Now, it is — a bittersweet and haunted one, to be sure — having evolved from mansion to movie to musical. And it's still evolving. Albert Maysles, who shot the celebrated 1975 documentary with his late brother David, was wheeling his camera around the Walter Kerr Theatre and after-party at The Central Park Boathouse at the happy chaos of opening night, filming his latest — a documentary on the making of the musical of his film.
Everyone who inhabits this musical Grey Gardens is a ghost now, save for Radziwill and Torre. Played by Kelsey Fowler, she is seen as an eight-year-old in 1941, visiting with her older sister Jackie Bouvier [Kennedy Onassis] the elegant East Hampton estate of their aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and cousin "Little" Edie Beale. Christine Ebersole, in last season's most honored Off-Broadway performance(s), is Edith in the first act and "Edie" in the second; Broadway-debut Erin Davie is her daughter in Act One, and a terrific Mary Louise Wilson is her mother in Act Two. A quantum leap of 32 years separates the two acts. With Edith deprived of funds from father and ex alike, her lavish home has turned into "a 28-room kitty-litterbox," overrun by 52 cats and layered in filth. Torre is a teenager on a summer job who wanders into the Maysles picture and befriends Edith; he's played by Matt Cavenaugh, who doubles in Act One as Joe Kennedy Jr., Edie's intended.
"How do I feel about it? Seeing somebody play me is, like, 'Okay, bring it up a few notches,'" Torre gushed with unguarded enthusiasm. "I loved it. It's a trip down memory lane. I'm overwhelmed. Such an honor." He remembered well the day he had his lasting brush with fame. "I recall Albert Maysles showing up with his brother at the mansion. I was just a kid. I didn't know what to say to him. There was no script. I thought they were film students from New York University. I didn't think they were really professionals."
Torre's chosen profession — it chose him, he said — is cab driver. "I drive a Yellow Cab in Manhattan three days a week. I've been doing it for 19 years. I'm about ready to retire."
The current cabbie and the former princess crossed paths after the show. "Lee looks great. She's a charming woman. She seemed very happy, and she seemed to like the show. We greeted each other, but didn't say much. She was in a rush. I hadn't see her 31 years. I remember meeting Lee on the front lawn of Grey Gardens in 1975. I mixed her a drink and brought it down to her on the front lawn. We discussed the renovations of the mansion." Torre's attendance was always a given, and his name was listed on the Photo Tip sheet, but the collective corporate jaws of The Publicity Office dropped when Radziwell made a last-minute regal sweep into the Walter Kerr. She obliged the photographers but tried to make as little fuss as possible. She saw the show Off-Broadway — or at least, according to the columns, Act One — so her opening-night appearance threw one and all for a loop.
How, then, did it happen? It seems she is a close friend of William Ivey Long, the Tony-winning (for The Producers) costume designer who predictably has a field day giving Edie Beale her designer dues, imitating her ragtag-with-flair fashion sense. He persuaded her to give the whole show a shot — and he told no one she was coming. "Aren't I naughty?" Peck's Bad Boy told publicists. An opening night party would be pushing it.
First-nighters not in the play included Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell, Anne Jeffreys (still Topper in the untouched-by-time division), Denis Leary, Billy Stritch, Kyan Douglas, Margo Martindale, Lucy Simon, Dana Delaney, M. Butterfly Tony winner B.D. Wong, Hairspray Tony winners Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa, The Times' cabaret and screen critic Stephen Holden, Nora Ephron, Darren Starr, Dr. Ava Shamban, Diane McInerney, Brana Wolf, Legally Blonde's choreographer-turning-director Jerry Mitchell with Grey Gardens' assistant choreographer Jodi Moccia (in a dazzling dress he bought her a decade ago), Bill C. Jones, Laura Belle Bundy, Denny Dillon (now an artist as well as an actress with her own gallery in Stone Ridge, NY), Cornelia Guest, producers Daryl Roth and Chase Mishkin, director David Leveaux (on a break from L.A. huddles with Robbie Robertson about an original musical), Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik, Awake and Sing's Lauren Ambrose, Dirty Blonde Claudia Shear, Irish Rep's high priestess Charlotte Moore, designers Kenny Ortega, Michael Kors and Arnold Scassi, John Patrick Shanley, a redheaded Christiane Noll, Regrets Only director Christopher Ashley, biographer Charlotte Chandler and assorted Beales and Bouviers.
The suggested dress code for the evening — Eccentric Edie would have approved — was "uniquely festive, with red shoes preferred." This, because it was Thursday, and one of the lines in the play has Edie railing against the petty rules of hoity-toity East Hampton: "They can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday." Like a number of lines in the show, it was lifted exact and intact from the lips of the real Beales in the Maysles movie.
A fleet of Hampton Jitney buses whisked the above to the lavish after-party up in Central Park at The Boathouse. (Getting back to civilization was less glamorous: trolleys hauled passengers back to Fifth Avenue and expelled them en masse, creating nasty taxi wars.)
It was a nippy night for The Boathouse, although most revelers never noticed. Stars and the press did, having to converge on the open-air (non-enclosed) terrace for interviews.
Ebersole arrived late, like A Star, and shivering like a mortal one. She quickly maneuvered the hugs and kisses closer to the raging fireplaces. Yes, she said, she felt great. "It felt like a triumph. I did it for Edie and the audience. It's such a special night."
The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, current owners of Grey Gardens, were at the front of the receiving line. He presented her as an opening-night gift a copy of his book, "Conversations with Kennedy," and she shrieked with delight over the inscription.
Mary Louise Wilson's red gossamer was no shield from the weather so, as soon as the television interviewers had their way with her, she made a bee-line for warmer climes to meet the print. The secret of her success at playing the imperiously impoverished Edith: "She doesn't notice her surroundings. She might as well be sitting in a tea room with the finest settings you can find. 'Where are the servants?'" And that's the way she plays it.
The third face of Edie — Young Edie of the first act — is a brand new face for Broadway: Erin Davie.. What did she learn from this debut ride to Broadway? "I learned I could do it," she replied simply. "When you're a struggling actor, you're, like, 'Can I really do Broadway? Am I good enough to do that?' And you know what? Everybody —even the best actors — they're just like you, and they're human, and it's all a collaborative process.
"This was pretty daunting, but these are the coolest people — on and off stage — and they were so welcoming to me. It's a treat all around. I am learning so much every night."
Another debut is marked by Sarah Hyland, blissed out about playing Jackie O. at age 12. Entre nous, she admitted she's turning 16 in a couple of weeks and goes to Professional Performing Arts School, which, as luck has it, is a block from the Kerr.
Broadway vet John McMartin also get dual roles — first as a Bouvier then as a Peale (i.e., Norman Vincent Peale doing a gospel-thumping "Choose to Be Happy"); he rules the roost in the first act as the daft but tyrannical patriarch J.V. "Major" Bouvier. "A Beale came up to me and said, 'You can play my grandfather anytime," he beamed.
One of the pillars of sanity in Grey Gardens is Michael Potts, playing father-and-son servants both named Brooks. "I think the role speaks for the incredible sophistication of servants in this type of household," he said. "They know everything that's going on, and they learn who these people are — their personalities, and how to meet their needs. I think he finds them absolutely amusing and kinda wonderful — despite their little foibles."
Bob Stillman, who played the men in the life of Mae West in Dirty Blonde, plays the one man in the life of Edith Beale, a gay housepet pianist named George Gould Strong. "We knew nothing about him except for what's mentioned in the movie," said Stillman. "Then, recently, some people turned up who are the great nephews of George Gould Strong. Their father, who is the nephew, lives out in East Hampton and is still alive, but he's reluctant to get involved with us or anybody involved doing the movie [a nonmusical "Grey Gardens" feature is in preproduction]. But the great-nephews came to see the show and want to share some of his poetry and diaries. George Gould Strong became a Jehovah's Witness and died of a bleeding ulcers. I asked his relatives, 'Was that brought on by his drinking?' And this guy said, 'I dunno, but it wouldn't be out of character.'"
Cavenaugh had an easier time of it research-wise. One character was in the phone book; the other is part of Kennedy lore. "I didn't know that much about Joe Jr.," he admitted, "but I think I would have liked him. I could see if you crossed him, you may be in for a rough ride. You wouldn't want to cross him. As for Jerry, it has been a treat to meet him and spend time with him. He's such a sweet, sweet man. He just wants to be a part of it. He just wants to connect with people. I think you see that in the documentary as well."
Cavenaugh had a quite different (albeit, still Presidential) accent his last time on Broadway when he had the title role in Urban Cowboy. That came and went pretty fast, unlike the methodically hitmaking ground work put into Grey Gardens. "It has been a great process," he allowed. "We started at the Sundance Theatre Lab close to two years ago now in December of '04, first workshopping, then of course there were other workshops before we went to Playwrights Horizons. That's another thing: It's sincerely gratifying to be part of a project from the beginning and to see it come to such fruition."
After three sold-out extensions at Playwrights Horizons, a group of productions (East of Doheny, Staunch Entertainment, Randall L. Wreghitt / Mort Swinsky, Michael Alden and Edwin W. Schloss) banded together to move Grey Gardens to Broadway — only to find there was no room in the inn, and they had to wait to a new season to open it.
Grey Gardens is a world removed from director Michael Greif's previous work (Rent, Never Gonna Dance), and he's happy to be aboard.
"I was very happy that this piece found me," he said, reversing the usual order of things. "My pal, Scott Frankel, and Doug Wright — and Michael Korie, whom I didn't know before hand — [respectively, the composer, book writer and lyricist of Grey Gardens] thought of me and sent me this script. I was immediately attracted to how sophisticated and intelligent and heartbreaking it is. I love how the first act has a musical motor that's both realistic and theatrical, but mostly I love the depth of this relationship and this need that this mother and daughter have for one another and the way they express that need."
He can't praise Ebersole and Wilson enough. "To work with these two actresses has been a great odyssey. I think they have been wonderfully inspired by the film, and they were genuinely moved to do these women—to honor these women and their memories." The film kicks in with Act Two and starts with a showstopper, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," in which Edie does a fashion commentary taken almost wholly from the documentary and somehow rhymed. "That's Michael Korie's brilliance," said composer Frankel, blithely passing the credit down the line, "to be able to distill the text of that and the essence of her. Night after night, Christine stops the show. I marvel at that. "I hope that some of the songs will become standards. 'Will You?' and ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town,' for instance — I hope that they have a life outside of the show. "Watching the documentary, there's almost an embarrassment of song possibilities. You're saying, 'Well, that could be a song, and that could be a song, and that could be song.' My favorite song [Wilson's, also] is 'Jerry Likes My Corn,' the way it goes from 'Hello' to heartbreak. I was actually crying when I wrote the end of that song."
Frankel can't say what's next on his docket. "I have a couple of irons in the fire, but it's too soon to say. It can't involve wacky broads. I've done my definitive wacky broad musical. Now something really different stylistically. It's got to be a great story. Stephen Sondheim taught me that. It's got to be a great story that reaches out and grabs you."
Grey Gardens reached out and grabbed him — but not at all immediately. "I'd known the documentary for many years, but it never occurred to me that it could be the basis for a musical adaptation — and then, one day, it just did. I was walking down the street, and it kinda popped into my head. It was very strange. I thought, Well, they were both such performers — they were almost exhibitionists — and the fact that they had this adoration for American popular song, I thought that maybe this could really lend itself to a musical.
"But I watched it on Turner Classic Movies the other night, and I thought, What the hell was I thinking! It is not a natural. This does not immediately come to mind as the basis for a musical. It is definitely outside the box. But maybe those are the best ideas worth doing and the ones that are more natural don't need to become musicals."
Book writer Wright, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner (both for I Am My Own Wife), has no problem of sharing the authorship of Grey Gardens with the loose-lipped mistresses of the manor. "Those remarkable ladies largely authored the piece themselves," he admitted. "They were great iconoclasts. They were savage wits. They both boasted caustic humor. They had endless resourcefulness. They survived every day under absolutely impossible circumstances. It was a treat to walk in their shoes for a while."
For the backstory (read: Act One), he was pretty much on his own. "I did a lot of research. It is true that Big Edie's father cut her off. Little Edie was briefly engaged to Joe Kennedy, and it fell apart. All the rudimentary facts of the first act are true. They just didn't happen on one fateful afternoon. We're trying to serve dramatists and leave history to the historians. [A program note warns: The events of play are based on both fact and fiction.]
"We were so besotted with all the rich possibilities of the documentary that we crammed our original first act full of all of them. Then, seeing the play night after night at Playwrights Horizons, we realized we needed to winnow away and direct an audience's attention to what was at the core of our story, which was this profound parent-child relationship, this whole notion that a loving parent can wound with one hand and bandage with the other. That's the nature of the relationship, so a lot of the first-act work was just about getting rid of our infatuation with the period and the color of their lives and distilling it down to the core of a good mother-and-daughter story that we wanted to tell."
He took heart that Radziwell had attended the opening. "I'm thrilled she came," Wright said. "I haven't had an occasion to meet with her or talk to her about the piece, but I thought it was deeply moving she decided to attend tonight. She has always been very discreet. She never approached us directly so we never wanted to intrude on her privacy."
Wright, in fact, like the idea that both survivors of Grey Gardens had been at the play's Broadway arrival. "Jerry has been tremendous, and he has been a big advocate of ours. And, frankly, he has much readier access to the Lee Radziwells of the world than I do."