Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Big Interview: Scott Frankel, Michael Korie & Doug Wright - the writers of Grey Gardens

Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright are the writers of Grey Gardens, a musical based on the​ 1975​ documentary of the same name. 

The piece explores the relationship between a mother and daughter - Edith Bouvier Beale and Little Edie - as they spiral down the social ladder and become reclusive outcasts. 

Grey Gardens premiered off-Broadway in February 2006 before transferring to Broadway nine months later. Both leading ladies - Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson - won Tony Awards for their performances in the show. 

Scott Frankel, Michael Korie & Doug Wright

The musical is currently receiving its European premiere at the Southwark Playhouse starring Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock. Directed by Thom Southerland, the entire run of Grey Gardens ​is completely sold old and the production has broken box office records​. 

Last Friday - the day after opening night - I sat down with Scott, Michael and Doug at the Southwark Playhouse to discuss Grey Gardens’ creation, the show’s journey to Broadway and what they think of the London production, plus much more… 

Which of you watched the Grey Gardens documentary and thought ‘I want to turn this into a musical’? How did the lightbulb moment happen?

[Michael and Doug both point over Scott’s head]

Scott Frankel (music): I knew the film very well and had seen it millions of times – I had been to parties where people would dress up and recite some of Edie’s phrases – but it never occurred to me it could be adapted for the stage… until one day it did in about the year 2000. I rang up Albert Maysles who is the surviving documentary filmmaker (Albert made the documentary with his brother, David) and said, “I don’t know how I would do it, but I’m keen to turn Grey Gardens into a musical. Is there any chance the rights are available?”

He said, “It’s so strange you’re calling because the film came out twenty-five years ago and nobody has approached us about the rights until recently a French opera composer has been speaking to us about wanting to make Grey Gardens into an opera.” 

I asked if he had signed the contract, Albert said “no” so I said “don’t, you have to hear me out!”. I ran down to Maysles Films in Midtown Manhattan. Nothing against opera because I adore it, but I explained to Albert that the music both those women loved was American popular music – songs from musicals, songs that were played on the radio and songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. I thought adapting Grey Gardens into a musical rather than an opera would be more true to who these women were… and I was persuasive! So there is a very angry opera composer in Toulouse who curses my name to this very day [all laugh]!

Jenna Russell in rehearsals
Going forward how did you get Doug and Michael on board?

Scott: Well I meant it when I said that I didn’t know how I would make it into a musical! Michael (Korie, lyrics) and I had worked together previously and Doug (Wright, book) and I went to university together. I got Michael on board first and then decided to approach Doug because I thought he was the perfect person to help us figure out how to do it. I rang up Doug and he said…

Doug Wright (book): …a resounding no! I said, “It’s a preposterous idea, I revere the film, I don’t think it will be as special on stage and it’s psychological portraiture – it’s not narrative. A musical has to have a story to tell with a beginning, a middle and an end.” Scott then invited me round for dinner with Michael so I could tell them why they shouldn’t make Grey Gardens into a musical… he kept wooing me back into the room to discuss it. Finally the two of them were out for lunch without me and had a breakthrough… Mr Korie, do you want to continue?

Michael Korie (lycis): Sure! Scott and I were out for lunch and he said, “How are we going to persuade Doug to do this?!” [all laugh]. It was a restaurant with paper table clothes and crayons so he started doodling and all of a sudden the lightbulb flashed on – he drew two large rectangles, one was 1941 and the other was 1973 and the space in-between were the decades of decline…

Scott: …which is the interval in the show.

Michael: So after lunch we took the tablecloth with us to show Doug.

Doug: …and when I saw the tablecloth [all laugh]… 

Scott: …he finally knew we were insane!

Doug: As a writer I thought I could emulate Philip Barry and go all Samuel Beckett in act two because the women have an astonishingly unusual particular vernacular that constitutes its own demented theatrical poetry. Suddenly the idea of isolating the past and the present, which Little Edie says are so difficult to distinguish, gave me a narrative and events. So when the boys brought me the tablecloth I left aboard with lots of enthusiasm. 

The second act very cleverly recreates the documentary, but how did the first act come together?

Doug: Well a lot happens in the first act, most of the events are true; Big Edie was divorced from her husband by telegram when he was in Mexico, Little Edie was engaged to Joe Kennedy for a brief time and Big Edie did enjoy taking over family events with sing-alongs, but none of those things actually happened on the same afternoon. We decided that by compressing all those incidents into one disastrous day we could lay the foundation for what becomes the extravagantly dysfunctional behaviour of the two ladies in act two. 

Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell in rehearsals

The two acts really are completely different, did you ever consider a different structure for the show?

Michael: The theatre is such a generous profession and everyone is always willing to offer you free advice… whether you want it or not [laughs]. A lot of people told us to dump act one, or intercut act one around what is the second act; however, that would make this very real story a bunch of flashbacks – they would continuously break the dreamlike spell of act two. I felt the structure we evolved was the only way it could work. Without act one you wouldn’t be able to understand the pathos which underlays it all. 

Scott: I was determined that the musical had to work for fans who knew every line of the documentary as well as people who knew nothing about it, and that is very tricky! The people who know nothing really need to see what they were like and what things were like before it was lost, otherwise they wouldn’t invest in these characters. The first act also suggests the beginnings of some of the behaviour which explodes in act two, some of the very prickly mother daughter notions. 

In the second act exact sentences spoken in the documentary lead into musical numbers. Did the songs come naturally?

Scott: The very first song we wrote for the show was ‘Two Peas in a Pod’, because in the film Edith listens to a recording of herself singing ‘Tea For Two’ so – for example – we knew that was going to be a moment.

Michael: As a lyricist, it was very clear for me why certain sentences became songs. Although the one that wasn’t clear for most people was ‘Jerry Likes The Way I Do My Corn’.

Sheila Hancock in Grey Gardens
Doug: I firmly believe when you’re collaborating with smart people, when anyone has a strong impulse and brings it to the table you should honour it and let them carry it through before deciding whether it’s appropriate for the show or not. When Michael came in one day with his eyes on fire and told us about his idea for a song called ‘Jerry Likes My Corn’ inwardly I was mortified! I thought ‘Where is that going to fit in our narrative? It’s absurd!’ But I knew he was passionate so let him write the lyric… and thank god I censored myself because it’s a really poignant and heart breaking reflection of motherhood. Honouring the impulses of your collaborators is really crucial.

I can’t imagine some of the conversations you had with producers whilst trying to get the show on stage! What was the whole journey like of getting the show off-Broadway and then securing its Broadway transfer?

Scott: [laughs] In the old days producers used to initiate projects. They would say “I’ve got the rights for Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, so I’m going to call Jerry Herman and ask him to write Hello, Dolly!”. Grey Gardens is, what we call in the States, an artist driven project which means someone crazy like me [all laugh] has had a crazy idea and gotten some collaborators to feel similarly. It is so much more of an uphill battle, but on the other hand artist driven projects are worth doing because there is always so much passion behind them! We just had to keep convincing other people. 

That said, we had tremendous developmental support; we applied to work with the Sundance theatre lab and we got in. We then got a lot of our off-Broadway and Broadway cast including Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson (who both went on to win Tony Awards for their performances). We actually wrote for them which is extraordinary; Michael and I would write a song overnight and see it performed the next day – that kind of turnaround is divine. Playwrights Horizons then found some money to commission us so we could present it off-Broadway. 

It still needed some work – it always needs work – but the show was a huge success with audiences so it kept extending and extending. It was supposed to run five weeks, then it ran seven weeks, then nine weeks and finally to a tenth week. It was only on the tenth week that these very passionate producers came along to see the show and said “we want to transfer it to Broadway”. We were thrilled! We had about six months in-between so had time to re-write and re-visit the piece, it was a marvellous opportunity. What the women wanted was to have an audience and to be heard and understood. I feel like we gave them a larger audience by transferring to Broadway.

"It’s a long way from East Hampton to Southwark... we would never have thought this possible!" Scott Frankel

What has it been like to see all the subsequent international productions?

Scott: We’ve seen marvellous productions in Tokyo and Rio… each culture seems to embrace the show through a different lens. In the Rio production there were giant trash heaps which the women’s beds were on top of in the second act. The two actresses had to climb up – it was the slums of Rio. We try to stay in the moment and do what’s right for the piece and hope to find likeminded producers and audiences along the way. 

And what about the London production?

Scott: We’re all thrilled to have these two incredible actresses (Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock) and the rest of the cast are sublime too as are Thom Southerland (director) and Danielle Tarento (producer). I’ve had to pinch myself a little bit, it’s a long way from East Hampton to Southwark! I mean… we would never have thought this possible!

Doug: No, and when we found out Jenna and Sheila were doing it, it felt like we had won awards! To have actors of that calibre committing themselves to work you’ve created is the most profound endorsement I think you can get!

Aaron Sidwell & Rachel Anne Rayham in Grey Gardens 

Scott: I mean clearly nobody’s here to be making money [all laugh], but what makes it so flattering for us is that everybody on the production team and in the cast are clearly passionate about the piece and clearly want to be here. Sheila is so ferociously good in this role and there is nobody else in this country who could play that part like Jenna. I think it’s the King Lear musical theatre role for women because there are so many acting and vocal demands; the double casting of playing the mother in the first act and the daughter in the second act makes it tough, but Jenna just sails though it with such style and authority… she got a tear or two out of me… and I already knew how it ends [laughs]. 

What have Thom and Danielle been like to work with?

Scott: Danielle came to New York and we had a very boozy lunch at Joe Allen's. She has such passion and respect for the material, but I also got the sense that she and Thom would be able to reinvent it. You don’t want it to be the same as it was originally! There was a real trust there. The three of us have been amazed at some of the staging, costuming and scenic choices that have illuminated the material in ways that are so surprising to us. You always want a piece which can stand up to multiple interpretations! It works so well here, in the second act when they break the fourth wall and the audience function as the documentary filmmakers it’s so marvellous because they can look people sat on the front row in the eyes.

Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens has been a part of your lives for a very long time now, what do you make of this complicated mother daughter relationship? What are you still discovering about these fascinating characters?

Doug: I think the truism in the piece brings you to realise the most complicated and enduring love stories usually exist between parents and their children, even more so than with our spouses. Our parents lovingly support us, unwillingly bruise us and tend to those same wounds they inflict. It’s a deeply complicated relationship. I think by making the film the Maysles’ made the definitive portrait of mother daughter dynamics – when you pull everything away it’s a mother and her child and I think the piece touches on universal experience which is why I find myself drawn to it again and again. Plus all of us have that idiosyncratic peculiar relative we all make humorous apologies for or desperately try to rehabilitate. One of the tag lines that the advertising company considered for the poster in New York, that we didn’t use but I loved, was ‘Every family has one, this family has two’ [all laugh]. I think that speaks to all of us who have families!

Michael: What’s occurred to me this time is that during the time we’ve worked together all three of us have lost fathers we loved very much. They always talk about mothers and daughters, but it’s really about child and parent. I see in this production how we live with our parents and we become our parents. The other day I caught a glace of myself in the mirror and said, “Oh my god I’ve become my father!” and that become very clear in this version of the show. 

The piece clearly affects different audiences in different ways. What reactions have stood out for you?

Doug: In terms of truly memorable responses to the piece, I have to remind you gentlemen of that fateful day we each got an odd package in the mail… 

Scott: [gasps] Ohhhh yes!

Doug: …We each opened our package and called each other in a flurry because a fan in the mid-west had sent us these little Edie dolls with heads that bobbled! 

Scott: I thought you were going to talk about the Carolyns! There’s a mother and daughter in the American South who are both named Carolyn – Big Carolyn and Little Carolyn. They are cut from the same cloth as our ladies.

Lee Proud (choreographer), Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock in rehearsals

Doug: They write to me every holiday!

Michael: And they love cats!

Scott: The mother is very formidable and the daughter has issues as a result of that. They came to the show constantly – they would fly in specially!

Doug: Thirty-five times! They still correspond with us!

Scott: The two characters have always spoken to the gay community very strongly because they were disenfranchised and shunned by a certain segment of society, and also because of Little Edie’s energy with which she faces that rejection. She and her mother refuse to be conventional! In a way it’s a strangely feminist piece; both women found themselves in patriarchal places with men who had little patience for them. 

Female audiences in particular love the lack of personal vanity in act two – both actors and characters really let it all hang out, and you don’t see that often! Although Sheila, damn her, still manages to look beautiful! There’s a notion of these women being free to be who they want to be and not letting a man tell them what they should look like or how they should behave. Everybody gets on the bus by the end, but people get on at different places depending on what you’re coming to the show with. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Grey Gardens runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 6th February 2016.
Please visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk for further information.

Photo Credit: Scott Rylander

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