Grey Gardens, the wonderful show starting its run at Bay Street Theater on August 4, is certainly the best-known musical to be set in the Hamptons. Based on the life of Edith Bouvier Beale, or “Little Edie,” as she was known, the 2006 musical was inspired by the classic documentary Grey Gardens, filmed by the Maysles brothers in 1975 at the broken-down East Hampton estate where Little Edie lived in squalor with her mother, “Big Edie.” How Little Edie and Big Edie wound up in their situation is a long, complicated story—very fitting for a musical, in fact.
“It was my idea to turn it into a musical,” says composer Scott Frankel. “I was always fascinated by the film, although parts of it are hard to watch. I found it mesmerizing.” After some wrangling, Frankel was able to acquire the rights from Albert Maysles, and teamed up with Doug Wright and Michael Korie to adapt the film.
In Grey Gardens, as in all musicals, the emotional weight of the story is carried by the music. The songs in the show, composed by Frankel with brilliant lyrics by Korie, are classics. Frankel’s music manages to not only convey characters’ emotional states, but also to illustrate time periods and generational preferences—this is essential, as the first act of the show takes place in 1941 and the second act in 1975, with the music reflecting those different time periods, and with Big Edie and Little Edie singing in differing styles to reflect the different eras. Frankel is sensitive and subtle in this musical differentiation, careful not to allow jarring stylistic shifts to distract from the story. It helped the creators of the musical that Big Edie was apparently quite fond of singing at parties—there was no need to explain why she keeps breaking into song.
“Big Edie reportedly had a very clear, pure soprano voice, and would start performing at the slightest suggestion,” says Frankel. “In 1941, I imagined that she would sing operetta-style songs—Lehar, Victor Herbert—which would have been old-fashioned at the time.” Little Edie, meanwhile, sings songs in the more up-to-date Richard Rodgers vein during the first act.
For the second act, Frankel has Big Edie and Little Edie change ever so slightly with the times. “Both of them thought they were ‘with it’ in some ways, and I imagined the constant AM radio would wash over the proceedings to some extent.” In particular, Big Edie’s sweetly preposterous ballad “Jerry Likes My Corn” displays an affinity with early ’70s soft rock.
The emotional core of Grey Gardens is revealed in Little Edie’s heartbreaking second act closer, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” which is a gorgeous autumnal lament full of regret about the years she feels she’s wasted because she hasn’t been able to get herself away from Grey Gardens, out of the Hamptons. Audience members who have lived in the Hamptons for a while may feel a particular shock of recognition at this number. After all, we all love this special part of the world, but who hasn’t felt imprisoned at times by its insularity and inaccessibility? Who hasn’t occasionally felt time to be slipping away, even as we are spoiled by the proximity to wealth and comforted by the natural beauty that surrounds us? We all feel like Little Edie from time to time.
“There’s something about the seasonal nature of places like the Hamptons,” Frankel says. “When Labor Day comes, there’s a huge shift, the fun dries up, and it starts you thinking about time passing. Little Edie was an optimist—she always thought things were going to turn around—but when autumn comes, it’s harder to keep that hopefulness alive.”
This feeling isn’t exclusive to Hamptonites—regret is universal. Little Edie, and Grey Gardens itself, was an extreme example of faded dreams, lost hopes, and unfulfilled life—and that’s what draws us back to her story over and over again.
Grey Gardens runs from August 4–August 30 at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. For tickets ($63–$85) and more information, call 631-725-9500 and go to baystreet.or.