2016 has barely started, yet I am already wondering if we’ll see a stranger story told in musical form all year, or one with such a darkly insinuating appeal.
While many musicals are based on well-known films – next up in London are Mrs Henderson Presents and Disney’s Aladdin from Broadway – it’s rare for a musical to be based on a documentary (though Studs Terkel’s 1974 book Working, an oral history of people’s working lives, became a short-lived 1978 musical).
First seen off-Broadway in 2006 and subsequently on Broadway later that year, Grey Gardens breaks new ground in this regard. It’s based on a 1975 documentary about an eccentric real-life mother and her adult daughter who lived in reclusive squalor in a 28-room East Hampton mansion and gained more notoriety for being the aunt and first cousin of former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
In the prologue we are told: “The house that once played host to Howard Hughes and the Rockefellers is now a refuge for 52 stray cats, a few rabid racoons, and its two reclusive inhabitants, all living in an environment the Health Department calls ‘unfit for human habitation’. And so we’re left to ponder, how could American royalty fall so far, so fast?”
The musical’s book writer Doug Wright duly reveals just how in a neatly reflective pair of opposing acts: in the first, which plays a bit like High Society in its portrait of aristocrats trying to set up useful marriages, we observe young ‘Little’ Edie Beale, then 24, seeking to escape her mother’s clutches by marrying one of the Kennedy clan, only to be thwarted.
In the second act, in which much of the dialogue and action is drawn directly from the film, the show becomes infinitely more disturbing but also poignant and resonant in its portrayal of a uniquely dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship; the mother is now 80 and her daughter at 56 has become her begrudging carer.
The 1975 film has acquired cult status, particularly in the US, and the audience I first saw the show with on its off-Broadway debut whooped, hollered and cheered at some of the lines like they were at a Rocky Horror Show screening. But though there is a lot that’s genuinely hilarious in Jenna Russell’s pair of performances – first as a young ‘Big’ Edie in the first act then as ‘Little’ Edie in the second, with Sheila Hancock now stepping in as her mother – she brings a rich reservoir of feeling to it, too, that marks her out as one of our very best musical actresses.
This is a picture of an irrevocably damaged life, the thwarted flipside to the American Dream. Russell, dressed in ever-more outlandish outfits (costumes are by Jonathan Lipman), also sings Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s tenderly inflected melodies of regret with real heart.
No less touching and utterly sincere and true is Sheila Hancock’s beautiful, priceless portrait of eccentricity. They are surrounded by an ensemble of great strength, including fine contributions from Jeremy Legat as a piano-playing best friend to Edith as a young mother, Rachel Anne Rayham as the young ‘Little’ Edie and Aaron Sidwell as her suitor.