Documentaries, a media mainstay often taken for granted, seem to have acquired a bit of glamour just now. Everybody in the know seems to be addicted to Making of a Murderer, which by all accounts is as mesmerising as the most exalted drama series. Grey Gardens has the distinction of being the first musical to be based on a documentary, and it sets a pretty impressive standard for any others that might follow. The discovery of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin living in squalor in their dilapidated East Hampton mansion was a sensation in the 1970s, not without a sense of schadenfreude in that ‘America’s Queen’ might have a few madwomen in the attic within her own family.
Through Albert Maysles’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter and namesake Edie became cult figures due to their disregard for convention and upper-crust backgrounds rather than any special talents of their own. Both, regardless of natural talent, had a longing to perform and their late-in-life exposure playing the most outrageous versions of themselves gave them a longer-lasting exposure than any fleeting success on the Broadway stage might have done. Having premiered on Broadway a decade ago, this cleverly written show could hardly be better served by Thom Southerland’s pithy, witty production and deluxe cast.
As someone who doesn’t find the Edies particularly worship-able and much prefers the TV film with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore to the (in)famous documentary, I must disclose an unpopular opinion: I rather adored the (fictional) 1941-set first act, which focuses on the ladies in their heyday and calls to mind the champagne-infused giddiness of High Society, and was a bit more ambivalent towards the second. The swell party planned to celebrate Edie Beale’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr (pure fiction), which will allow her to escape the nest and clutches of her self-absorbed mother. Foiled by her darling mother, a Miss Havisham determined to mould her Estella in her image, the second act picks up where the documentary begins, an embittered pair of crones largely cut off from the outside world engaged in a co-dependent relationship with a dynamic that flits between passive-aggressive to flat-out vicious.
Jenna Russell gives a remarkable duel performance as the elegant, cultured bohemian socialite of the first half and the bald, luridly dressed hot mess of the second. With a live-in composer (an enjoyably catty Jeremy Legat), engaged for piano playing and romantic friendship as a sort-of Noel Coward to her Gertie Lawrence, she is restricted to an amateur milieu (more than enough for her daughter), much to her frustration.The middle-aged daughter in a series of lurid outfits and that famous cardigan reconfigured as a headscarf makes Baby Jane Hudson look like Maria von Trapp but Russell’s sensitivity also captures the underlying desperation of a woman who just wants to have her own life. The casting twist suggests that every daughter eventually becomes her mother. Sheila Hancock offers witchy knowingness as the elderly Edith clinging on to what’s left of her dignity, even whilst singing about how ‘Jerry likes my corn’. Rachel Anne Rayham is superb in her portrayal of the young Edie as a cute young thing full of nervous energy who, in this version of events, could have been First Lady instead of her horsey kid cousin Jackie. The men too are immaculately cast: a ridiculously dashing war hero and future president in the making (and a sexist jerk) from Aaron Sidwell and a curmudgeonly Grandpa from Billy Boyle.
So many musicals set in the past fail to musically evoke the era they set out to depict. One of the greatest pleasures of the show is the way in which Frankel’s songs fits the period so perfectly that it’s hard to believe that they aren’t standards that could have been written by contemporaries of Kern and Rodgers.
No greater posthumous gift could be offered to these music-loving ladies than their own all-singing (and to a more limited extent, dancing) star vehicle. As a faded film star remarks in Follies, ‘First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp’. Camp the Edies were, and whether or not they did anything to deserve to be remembered by subsequent generations is debatable. But the triumvirate of Russell, Hancock and Rayham also humanises them as women whose lives could have been very different if they’d been born a few decades later.