STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Grey Gardens and Little Mermaid Librettist Doug Wright

This month we chat with playwright Doug Wright, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner (I Am My Own Wife), and take a glance at the 2005 Golden Globes.

Doug Wright
Doug Wright (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

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“Under ordinary circumstances, I’d be a bit frightened about getting back on the horse and following up that success,” says Doug Wright, referring to the galloping triumph of I Am My Own Wife, which premiered at Manhattan’s Playwrights Horizons during the summer of 2003, transferred to Broadway that December, received the Pulitzer and won a Tony as Best Play of 2003-04. “But in a musical like this [ Grey Gardens, which begins performances at Playwrights Horizons Feb. 10, prior to a March 7 premiere], I have so many wonderful collaborators that I feel like it’s a team effort. I don’t feel quite as naked as I might otherwise.”

Grey Gardens is based on the 1975 documentary about Edith Bouvier Beale (1896-1977), an aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, and her daughter, Little Edie (1917-2002). Beale and her daughter shared a dilapidated 28-room East Hampton mansion with raccoons, opossums and (at one time) 75 cats.

Not unlike the German transvestite, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), who was the focus of I Am My Own Wife, Edith Beale is an unusual type dressed in female attire. I ask if Wright might somehow be drawn to this type of person. “I feel it’s my fate to write about eccentric old ladies tottering around in overcrowded rooms,” he states, with a laugh.

“The musical has been a labor of love for our composer, Scott Frankel, explains Wright. “He saw the documentary years ago and had the inspired idea it might make a compelling musical. Scott very aggressively pursued the rights and secured the cooperation of Albert Maysles, one of the remarkable [four] filmmakers responsible for the original film. Scott approached his long-time collaborator, Michael Korie, for the lyrics, and the two of them came to me to do the book. “At first, I was very reluctant because I adored the movie and felt that it was an extremely difficult adaptation. I didn’t want to desecrate a piece that I absolutely adored. But slowly I started to find my way into the material and see the logic of making it a musical. These were two women who sustained themselves in song — had the whole American popular songbook at their disposal to get through those long, empty days in East Hampton. The more I watched the film, the more it curiously became a musical in my mind.”

Both women were trained singers and had sought careers in show business. They spent a great deal of time singing for each other. In the documentary, Little Edie’s numbers include “You and the Night and the Music,” “Tea for Two” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Following her mother’s death, Edie sold the mansion (in 1979) to Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, who restored its former glory.

Some 30 years pass between Acts One and Two. Mary Louise Wilson and Christine Ebersole star as mother and daughter. “We’re very fortunate to have our two leading ladies, who have been intact ever since we completed the show.”

The cast also includes Matt Cavenaugh (as Joe, an East Hampton local), Sara Gettelfinger (on leave from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to play Young Edie), Sarah Hyland (Jacqueline, age 12), John McMartin (Major “Black Jack” Bouvier, Big Edie’s father and grandfather of Jacqueline and Lee), Michael Potts (Brooks, the Beales’ gardener), Bob Stillman (Gould, Big Edie’s piano accompanist), and Audrey Twitchell (Young Lee). Michael Grief directs and Jeff Calhoun handles the musical staging.

Wright’s previous librettist experience was for Buzzsaw Berkeley, a spoof of movie director Busby Berkeley, with a score by Michael John LaChiusa. “It was a kind of late-night cabaret. I had a delightful time doing it, but it’s not really a proper book musical. So, I feel like a musical-theatre virgin.”

Is it different to write a book for a musical rather than a play? “It is. It’s amazing! In order to achieve a truly emotional moment in a play, you have to work so hard to layer in the narrative and character development, and the slow, careful journey of the character toward a truly emotive, explosive moment. In writing a libretto, all you need are a few bars of song, and you can instantly achieve an emotional state. It’s very liberating.”

Another liberating project waiting in the wings is the Broadway musical The Little Mermaid (another eccentric female, but differently attired), based on the popular Disney animated feature.

“I’m having a blast working on it. Disney is very proactive about getting the whole creative team together, so we can riff off each other and challenge each other and arrive at ideas collectively. It’s thrilling to work with [director] Francesca [Zambello, whose credits include the operas ‘An American Tragedy’ and ‘The Little Prince’], and Alan Menken, and his new lyricist Glenn Slater. We’ve had almost a year-and-a-half of intense collaboration [thus far].”

Since Disney dislikes having its musicals compete with each other for awards, The Little Mermaid won’t make her splash until the 2007-08 season, following this season’s Tarzan and next season’s Mary Poppins.

He received no credit but a fee (“my down payment for a Manhattan apartment”) for his work on the current movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Notes Wright, “I had the privilege of working with [director] Rob Marshall, polishing dialogue for some of those amazing actors. But it was a ‘ghost’ rewrite; the original screenwriter, Robin Swicord [who receives sole credit], did a lovely job. I was brought in to spit-shine it.”

Which playwrights does Wright admire? “I’m a huge [Harold] Pinter fan and was delighted at his Nobel Prize win. I adored Charles Ludlam and had enormous respect and enthusiasm for his work. And Edward Albee, I think, had a profound impact on the American theatre. Any time there’s a revival of his work, or a new play, I make it a point to see it because it’s always transformative as a work of art, and also instructive in our craft. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say my work resembles theirs in any way, because sometimes you admire the people who do what you can’t.”

Wright considers Quills, which centered on an eccentric male (the Marquis de Sade), his breakthrough. “The success of that play allowed me to start writing full time.” It played the New York Theatre Workshop in 1995, and he adapted it for the screen in 2000. At least two other film projects didn’t work out. “Pebble Beach, Salvatore Dali’s First Major American Tour,” he believes, “like so many screenplays, is lining some of the best filing cabinets in Hollywood.” And a remake of “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” a thriller to star Reese Witherspoon, claims Wright, “fell prey to the Hollywood assembly line.” The 1965 original, directed by Otto Preminger, starred Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward.

Born in Texas, Wright received a bachelor’s degree from Yale and an MFA from NYU. He’s taught playwriting at NYU and Princeton, and always stressed to his students the art of storytelling. “I’m a big advocate of narrative. I feel that it’s somehow fallen out of fashion in the theatre — not because we don’t have a professional hunger for it, but because it’s so difficult to achieve.”

Shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Wright was interviewed by Playbill.com’s Kenneth Jones. The playwright acknowledged the contributions to I Am My Own Wife that were made by director Moises Kaufman and Best Actor Tony winner Jefferson Mays: “I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t say that three dramatists have been awarded the Pulitzer this year, because the two of them were absolutely indispensable to the evolution of this play.” Reminding him of the quote, Wright tells me, “I still feel the same way.”

And, again he’s getting ready to open a show at Playwrights Horizons. As we speak, he’s at his office, polishing his book for Grey Gardens, and is “tremendously excited” to be in the first week of rehearsal. Concludes Doug Wright, “After two years of writing and a year of [three] workshops, it’s gratifying.”

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The film with the most nominations for the 2005 Golden Globe Awards is “Brokeback Mountain,” which I read has become a popular date movie. I wonder would that hold true if couples still double dated.

Monday night marks the 63rd presentations of the Golden Globes (NBC-TV, 8 PM/ET), which honor motion pictures and leading performances in two categories — Drama and Musical or Comedy — as well as television actors and TV-movies/miniseries. Also included is a Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award; this year’s recipient is Anthony Hopkins. Designating “Walk the Line” as a musical puts it up against “The Producers.” Though both movies contain scenes with singing in prison, comparisons end there. It seems odd to have Joaquin Phoenix as the drug-addicted, dour Johnny Cash in competition with Nathan Lane’s money-obsessed, hilarious Max Bialystock.

Gwyneth Paltrow is nominated for her role in the movie version of the play Proof, and Felicity Huffman competes in two categories — as a transsexual in “Transamerica” and for “Desperate Housewives” (along with her three co-star title characters, all of them up against Mary-Louise Parker for “Weeds”).

While three of the actresses in the musical or comedy category have theatrical backgrounds -- Judi Dench, Sarah Jessica Parker and Laura Linney -- it’s not unlikely that Reese Witherspoon (as she has been doing in other award ceremonies) will walk the line to center stage.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are both in the running for supporting performances for TV’s “Empire Falls.” It’s a big night for former “ER” star, George Clooney. In the running as Best Supporting Actor (“Syriana”), he’s also a nominee as director and screenwriter for “Good Night, and Good Luck” (a Best Drama contender, which focuses on a television icon from the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow.) David Straithairn is a nominee as Murrow, but Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves to win for his superb portrayal of Truman “Capote.”

Two of the performances I wrote about in previous columns are in competition for TV-movie acting honors: Cynthia Nixon (“Warm Springs”) and S. Epatha Merkerson, who will be hard to beat, for “Lackawanna Blues.”

In the Unusual Competitors Department, Mel Brooks is up against Dolly Parton (a very nice position, as Groucho Marx would say). They’re both nominees in the Best Song category: Brooks for “There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway” (from “The Producers”); Parton for “Travelin’ Thru” (“Transamerica”).

The Golden Globes should satisfy awards-show fans until the Oscars, which occur March 5. The best news about the Academy Awards this year is that the host will be Jon Stewart (“The Daily Show”). His off-center and on-target humor should work well in the annual “Hooray for Hollywood” festivities. The last late-night TV personality to fill that bill was David Letterman. For Stewart’s sake, let’s hope that Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey are not in the audience.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.