It was a national scandal back in the 1970s, when a story came to light of the plight of a pair of impoverished American aristocrats, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, who were found to be living in outrageous squalor in a dilapidated, twenty-eight room, beachside mansion called Grey Gardens in tony East Hampton. The fact that they were the aunt and cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis only ripened the story. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, with the full cooperation of Edith and “Little” Edie, filmed the women in their habitat, revealing their lives in complete candor. The women clearly reveled in the attention. The documentary film Grey Gardens was released in 1975 and was a sensation.
The Broadway musical, Grey Gardens, based on the film, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, extends the story, taking an audience back to a critical moment in 1941. Little Edie was a bold, beautiful socialite who dated wealthy men like J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes. It is the conceit of the musical, that young Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., oldest of the Kennedy brothers, had asked Edie to marry him. In act one, Grey Gardens is in a flurry of activity in preparation for a party announcing the betrothal of Joe and Edie.
“Big” Edie (splendid Rachel York), a frustrated singer repressed by her straight-laced, domineering husband, rules the event dictating orders in the brisk number “The Five-Fifteen.” Trouble arises when Little Edie (vivacious Sarah Hunt) discovers that her mother intends to own the event by singing no less than nine songs accompanied by her gay, live-in accompanist, George Gould Strong (Bryan Batt). House guest Joe Kennedy (engaging, golden voiced Josh Young) comes downstairs where he and Edie score in the vigorous song and dance number “Goin’ Places.” Other members of the Bouvier clan show up to sing and dance. Grandfather J. V. “Major Bouvier” (Simon Jones) tells his granddaughters Lee and Jacqueline (delightful young performers Peyton Ella and Katie Silverman) to “Marry Well.” Even the Beale butler, Brooks (Davon Williams) joins in the fun. But this is a story of mother/daughter conflict with moments of love and rapprochement, capped by need and ultimate betrayal. It is no secret that Joe Kennedy never married and died in World War II.
The second act of this utterly unique, intriguing musical leaps to 1973. Grey Gardens is a wreck, and Little Edie (now played by Rachel York) lives with her aging mother Big Edie (the great Betty Buckley) with a dozen cats and the occasional raccoon. The house is filthy and insect infested. The money is gone and the town of East Hampton wants the place condemned.
Little Edie, as exposed in the Maysles film, is a little bent, a little narcissistic, and completely candid about her life, her mother and their situation. The style of the 1940s is left behind and the tone of act two is much more intimate and emotional. Edie likes to sing and dance and does so for the Maysles’ camera, which is represented by an onstage cinematographer and sound man whose work is projected in giant images on the set. She revels in her unique, homemade fashions in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and marches in military fashion, joined by the ensemble in the patriotic, “The House We Live In.” Edith reveals her own narcissistic self-satisfaction in “The Cake I Had” and expresses her delight with their unaffected teenaged friend, Jerry (Josh Young), in the wistful “Jerry Likes My Corn.”
It would be simplistic to call the relationship of the two women love/hate; it is much more complex. There is genuine affection, and genuine frustration and resentment. Edie has a good case; her mother is manipulative. Edith kept her daughter close “for her own good.”
The audience response to this show can be mixed. Some will like the first act better than the second; some will take the reverse position. In reality, it is all of a piece and brilliantly conceived. To have the same actress play the mother in act one and the daughter in act two is extraordinary. It gives that actress a chance for a tour de force, which Ms. York achieves in spades.
Grey Gardens continues through August 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles.