Among the songs he wrote for Grey Gardens, the musical depiction of the strange first act and stranger second act of the lives of fallen socialites "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale are "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," "Jerry Likes My Corn," "Hominy Grits" and "Around the World." It's unlikely that these songs will ever enter the cabaret circuit and stand-alone standards, but they deftly express the wayward philosophies and plaintive hopes of two weird, but fiercely independent women. The musical, which is up for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score (music is by Scott Frankel), is one of two Korie triumphs of the past season. The other came in the world of opera, where his staged version of The Grapes of Wrath, written with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, opened to acclaim in Minnesota. It has since bowed at Utah Opera and has many more stops on its agenda. Korie spoke to Playbill.com about how one creates two full characters out of the hints provided by a bizarre documentary.
Playbill.com: Many of your lyrics in Grey Gardens are taken directly from the documentary film of the same name. How did you go about mingling the Beales' words with your own?
Michael Korie: I tried to ground a lot of the lyrics in quotations, but they're not solid quotations, because I had to create a lyric that Scott Frankel could set to music with repeated forms and themes, As and Bs and all of that. So what I did was find one or two quotes that I liked that I felt were essential to the song moment. Then I would find parallel structures for them with my own lyrics. The one song that people remark upon is "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," because with that one I was able to create in the very first "A" verse Edie's way of speaking. There are actually three parts in that song where I used Edie's way of speaking. There's the first "A" when she described the way that she wears the outfit. That was the one I based the subsequent verses on, which were all original. The release section, as they call it, is where she sings "Staunch" — it's a word that she puts such an emphasis on in the film, and Scott and I together felt that that deserved a release all by itself, made up basically of one word. The rest of it was paraphrasing, so that it would fit within the rhythm. "Another Winter in a Summer Town," that song was based on the quote, "Another Winter. Oh God!" It drew from something she said. That's basically what I tried to do; take a few words. One could make a little Edie primer of all her great quotes. Why not reference them? So, that was my modus operandi.
Playbill.com: Was "Revolutionary Costume" the first song you wrote for the show?
MK: No. Actually, bizarrely enough, the first song I wrote was "Two Peas in a Pod." Once we decided to do the two-act structure with two different eras and the intermission in between being a big question mark, then we realized that the two acts would balance each other and have a kind of parallel structure. One of the first things we discussed was how Edith would show her rivalry with her daughter, and that was through the concerts that she gives. We had it through Edie's cousin, John Davis, who had written a book, that Edith liked to concertize. So, I devised a list of songs that might be on a concert program. I ran it past Scott and he said "Do this one." That was also important because we knew we didn't want to quote pre-existing songs, but we didn't want to pastiche them either. We wanted to write songs that sounded like they were from the era. "Two Peas in a Pod" was basically a boy-girl song, like "Tea for Two." That was our version for "Tea for Two." That set the precedent for the style of songs that she would do in her concerts.
Playbill.com: What Act Two song did you write first?
MK: The first song I wrote for Act Two was "Revolutionary Costume." We spent a lot of time working on Act One, knowing we would have to deal with Act Two, but Act One was the one that was made out of whole cloth. "The Revolutionary Costume" was important for that act in that we had debated among ourselves whether we should start Act Two with an establishing song like "Entering Grey Gardens." But then we said, "No, that would cast a pall over the whole act. Much better to meet this individual as she marches through the door, welcomes you to her world with her philosophy and she'd have you on her side." Then, I went to Edith's song, "The Cake I Had," to find her philosophy. Those were the first two songs for that act. Then we thought a lot about how we would use the ensemble, and we ended up finding three places to use them. [One was] "The House We Live In," [which] is a song that Doug [Wright] requested I write a lyric to. The dance in the film had been the Virginia Institute Military March, which was an old record Edith had because her brother attended that school. Scott was of a mind to use this, but I said, "Why should we, when everything else we've created is original?" And Doug said, "One of the things that we feel this show is about is about America, the House standing for America in one era when we felt we knew what we were about, and in the second era, when we were under the shadow of Watergate and questioning our values. Write a song about the house that's really about America." That was the decision we did for that song.
Playbill.com: In a lot of the songs, particularly "Jerry Likes My Corn," you have to work hand-in-glove with librettist Doug Wright. The book keeps coming in and out of the song.
MK: That's correct. That was a very back-and-forth kind of thing. Though, I will say that that moment in the documentary was the moment that made feel this could be a musical, because I felt there were all the ingredients in that scene — the mother-daughter rivalry; the past; the way that she holds up the absent brothers, with Jerry as their sort of stand-in over Edie after Edie has been trying to take care of her — it seemed so loaded psychologically that I said, "That's the song that I have to write." But it's one that I held back from writing until I really understood how that moment would work. There was a lot of back-and-forth work with Doug on what would be spoken and what would be sung. And then there was that crazy argument about sex. I thought that would be most effective if it were sung. Time starts to drift in that song in a good way. You sort of feel like you're in Grey Gardens floating along. It's a very long song. But it seems to be the right song to occupy the center of the act. Playbill.com: I sometimes got the feeling in Act One that you and Scott and Doug were trying to create a show that was like the shows that would have been on the stage back then, in 1941.
MK: That's not incorrect. We were thinking that the two women — as the grandfather puts it when he dressing Edith down, "you're an actress without a stage." They both had ambitions, particularly the mother. Whatever little career she had begun to carve out for herself was squelched by her conservative husband, who was a lawyer and didn't approve of this bohemian lifestyle. They led separate lives. I also thought of Gould, the live-in pianist, as a composer who might not have become famous in his own right, but was very skillful at writing the types of songs that would have been in vogue at the time.
Playbill.com: Did you actually find some of his music?
MK: No. We didn't find his music. We didn't actually find out that those songs existed at the time. It's funny. We came into contact with his descendents after the show opened and they said he was very much like [the way he is in the show]. I figured he would write a Noel Coward-esque song. I figured "Two Peas in a Pod" would be a song he had written for Edith. So there were the show songs, that Gould had written for her, and then there were the songs that strictly advanced the plot.
Playbill.com: I'm just curious. Did Gould actually die the way it's said in the show, as a suicide in a seedy hotel?
MK: No. I made that up. I combined the character of Gould, whom we knew nothing about — there was no information about him — with another gay songwriter who had recorded a number of songs and committed suicide.
Playbill.com: Have you since found out how Gould died?
MK: We found out that Gould lived a lovely life. He liked to go to Broadway matinees. His brother was a florist. The two of them never married. He continued to live in the Hamptons after he separated from Edith.
Playbill.com: The little ditties Edith sings about being a Geisha and "Hominy Grits," how did those come about?
MK: Those songs are a little bit different because they're both racist. One of them has a specific purpose. With "Hominy Grits," Edith might have thought that was an acceptable comic relief song for her rich white guests. But in rehearsal, we knew the grandfather had to squash this concert. She had to sing something that was particularly offensive to him. What was offensive to him was not so much the racism, though it is offensive, but the fact that she sang it in front of the servants. You never embarrass the servants, and you never reveal yourself to the servants.
Playbill.com: Did you do research when writing those songs by looking at similar songs in the past?
MK: Yes. I looked at all those horrible songs. There was a whole bunch of those kind of songs which were disgusting. There are dozens. The Geisha song was put in so "Hominy" didn't come out of left field. We had to establish that this was something she did.
Playbill.com: In the future, do you envision ever allowing one of the acts of Grey Gardens to be performed on its own?
MK: Well, I really think that the two reflect upon each other. Basically, they have the same story, where Little Edie tries to leave home. I think they might be incomprehensible if performed separately. We have to take into consideration that the majority of our audience will have never seen the documentary. To just open the show with a woman opening her front porch door and saying "This is the way to dress," I don't think it would have gotten nearly the reaction it did if it hadn't had the foundation of the first act to support it.
Playbill.com: Did you ever expect the show to go to Broadway.
MK: A funny thing that happened was at Playwrights Horizons it was beautifully produced, but Act One always felt a bit like a fish out of water. When we moved into the Walter Kerr, even though we had done quite a lot of rewrites, which helped and made the first act a good deal better, the very fact that we were in this theatre, and it felt like the kind of theatre where you would be seeing a Philip Barry-era play, somehow made it all correct.
Playbill.com: I always felt the first act had a "Philadelphia Story" feeling to it.
MK: That was without question the idea behind it.
Playbill.com: I know your opera of The Grapes of Wrath is scheduled at various opera houses over the next couple years. Will it ever come to New York?
MK: The Grapes of Wrath had a very successful premiere at the Minnesota Opera, followed by another successful outing at the Utah Opera. It's now going to the Opera Pacific, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Houston Opera and possibly some others. The Metropolitan people sent their people to see it. I doubt the Met will do it, because the Met likes to commission its own new work. And I don't know what's happening in New York opera, because the Met has changed administrations. So I'd say there's a good chance of it never coming to New York. I think The Grapes of Wrath will have a good life going around the country, and there has been interest expressed from Russia and England and the English National Opera. I'm not sure there is a place to do it in New York, and that's fine.