurosis. A lot of us are clutter fiends.I think it’s really true. People often have asked in relation to the Edies, “Well, were they really die-hard mavericks, or were they mentally ill?” And I always think that’s kind of a specious question, because my response is, “Why are those two things mutually exclusive?”
The way we sort of demonize mental illness—sometimes, the most maverick people in the culture are that because their thought processes are a little different or far from conventional. I think it arguably has more to do with marginalization, because when you’re shut out from the dominant culture, and look through glass at it, you scrutinize it with a heightened clarity. If you want to know everything about a country club, just ask the person who didn’t get in, and chances are their knowledge of it will be relatively encyclopedic.
It’s why so many gay people are artists. When you’re denied participation in the dominant culture, you become its critic by nature. And sometimes, your observations about it are truer than those people who are in the middle of it, and can’t see the forest for the trees.
With Quills, you really forced us to re-examine the sadistic tendency -no pun intended- of the Marquis de Sade. Talk about a ‘spook house’. Camile Paglia, of course, exalts him as one of the most important figures in Western Culture. And Simone de Beauvoir also came to his defense. What are your thoughts on Sade?
I wish I could roll back time back when I was thinking about Sade, for better or worse, day or night. I think really, Sade is a study in extremity. I think he was ultimately a genius, that some of his writing is every bit as strong as Jonathan Swift’s. I also think he was a perpetual, enraged adolescent and there’s pages and pages in 120 Days of Sodom and Justine and Juliette that are nothing more than than a puerile kind of adolescent male ramblings. So I think that he’s probably one of the most extreme voices we’ve ever had in literature. Wildly inconsistent. At times transcendent. And at other times, simply base. But I guess one thing that fascinated me about Sade and made me want to write the story was the relationship between the muse and the censor. I remember reading about (photographer) Robert Mapplethorpe and (Republican U.S. Senator) Jesse Helms and that whole controversy. And people always suggested that they were adversaries in the Culture Wars. And I thought their relationship was sort of beautifully symbiotic because the more that Helms decried Mapplethorpe, the more Helms got re-elected and the more that Mapplethorpe combatted Helms, then suddenly his estate was issuing coffee table books at Barnes and Noble. And this kind of obscure homoerotic photographer suddenly became mainstream. And I thought, there’s no more reliable muse for any artist than the censor. And the two are locked in a kind of inevitable dance and they feed off one another and on some level they require one another. And at the end of the day that was the real subject of the play.
It seems like whenver the Christian Right goes after gays, the gay movement, all of the sudden, despite its comparatively small numbers, surmounts them. Even after the most ferocious years of the AIDS epidemic in America, by the end of the ’80s, the gay movement had gained a kind of grudging respectability among the American public.
I think that’s true.
At the Jungle Theater, the area premiere of I Am My Own Wife in 2007, was a big hit. Its run was extended and won Bradley Greenwald an IVEY Award. One of the general criticisms about alot of transgender drama is that it tends to be about one’s transgender awakening and all that could surround such an awakening. But I heard recently from two MTF women who had transitioned many years before that they wanted to see more about someone who was farther along in their trans identity. I know Charlotte Von Mahlsdorff never had the surgery, but she came into her own cross-gender identity. So it’s definitely a rare exception as the play is far from being primarily about coming to grips with being a trans person. I Am My Own Wife goes well beyond that.
Charlotte had a very particular and unusual view of her own sexuality becasue she was working out of different models than what we have today. Like today, we’re so sophisticated about what constitutes someone who is transvestite; what constitutes someone who is truly trans and how that differs from homosexuality and all those issues.
And Charlotte was coming out of this 19th Century model that was iterated by the sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, who had this whole theory of three classes of gender: male, female, and basically a third catch-all group for anyone in between. And so Charlotte would always say there’s no war within me between male and female. I’m simply a member of the Third Sex. Female spirit in a male body and that’s my biology and that’s my fate and I’m completely at home in that construct. So it was a very different way of perceiving gender than I think we have today, where we’re so binary about it.
And you have a gay character in Grey Gardens.
Yes. Gould. The piano player. We did historical research and there is a historical precedent for him. He was Big Edie’s pianist and they did have a very long and a very close relationship. In listening to recordings and seeing photographs we presumed him to be gay. His family has, at times, taken issue with that and said they do not know what his sexuality was. So we’ve possibly taken a liberty. But we sort of drew alot of inspiration from a cabaret piano player from the 1940s named Bruz Fletcher. He made a few recordings that are still available to us. He was wildly camp and ended up committing suicide. And very droll, but clearly a product of that early generation of gay man in this country for whom it was disapproved of socially and (who were) still living a coded underground life so it engendered alot of internalized homophobia and I think Gould suffered from all of that. So he’s kind of a tragic broken figure I think.
Does he find acceptance from the Edies?
I think so. I think that among them he feels truly at home and it’s interesting to note too that Jerry the handyman who takes care of them in Act II, the actual Jerry is a gay man. And that’s not evident in the film. He was a teenager and hadn’t come out (when the film was shot) and so we don’t make an issue of it in the piece. But again, it’s interesting how the Edies have always attracted a gay following, both in the film and also in life.
Grey Gardens / Through May 17 / Ordway McKnight Theatre, 345 Washington St., St. Paul / (651) 224-4222 / www.ordway.org