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Tapping into the ‘non-conformist spirit’ of the Beale sisters in ‘Grey Gardens – The Musical’

Debby Lennon and Donna Weinsting in "Grey Gardens - The Musical."
Dunsai Dai
Debby Lennon and Donna Weinsting in "Grey Gardens - The Musical."

It is said that when “Little” Edith Bouvier Beale first saw a cut of “Grey Gardens,” the 1976 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about her life with her mother in a derelict mansion in East Hampton, NY, she said “Well, I like it, but I wish there was more singing and dancing.”

The composer of “Grey Gardens -The Musical,” Scott Frankel, said he took that as a posthumous blessing to transform the documentary about Jackie Kennedy’s most eccentric relatives into a musical.

“Everyone thought I was crazy and I probably am a bit crazy,” Frankel told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter. “I think what they really wanted, more than anything in life, was to be heard and understood since they were living as recluses. Both the documentary film and musical gave them what they craved — to be understood by a wider audience.”

This weekend, Max & Louie Productions will regionally premiere the Tony Award-winning Broadway Musical for a St. Louis audience.

If you’ve seen the documentary, which is in parts fascinating and sad, you may wonder how a musical format might fit the story of the two reclusive sisters featured in the documentary.

“A lot of it has to do with the music, which is so far-reaching in terms of style and the emotional richness of it,” said Annamaria Pileggi, the show’s director. “After having worked on this, I can’t imagine it not being a musical at this point.”

Debby Lennon, an actress in the production who plays dual roles of “Little” Edie and “Big” Edith, said that the score requires a “herculean effort” from those involved because there are a broad range of musical styles in the musical.

Pileggi said the show is careful not to make the characters’ stories too slap-stick.

Debby Lennon, Madline Purches and Terry Meddows.
Credit Dan Donovan
Debby Lennon, Madline Purches and Terry Meddows.

“It’s a danger because they are so extreme in their behavior,” Pileggi said. “To me, there’s humor throughout the piece but it comes from the ultimate humanity of these people and their strength and courage in the face of adversity.”

Frankel described the women’s lives as having “the great misfortune of being essentially bohemian spirits married to straight-laced Wall Street bankers and lawyers.”

The men who lead the Beale family had little patience for the eccentricities of the mother and daughter and sent them to live on a stipend at Grey Gardens from the 1940s to the 1970s. The house fell into disrepair but they continued to live in it despite numerous health code and building code violations.

“They refused to leave the house, it became part of their identity, as if it were still wonderful and elegant, but it fell apart,” Frankel said.”

The story is truly about resilience.

“They never gave in to their despair,” Pillegi said. “They always rose above it. They were survivors and able to love one another in the face of such adversity and pain.”

It was that spirit that drew Stellie Siteman, the artistic director of Max & Louie Productions, to book the show in St. Louis.

“My love affair with these women started in 1976 in new York City at the Paris Theatre, where I was living after I graduated Webster,” Siteman said. “I went with my pals to see the doc and I fell in love with these defiant iconoclasts. They spoke to me: their fierce individualism, their non-conformist spirit.

“The stories of marginalized peoples who exist outside of convention can tell us a lot about ourselves. The story has resonance for me. In a brave, uncensored way, the two Beale women show us the most comprehensive, resonant, heartbreaking relationship of any mother and daughter relationship.”

Related Events

What: Max and Louie Productions Presents "Grey Gardens - The Musical"
When: July 8 - 30, 2016
Where:  The Wool Studio Theatre in the JCC Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis, MO 63146
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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