Making Movies Sing on Stage

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Here's a theme story with no theme, just a coincidence: two new Broadway musicals based on movies that couldn't be more different. One, Mary Poppins is from the P.L. Travers books that inspired the 1964 Walt Disney boxofficepalooza. The other, Grey Gardens, stitches songs onto the true saga of Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, the Jackie O. relatives who lived in spectacular squalor and family rancor in the ritzy Long Island village of East Hampton, and whose eccentricities the documentarians Albert and David Maysles put on display in their 1975 film.

I could try to lend this piece some heft by confecting a lofty theory — say, on the lure of stories about families in turmoil who live in haunted houses and are visited by strangers who change the families' lives. But this time, I'll get straight to the assessments. For me, Mary Poppins worked, at a level higher than efficient and just this side of splendid. The pleasures of Grey Gardens are more mixed. It boasts a glorious performance by Christine Ebersole as both mother and daughter (I'll explain later), and Best Support by Mary Louise Wilson, in a smart show whose main deficiency is exactly what so many modern musicals lack: good music.


The Grey Gardens musical opens with this announcement, news-clipping style: "In a statement released today, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis confirmed that her 80-year-old aunt, Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale, and her adult daughter Edie are living in squalid conditions in an East Hampton estate known as Grey Gardens. The house that once played host to Howard Hughes and the Rockefellers is now a refuge for 52 stray cats, a few rabid raccoons and its two reclusive inhabitants, all living in an environment the Health Department calls unfit for human habitation."

The Beales had already been the subject of a 1972 New York magazine cover story by Gail Sheehy when the Maysles brothers got to them a year later. By then, Albert and David had pretty much patented the branch of documentary known as showbiz vérité. Showman, a profile of movie distributor Joe Levine (1963), What's Happening: The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), A Visit With Truman Capote (1966), Meet Marlon Brando (1966) and the Rolling Stones' Altamont debacle Gimme Shelter (1970) all demonstrated vérité's affinity for performers. A form of documentary that plants a two-person film crew (camera and sound) in a room with the subject, then waits for something to happen, vérité is dependent on exhibitionists, self-dramatizers, natural actors, people eager to tell their story in front of strangers.

Cinema vérité translates as movie truth, but the subject's story doesn't have to be true; it only has to compel the viewer to keep watching. Anyway, the lies or evasions people bring to explanations of their lives can be as revealing of their real personalities (if there are such things) as the truth (if that even exists). And in Edith and Edie Beale, Albert and David found a mother-daughter act eager to act out their lifelong psychodrama. As Edie, who was 56 when the movie was shot, confides to the brothers about her dreams of nightclub stardom and her altruistic imprisonment tending for her mother in Grey Gardens, Edith, then nearing 80, insisted that she was the caregiver and her daughter the emotional invalid. It is up to the moviegoer to choose one version as accurate, or neither, or a bit of both.

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