On October 22, 2002, Playbill.com announced that discussions were underway for composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and playwright Doug Wright to transform the story of the Beales into a Broadway musical. It was later announced that Michael Grief would direct. This would the first Broadway musical ever based on a documentary.
Composer Scott Frankel said in a statement, “I was attracted to this project because of the [documentary’s] unique blend of humor, heartache and humanity. It has always resonated strongly with me. And the prospect of the first live raccoon on a legit stage is irresistible…”
In a letter Little Edie wrote to Albert Maysles prior to her death in January 2002, she expressed her excitement about the idea of Grey Gardens being turned into a stage musical: “I am thrilled by what you wrote about the musical ‘g.g!’ My whole life was music and song! It made up for everything! Thrilled – thrilled – thrilled! I have all ofMother’s sheet music and her songs she sang. With all I didn’t have, my life was joyous!”
Two years later, the musical was chosen to participate in the Sundance Institute Theatre Laboratory at White Oak in Florida. The workshop offers theatre artists the time and support to rehearse, rewrite, and develop their work over a two-week period in early December. The workshop featured actors Christine Ebersole, Sara Gettelfinger, John McMartin, Martin Moran and Mary Louise Wilson. At the time, it was unsure if they would be the same actors that would portray characters in the final production.
Playwrights Horizons, a writer’s theater dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists, and to the production of their new work, presented “developmental readings” of the upcoming world premiere of Grey Gardens: A New Musical in Manhattan, on October 5-6, 2005.
After previews in February, (by the way, it was reported that Lee Radziwill attended a preview and left at intermission) the official premiere of Grey Gardens debuted at Playwright Horizons on March 7, 2006.
The original cast featured Christine Ebersole (Edith Bouvier Beale 1941 & Little Edie 1973), Mary Louise Wilson (Edith Bouvier Beale 1973), Matt Cavenaugh (Joe Kennedy Jr. in 1941, Jerry Torre in 1973), Sara Gettelfinger (Young Edie in 1941), Sarah Hyland (Jacqueline Bouvier), John McMartin (J.V. Major Bouvier, Norman Vincent Peale), Michael Potts (Brooks Hire junior and senior), Bob Stillman (George Gould Strong) and Audrey Twitchell (Lee Bouvier).
Set at the Grey Gardens mansion, the musical follows the progression of the lives of the two Edies from their original social status as wealthy and polished aristocrats to their eventual existence as penniless eccentrics in a crumbling home. But, the real focus is clearly on the unending psychological struggle between a mother and a daughter. The story is joyous, heartwarming, sad, and funny at various times. The show takes place in two acts, the first of which is a largely dramatic take on what their lives might have been like in their glory days (complete with a fictionalized portrayal of Little Edie’s canceled nuptuals to Joe Kennedy) and the second of which closely mirrors scenes and dialogue from the original Maysles documentary (and, yes, Jerry is there). In the first act, which takes place in 1941, Little Edie is 24 and Big Edie is 47; in the second act, taking place in 1973, Little Edie is 56 and Big Edie is 79. Christine Ebersole plays dual roles: Big Edie in Act One and Little Edie in Act Two. Mary Louise Wilson portrays Big Edie in Act Two.
Many of the patrons attending the show were dressed in Edie-inspired fashions as a tribute to their hero. Al Maysles, Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn, and even real-life members of the Beale family were there opening night. The after party was at Planet Hollywood. It opened to mixed reviews from The Daily Post, The New York Post, The Washington Post, and Broadway.com. Many critics felt Act One was too long and lacked excitement. They didn’t feel that Gettelfinger played a convincing Little Edie. The best reviews were for the stars of the show, Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson.
Regardless, the off-Broadway show was extremely popular and its sold-out run was extended three times. When it closed on April 30, 2006, it had earned five Lucille Lortel Award nominations and twelve Drama Desk Award nominations. Christine Ebersole received every accolade possible including the Obie Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics, and the Drama League Award for Performance of the Year for her dual roles.
With its small cast and unpretentious score, “the little musical that could” moved to the intimate setting of the Walter Kerr Theater for its Broadway debut on November 2, 2006. Opening night saw a who’s who of celebrities including Rosie O’Donnell, Lee Radziwill, Michael Kors, Albert Maysles, Duncan Sheik, Dennis Leary, and Dana Delaney. The suggested dress code for the evening was “uniquely festive, with red shoes preferred.” This, because, after all it was Thursday (and you know they can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday)!
The Broadway Grey Gardens learned from its previous faults: some songs were cut while new, better songs were introduced, some of the script was rewritten and rearranged, and the actress for young Little Edie was replaced by the excellent Erin Davie. It was rewarded with enthusiastic praise from critics and theatergoers alike. Time Magazine hailed Grey Gardens as the #1 show of 2006. The production was nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2007, winning three, including awards for both Ebersole and Wilson in leading and featured actresses categories respectively.
The show closed July 29, 2007, after 307 performances and 33 previews. The musical closed prematurely; it was previously announced that Wilson would be leaving early, but Ebersole’s contract was good through the fall. The producers explained that they would face an uphill battle competing with other shows in the crucial summer months and it would be difficult to replace Wilson. But insiders say that the show was mismanaged by producers Kelly and Lou Gonda (East of Doheny Productions). It was reported that they had trouble making decisions and ignored advice from marketing, advertising, and theater professionals; as a result, they alienated the creative team and some of the actors including Wilson and Ebersole (some say it was no mistake that the Gondas weren’t mentioned in Ebersole’s Tony acceptance speech). None of this has been confirmed, though, and things are never as they seem when it comes to anything related to Grey Gardens.
Albert Maysles created a documentary based on the making of the musical called Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway. The film was shown on PBS television in late 2008. And there is talk that a video recording of the musical may be for sale at some point, or that it may be licensed for television.