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

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15 Jan 2006

Doug Wright
Doug Wright
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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.


“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.


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