Oddballs, Freaks, And Geniuses

Pulitzer-winning Doug Wright does “Grey Gardens”

Playwright and screenwriter Doug Wright is known for his biting, intelligent, and humane portraits of creative people in emotional distress. His play “Quills” about the final days of the Marquis de Sade in the Charenton asylum was turned into an award-winning film with Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet.

He won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his beautiful meditation on repression and identity, “I Am My Own Wife” about German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf.

Now he has written the book for a new musical version of the camp cult classic Maysles Brothers documentary “Grey Gardens” about Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie and their decaying sanity in a crumbling old mansion in East Hampton. Anticipation is high surrounding the Broadway transfer of the production following a sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons, particularly concerning Tony hopes for the star, Christine Ebersole, who plays both the mother and daughter at different ages. Performances begin October 3.

Christopher Murray: Writing a musical about two agoraphobic old society biddies living in filth is about as perverse as writing a mainstream movie about the Marquis de Sade’s flirtations with his washerwoman. What drives you toward these particular kinds of stories?

Doug Wright: People we like to label “extreme” or “radical” or sometimes even “mentally unbalanced” are really just ourselves, with certain aspects of our nature distilled or heightened. Who among us can’t claim some version of Little Edie as a relative?

I had an aunt who collected old newspapers; they stood in mammoth, yellowed stacks in her home until eventually she became imprisoned by them. She and Edie Beale, no doubt, would have become fast friends. And her eccentricity—when examined with compassion—ceases to be exotic, and becomes poignantly human. She saved each copy of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal with the promise, “I’ll get around to reading it later.”

Metaphorically speaking, she was hoarding the days; attempting to stop time. She was hanging on to life, defiantly insisting she couldn’t die until all the antique papers had been read. The mavericks among us—the oddballs, the freaks, the geniuses, and the madmen—merit dramatic investigation, because they teach us about the very aspects of ourselves we’d like to keep hidden. They’re a safer venue for exploration than, say, looking in the mirror.

CM: Probably every gay man fantasizes about writing a Broadway musical. How does the reality live up to the fantasy?

DW: I think every gay man fantasizes about being in a Broadway musical; wearing Dolly Levi’s plumage, and descending that rotating staircase with a strapping band of singing waiters. Writing one, I’m sad to say, is grunt work. But I’m blessed with thrilling collaborators who, in truth, know the rudiments of the form far better than I do, and they’ve taught me so much. Thank God for Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. And who knows? Perhaps one day I’ll join the kick line.

CM: Your collaborators on Grey Gardens, lyricist Michael Korie [“Harvey Milk” opera] and composer Scott Frankel worked on two previous musicals before “Grey Gardens.” Was it hard being integrated into their creative symbiosis?

DW: Both Scott and Michael have been wildly generous with me, and our roles have often overlapped, as they always do, I think, when the creative energy is running full tilt. I pitched songs to them; they outlined book scenes for me. Writing a musical is such a daunting task, there’s no room for egos. Those don’t arrive, darling, until the first day of rehearsal, when the cast strolls in.

Often, Michael, Scott and I would disappear to a bed and breakfast in the Berkshires or a condo in Provincetown and have self-imposed writers’ retreats together. You can’t be vain about a scene you’ve written when you’re declaiming it in your pajamas, with really alarming pillow hair.

CM: Do you think Broadway audiences will get “Grey Gardens” in all its dilapidated splendor?

DW: Who knows? I never dreamed Broadway audiences would get the obscure story of an East German transvestite living in the shadow of World War II. When David Richenthal offered to move “I Am My Own Wife” to Broadway, I was the lone holdout who said no! I thought we’d never find a Broadway crowd. But David was smarter than me—and a very fine producer—and I was never happier than the moment he proved me wrong.

So we’ll see how the fabled Beale ladies fare; I do think there is enormous interest in Jackie Kennedy, and the fleeting years of America’s Camelot. And I’m terribly proud of the production, directed by Michael Greif and designed by Allen Moyer. I know they’ve created a singular experience onstage. So we’ll see who strolls through the door!

CM: Christine Ebersole’s performance has already been hailed as one of the greatest in musical theater history. Is she a genius or a mess?

DW: Christine truly delivers a legendary performance, night-after-night. She gives the Beale women a long, hard look and says “There but for the Grace of God…” As a result, she feels a powerful, protective kinship with them. Like the very greatest artists, she isn’t put off by their extremity; it fascinates and inspires her. She’s also thrilled to be working with veteran actress Mary Louise Wilson, who is every bit her equal. The two ladies share a remarkable chemistry, both with one another and the characters they play.

CM: After your writing work on the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” and that film’s under-performance at the box office, what’s next for you in Hollywood?

DW: Now, now! “Memoirs of a Geisha” performed well but not exceptionally in the United States; but it was also produced with a foreign market in mind, and it did quite well abroad. So, in the end, it made piles of money—not for me, alas, but for Sony. Recently,

I wrote “Tony Bennett’s 80th Birthday Party” for NBC, which was thrilling. His voice is as mellifluous as ever, and despite his years, the man is downright sexy. That rakish grin and those blue eyes! He’s a bona fide gentleman, too; courtly as they come, and a thoroughly class act.

In addition to the television special, I just completed a screenplay for Ridley Scott; it’s a romantic comedy! Quite a departure for his company.

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