'You know, in East Hampton, they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday and all that sort of thing," said Edith (Little Edie) Bouvier Beale. "I don't know whether you know that. Did you know that?"
We know that. Or, at least, those who have seen the unstoppably watchable 1975 documentary Grey Gardens know that. Featuring the everyday eccentricities and outstanding mundanity of mother-and-daughter recluses both named Edith Beale, the acclaimed, cult-classic film by Albert and David Maysles is set in a filthy, cat-ridden and crumbling Long Island mansion that perfectly houses a fall-from-grace story. All the reality-television shows that would follow much later are immediately made dumber twofold after watching it.
In his original review of Grey Gardens, the film critic Roger Ebert noted the routines of the would-be dancer Little Edie (age 56) and the former concert singer Big Edie (82) seemed intended for the stage. Two thumbs up, then, for the prescient Ebert, because in 2006 a Broadway musical based on the film happened.
Little Edie, a first cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was still alive when the musical began to take shape. Before she died in 2002, she expressed her approval in a letter to Albert Maysles. "I am thrilled by what you wrote about the musical," Little Edie wrote. "My whole life was music and song! It made up for everything! Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!"
On Monday, the Acting Up Stage Company's production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical opens at the Berkeley Street Theatre. The production, with music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and book by Doug Wright, is directed by Winnipeg's Ann Hodges.
The canon of documentaries adapted as Broadway musicals is quite empty. Oddly, the weirdest crossover of the two media might be a musical (the 1968 hippie-fest Hair) that can be seen in hindsight as inspiring a documentary (the Aquarian-aged concert film Woodstock).
But Grey Gardens the film turned Grey Gardens the musical seemed predestined, with the Tea For Two-loving Edies either auditioning for roles themselves in their rotting Long Island retreat or creating the song and dancers for others later.
"These two characters, who have this performer instinct are always somehow putting on a little bit of a show in the film," director Hodges says, during a break from rehearsals this week. "We have the daughter as a tragic heroine who gave up her life for her mother, and then there is mother, with her, 'Look what a great singer I am,' or, 'Look at how awful my daughter is.' There's always an element of the watcher in the documentary."
In addition to the 2006 musical, interest in the saga of the goings-on in the raccoon-infested East Hampton mansion was heightened further in 2009, when Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange starred in an HBO movie version of the story.
Lisa Horner, who plays Big Edie in the musical's fictional 1941 first act and Little Edie in the 1970s second act, agrees with Hodges about the showy instincts of the mother and daughter. "They had a real sense of how to behave in front of the camera," Horner says. "We don't know what they were like when the cameras weren't there, but it seemed fairly realistic."
If they ever did go anywhere off the grounds together – they did not, for fear that their 28 rooms of Gothic decay would be looted if they weren't around – one might have seen the pair in a Sondheim Together (Wherever We Go) light.
Musicals love the underdog, and the shut-in Beales are nothing if not a duo to root for. "They're breaking the rules and thumbing their nose at the aristocracy," Hodges says. "They're living the way that they want."
In the documentary, the filmmakers are not intrusive; the women get to speak their mind in their own (possibly delusional) voices. The musical only ups their empowerment – the Beales on stage, as they always believed it was meant to be.
Grey Gardens runs through March 6 at Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs in Toronto (canadianstage.com).