Through the not-so-wonderful world of bootlegs on YouTube, I recently discovered the musical Grey Gardens. Although this show premiered on Broadway in 2006, it seems to have almost been completely forgotten by the world. I certainly have not heard anyone discussing this gem of a show over the last few years which is truly a pity as I believe it is one of the best shows I have seen. The contents of the show are far from forgettable. The music and lyrics are witty, catchy and often haunting. The costumes and scenery are also very memorable and with a cast as strong as the original Broadway company it really is a mystery that Grey Gardens isn’t the musical hit I believe it deserves to be.
Grey Gardens tells the story of both the somewhat eccentric aunt and the cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two women, who were once rich and socially polished aristocrats, became the most notorious recluses in East Hampton. Act One presents a fictitious account of what life may have been like for Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little” Edie in 1941, when they were at the peak of their social status. Act Two is set 32 years later and is heavily based on the 1975 Maysles Brothers’ documentary, also titled ‘Grey Gardens,’ that followed the everyday lives of the socialites during their reclusive years.
After viewing the musical, I took the opportunity to view the 1975 documentary. I was instantly aware that Act Two of the musical is laced with quotations, conversations and actions that are featured in the documentary. Christine Ebersole, who plays Little Edie in Act Two (and Big Edie in Act One) creates a staggeringly accurate portrayal of Little Edie in her reclusive days. I was thrilled to read afterwards that Ebersole received a Tony award for this role. She successfully brought Little Edie to life on stage every night – this award was well and truly deserved. Mary Louise Wilson received the Tony award for Best Featured Actress. Her portrayal of Big Edie in Act Two was just as accurate as Ebersole’s and the two actresses worked wonderfully well together to portray the squabbling pair and highlight their dysfunctional relationship.
Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that the musical “brings to mind two phrases seldom linked nowadays: ‘Broadway musical’ and ‘artistic integrity’… the songs, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, sustain a level of refined language and psychological detail as elevated as Stephen Sondheim’s. The score is a meticulously fashioned piece of musical theater that gains in depth the more you listen to it.” I could not agree with Holden more. I have found myself listening the Broadway cast recording on repeat over the past few weeks and the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate this fine piece of work.
Grey Gardens is a musical masterpiece that tells the hilariously funny yet also heartbreaking story of the fallen socialites Edith Bouvier Beale and Little Edie. It is a show I highly recommend. I can only hope that one day this show will get the recognition it deserves.