Diana Sheehan sings the Beales

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 6, 2009

Since Grey Gardens premiered in 1975, gay men have been amongst the most avid fans of Big and Little Edie Beale, the infamous black sheep relations of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis who lived in squalor in their South Hampton mansion. Some can recite verbatim (with respectful inflection) the stream-of-consciousness commentaries of Little Edie, as well as model her improvised turbans (which later inspired fashion spreads in Harper's Bazaar and Italian Vogue).

The cast-offs of an American royal family, Edith (Big Edie) Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith (Little Edie) lived for several decades (in squalor) in a crumbling East Hampton summer home. They were surrounded by cats, and abandoned by their family-but gained everlasting notoriety when they became the subjects of the Maysles Brothers documentary film that chronicled their lives from 1971-1972.

That documentary became a cult hit. It spawned everything from a sequel to a book from a minor player in the film to-more recently-a Broadway musical and an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

A riches-to-rags story

Although Big and Little Edie both had a grand riches-to rags story to tell, their late-in-life existence as downscale cat ladies would not have likely made it to the big screen if the Maysles Brothers hadn’t by chance come across the eccentric Beales while making a documentary about Jackie O’s sister Lee Radziwill. At that time they abandoned the Radziwill project and pursued the approval of the Beales for something completely different.

Thirty years later composer Scott Frankel had an idea that a musical could be made from the bizarre mother and daughter story. He elicited the help of lyricist Michael Korie and bookwriter Doug Wright (who had not long before won a Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife) to somehow shape a narrative from the Maysles brothers’ plotless film. Wright had his doubts that a story culled be culled from the film, but Frankel and Corie came up with the idea of setting the musical at two points in time in the lives of the women. The first act takes place in 1941 at a party Big Edie is giving her daughter; the second takes place in 1973 in the squalor of Grey Gardens. The novel device the creative team came up with was to have the same actress play the 47-year old Big Edie in the first half, then the 56-year old Little Edie in the second.

The show opened off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2006 with Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson to largely positive reviews and such a strong audience response that plans were made to move it to Broadway. Months later, after some revisions, the musical came to Broadway where it ran for nine months winning both Ebersole and Wilson Tony Awards for their performances. Since the performing rights were released, the show has become one of the most performed at regional theaters, such as Dallas’ WaterTower Theater where it is currently playing until October 25.

The renewed interest in the Beales also led to the HBO biopic that recently won an Emmy Award as Best Television Film, plus a statuette for Jessica Lange, who played the older Beale against Drew Barrymore.

A sense of tragedy

EDGE recently spoke with Diana Sheehan-who plays Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in second in the WaterTower production. She noted that her preparation for these roles began "long before I knew I would be doing the show. I saw Christine Ebersole in the show on Broadway. She was incredible; very inspiring." When it came time to audition, Sheehan became a student of the documentary as well as its recent sequel (The Beales of Grey Gardens).

The wealth of resource and research material helped her interpretation of both mother and daughter. "I don’t think there’s ever been a musical based on a documentary before," points out Sheehan-who is grateful to have extensive footage of the real thing to draw upon, rather than cobble together a performance based on her observation of Ebersole on Broadway and what she could read about in books. She’s also a fan of the recent HBO film, which "told the back story. How did these women, American royalty, fall so far so fast? That was really helpful."

The combination of a documentary, its sequel, seeing the original Broadway cast and absorbing the totality of books on the subject helped Sheehan go beyond the temptation to peg the women as eccentric enigmas. By the time she hit the stage on opening night Sheehan felt she had insight into "how they saw themselves and how the family viewed them. The family looked at Big Edie really as a sort of wacky and fun. The kids loved her. To them, she was Auntie Mama. They could go over to her house and do anything. Little Edie was the true beauty of the family-looked up to as the ultimate fashion plate, and a real role model for Jackie Bouvier."

That both Big and Little Edie both had so much potential-and ended up abandoned by their famous family and living in squalor-gives the second act its overwhelming sense of tragedy. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a downer. "A lot of people have said, this must be a very sad play to be working on," Sheehan observed. "In fact, it’s been one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had. These women didn’t see themselves as we do from the outside looking in. They had joy in their relationship. There was always music and dancing and singing. That actually gave their lives a lot of joy."

But was their love of song and dance a true expression of joy, or a coping mechanism to keep them from confronting how far they’d fallen? Sheehan points out that the first act telegraphs very little of the tragedy to come in the second. In fact, she says the first act plays "very much like a Cole Porter musical. It’s all about high society, having fun. It was a time when Big Edie is married to a very rich man. Her job is to raise a daughter who will marry a rich man and carry on the life they are accustomed to and extend the family fortune in that way."

But when Little Edie brings home a succession of suitors her mother deems not good enough for her nonconformist daughter, she sows the seeds for their own abandonment by family and co-dependent relationship as reclusive adults. Also weighing on Big Edie’s mind is the fact that she herself is artistic and expressive-and married to a husband who "won’t even allow her to sing opera in the living room, to her friends." By the end of the first act, Little Edie’s engagement party is destroyed by her mother’s actions-and the path to Grey Gardens is set in stone.

"I think of it (the musical) as two different plays," said Sheehan. "The audience in the second act becomes like the documentary camera, and it becomes like Little Edie’s cabaret style fantasy."

But far from being deluded about their lot in life, Sheehan says the women get a boost from the fact that they "have this new person in the room; and that’s the camera; and they get to explain their story. Little Edie wants you to understand that she’s stuck; she has to take care of her mother."

The challenge, in that second act, is to portray the aging eccentrics as "real people with bigger than life personalities; to not caricature them, but to inhabit them." As for how the women would react to their current global fame, Sheehan speculates: "I’d like to think they’d be thrilled to have their stories told through a musical. They were always singing and dancing-and to see their story told that way; I think they would have taken a lot of joy in it."

Grey Gardens will run October 1 - 25, 2009 at the Addison Theatre Centre, which is located at 15650 Addison Road in Addison, Texas. Performance times are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM (October 24 only) & 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM. Ticket prices range from $25 - $40. Tickets are available by calling the WTT Box Office at 972.450.6232 or online at www.watertowertheatre.org. Group rates are also available.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

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