So much about Grey Gardens is first-rate work—a beautiful production, beautifully crafted writing, sumptuously beautiful acting—that its being, like its two main characters, not quite “all there” doesn’t seem to matter very much. Whether it goes on to have a commercial life or not, it will become one of those things that people
always look back on with affection, and talk about with a touch of wonderment. After all, the thing was impossible to begin with: To make a stage musical out of a film is normal practice; to make a stage musical out of a documentary film is a whole other matter, practically a contradiction in terms. No matter how mediated a documentary is by the selection and editing of its material or by the disruptive effect of the filmmaker’s presence on its subjects, its main source of interest is still the reality of what’s onscreen: These people did this and said this; this is the real place where that occurred, preserved on celluloid for posterity. Fiction films, in contrast, are calculated illusions just as stage musicals are. They may get a twinge of documentary truth from real locations or real actions, just as stage actors often say they do from wearing a garment or carrying a prop that has some authentic real-world meaning, but the fact that the 1976 remake of King Kong showed the great ape on the twin towers does not make it a documentary—or a better movie.
Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter—”Big Edie” and “Little Edie”—were not acting, and certainly not following a set script, when they displayed themselves for the Maysles Brothers’ camera in 1975; they were merely presenting themselves, as we all do, pace Erving Goffman, in everyday life. That their idea of everyday life had become so different from everyone else’s is the source of the movie’s fascination: Even if it’s too ludicrous or pathetic or appallingly messy to look at, you can’t look away from it, it’s so unlike your own experience. And yet we know where the Beale ladies came from (the celebrity association with Jackie O. doesn’t hurt). We have an idea of the kind of life from which they sank into what we see. They’re a photographed reality, not a calculated reconstruction of one. What could artists do, not only to replicate a reality so absolute, but to heighten it to a degree that justifies singing, not as an artifact in the Beales’ eccentric life, but as a natural expression of it? In terms of truth, how could a musical number trump a document?
That the answer is “it couldn’t, by definition” doesn’t mean there are no pleasures in music. The creators of Grey Gardens, the musical, have invented something that owes its inspiration to the documentary but never pretends to replace it: What one is watching is always an artists’ fantasy inspired by the movie, and telling a quite different story, with claims to mythic rather than factual meaning. This is not the tale of what actually happened to the Beales, mother and daughter, but a prototype of what happens to women, to the elderly, to the eccentric, when they insist on their individuality and drop, or are dropped by, the society whose mores they flout. That it’s also a story of how the mother-daughter bond becomes simultaneously the two women’s strength and the source of their misery keeps it from being a sentimental whine about women-as-victims. You can admire or empathize with women who accept their own mess and glory in it this way, but you certainly can’t pity them—and they’d be damned sooner than let you, anyhow.
The first half of the musical, taking place in 1941, is a stylized prequel to the movie’s contents, displaying Grey Gardens, the Beales’ lofty East Hampton mansion, in its initial immaculate condition, on what’s meant to be the day of the party celebrating Little Edie’s engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. Done in the style and spirit of a ’40s musical, this act is built on a matrix of pastiche, with Big Edie’s rehearsal of the songs she intends to sing for the occasion providing the excuse, sometimes tenuous, for a series of genre parodies that add an extra layer of surreal camp to the boisterous, bustling ’40s tone, Big Edie’s taste apparently running to ’20s pseudo-Orientalia and other forms of concert condescension practiced by upper-class parlor sopranos. Inevitably, neither the concert nor the engagement comes off, but while the bustle builds up to the inevitable collapse of the Beales’ hopes, we get a good, detailed map, much of it snuck into Michael Korie’s constantly inventive lyrics, of the tensions that are going to turn the two ladies into a social anomaly.
What we don’t get, because the second act takes up the story 30-odd years later, is what turned them into the eccentric recluses of the film. OK, Big Edie’s husband got a Mexican divorce and Little Edie didn’t marry a Kennedy, but women of independent minds have outlived worse social disasters without retreating into cat-infested isolation. For all the brilliance with which Grey Gardens tries to invent a way of viewing the story—and the second act contains its most brilliant number, the show-stopper in which the now-elderly Little Edie expounds her personal theory of fashion politics—some central connection is missing. The glamorous gowned and dinner-jacketed figures out of a Peter Arno cartoon who inhabited Act I have suddenly become half-demented crones living hand to mouth. However much we may admire their capacity to make do in the situation, we can’t help wondering why and how it happened. That would be their drama, and it’s precisely what the musical doesn’t give us. It’s too in love with the real people recorded on film to construct any dramatic life for them except in myth. But a myth is the one thing a documentary isn’t. The more ingenious ways Korie and Frankel find to make the documentary material sing, the more remote the Edies seem from either the real figures on film or the giddy Long Island smart set of Act I. Even the show’s wittiest stroke, a number describing the now derelict mansion from the cats’ point of view, moves us away from the story, not into it.
All the more praise, then, to Michael Greif’s production, which has given the loosely linked material a sense of unity, much helped by Allen Moyer’s shadowy, gliding set and Peter Kaczorowski’s subtly shadowy lighting. (William Ivey Long’s genius for costuming this world is too well-known to require praise.) With one exception—Sara Gettelfinger, whose coarse manner and off-key belting as Act I’s Little Edie are hopelessly out of place—the cast is seamlessly first-rate. Bob Stillman, Michael Potts, Matt Cavenaugh, and most of all Mary Louise Wilson, as Act II’s 80-year-old Big Edie, make especially sterling contributions. And Christine Ebersole’s double triumph is sheer staggering magic: She plays both Act I’s Big Edie, a Billie Burke matron with sour milk and Tabasco added, and Act II’s frumpy, dotty, desperate Little Edie, a Beckettian tramp weirdly compelled to sing show tunes. When her transcendent energy’s switched on, Grey Gardens seems a perfect musical.