Hollywood Will Till the Ground of the Legendary "Grey Gardens" Ladies

By Kenneth Jones
22 Feb 2006

The story of Jackie Kennedy Onassis' broken aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, continues to be fertile soil.



In the 1970s the mother and daughter, former society ladies, were living in a cat-infested, filthy, crumbling estate called Grey Gardens in East Hampton on Long Island. A 1975 documentary film called "Grey Gardens" was a cult hit that inspired the current musical, Grey Gardens, now at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan.

Variety reported that Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange will star in a non-musical feature film called "Grey Gardens." Michael Sucsy wrote the screenplay and will make his feature directing debut with it. Production begins this summer.

Barrymore ("The Wedding Singer") will play "Little Edie," and Lange (Broadway's The Glass Menagerie) will play her mother, "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale.

The documentary by David and Albert Maysles left Sucsy with questions, he told Variety. He sought personal correspondence and journals that tell more of Little Edie's history with her mother.

According to the trade paper, the movie will cover 40 years and characters will include Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, editor Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, who bought the raccoon-infested mansion after the elder Beale's death.

The new musical at Playwrights Horizons covers about 30 years, from a life-changing day in 1941 (when Little Edie's relationship with young Joe Kennedy fell apart, and Edith's marriage to Mr. Beale hit the rocks) to 1973 (when mother and daughter are cooking food over a hotplate at their bedside and listening to raccoons nibble at the frame of the house).

The new feature picture is not related to the musical, save for the subject matter. Both projects will include some imagining of events.

"The events of the play," reads a Playbill note for the musical, "are based on both fact and fiction."

The documentary that inspired both projects is a housebound experience set in the shambles itself. The film remains a creepy document of mental, physical and social decline.

The libretto for the musical is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), who borrows lines from the documentary to pepper an imagined Act One that has the whiff of Cole Porter's "High Society" to it (the score is by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie). Their Act Two is set in the crumbling home and more closely follows the documentary (including the more memorable lines from the ladies), spiked with songs, such as Frankel and Korie's haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town."

Christine Ebersole plays matron Edith in 1941 and her daughter, Edie, in 1973. Mary Louise Wilson is the Medusa-like visage of Edith in old age in 1973. Sarah Gettelfinger plays the vibrant daughter Edie in 1941. Sarah Hyland plays young Jackie Bouvier. John McMartin is J.V. "Major" Bouvier, Edith's father.

Previews continue at Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater on West 42nd Street. Opening is March 7. Previews began Feb. 10.

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The cult movie, now on DVD with added special features, is a portrait of physical and mental decay that has fascinated viewers (and inspired some artists and designers) for 30 years.

According to Playwrights Horizons, "Grey Gardens concerns the deliciously eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who were once among the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register, and are now East Hampton's most notorious recluses, living in a dilapidated 28-room mansion. Facing an uncertain future, Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter, 'Little' Edie, are forced to revisit their storied past and come to terms with it — for better, and for worse."

Librettist Wright is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of I Am My Own Wife, which also won the Tony Award for Best Play. He also penned the play Quills and the screenplay for its film version. Composer Frankel was musical director for Broadway's Falsettos and Putting It Together and lyricist Michael Korie co-wrote the opera Harvey Milk and lyrics for the Broadway-aimed Lucy Simon musical Zhivago.

Performances continue to March 26, but if critics and audiences take a shine to the show, expect it to have a commercial future.

Ebersole is a Tony Award winner for the revival of 42nd Street; Wilson was a Tony nominee for Cabaret and appeared in Off-Broadway's Full Gallop; Gettelfinger created the role of Jolene, the Oklahoma heiress in Broadway's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and appeared in Nine.

The production features scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by five-time Tony Award winner William Ivey Long, lighting design by Tony Award winner Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by Brian Ronan and projections by Wendall K. Harrington. Orchestrations are by Tony Award winner Bruce Coughlin and music director will be Lawrence Yurman.

The performance schedule will be Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM. Tickets are $65.

Grey Gardens is presented by special arrangement with Nathan Riley.

For ticket information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, or visit www.playwrighthorizons.org.