What Are You Listening To?

Started by Chris L, Jun 21, 2017, 11:53 AM

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For some reason I put on the Grey Gardens OBCR the other night, and was reminded what a glorious score it is.  In particular, I was once again enamored of "Another Winter In A Summer Town" and ended up listening to it on repeat... several times.

Which I seem to recall having happened before, probably whenever my last Grey Gardens phase was.  The funny thing is, back in 2007 that song didn't altogether grab me at first; if anything, I thought it a bit limp and pedestrian for what's supposed to be not just a generic 11-o'clock number but the climax of its singer's overall emotional arc in the show.  I'm not sure how many listens it took for the song to grow on me -- but I'm glad it eventually did, with a vengeance.


...Speaking of:  this morning I discovered, to my great delight, that a very watchable full-length archival video of GG's original Off-B'way production can be viewed on YouTube.

I won't post the link here, but it's easy to find.  For Ebersole's and Wilson's performances alone -- beautifully captured, along with that of Sara Gettelfinger, whose Young "Little" Edie surpasses Erin Davie's Broadway portrayal, imho -- it's well worth two-plus hours of your time.

It also cleared, from some remote corner of my mind, one obscure design-geek cobweb that had been lingering there for the past decade.  Having managed to see GG only after it moved to Broadway, I had long harbored a tiny sliver of disappointment at never having gotten to witness one particular detail of Allan Moyer's brilliant set that, I had heard at the time, didn't survive the transfer.

(It's pretty obscure: keep reading only if you're as big a nerd as I am about this kind of thing.)

First of all, some background: Moyer's design smartly reflected the remarkable cleavage between the show's two acts rather than trying to knit them together.  (Doug Wright's book actually already makes the two halves reflect each other at every turn -- but in distorted form, as if in a fun-house mirror which, together with the cognitive dissonance elicited by Ebersole's double-casting, seemed to throw some viewers who sought a more conventional through-line between the Edies' halcyon prewar days and their astonishing later decline).

In both Off- and B'way venues, Moyer set the first act in a gorgeously-appointed box set so conventional it wouldn't have looked out of place in a domestic melodrama on the Broadway stage of 1941: square, frontal, with discreetly forced perspective and a number of flattish, laterally-sliding pieces (French windows, trellises, grey-shingled "show curtain" panels) downstage, which occasionally took us out of the parlor and onto GG's porch or grounds.  (They also allowed the house itself to reveal, conceal or "imprison" the older and younger Edies at several points, to compelling visual and dramatic effect).  By contrast, the second act placed the front hallway and upstairs bedroom  -- by this time, the house's only two still-functioning rooms -- on a central revolve, without any walls to speak of, isolated amid looming piles of empty cat-food cans and other debris, and often lit with fragmentary, flickering projections (including images from the Maysles' film itself).  The impression of fractured reality, dizzyingly augmented by this shift into purely sculptural movement and lighting (even the projections were often stretched and warped by the various moving surfaces onto which they were being cast) perfectly echoed the startling disjuncture between the polished, theatrical repartee of Act I and the "real" dialogue of Act II (largely collaged from verbatim snippets of the documentary, though in fact edited by Wright with the same lean precision as his faux-midcentury well-made-playwrighting in the first act).

Okay, so about that pesky cobweb in my brain: given my admiration for Moyer's strategy of presenting Act I in classic, even self-consciously "stage-y" pictorial style, and Act II as sculptural deconstruction -- a choice that I suspect may have cemented my overall appreciation of the show even more, or at least more quickly, than any other single factor -- I was tantalized to learn, a month or two after first seeing GG on Broadway, that there was one seemingly substantial element of the Act II set that was cut when the show transferred.  At the time, I was doing some work at the Vineyard Theatre, and the Production Manager who hired me had worked some months earlier on GG at Playwrights: specifically, engineering the Act II revolve with an internal elevator (!) which lowered Grey Gardens's front staircase into the floor -- an effect not seen on Broadway.

In both productions, the Act II staircase essentially divided the revolve into two main playing areas: the ground-floor entrance hall on one side, and the (ostensibly second-floor) bedroom on the other.  The set had no actual second story; both areas actually played "on the floor," at stage level, with the tall "stairway to nowhere" functioning as a kind of wall between them.  But apparently at Playwrights, one could climb the stairs from the front hall, as the revolve turned and the elevator sank -- and arrive back at stage level in the "upstairs" bedroom.

Lo and behold, when that moment finally arrived in the Playwrights video as I watched this morning -- it was actually only the top half of the staircase, and the sequence was reversed: near the end of "Choose To Be Happy," the upper stairs sank into the floor until the very top step was flush with the stage; Ebersole's Little Edie stepped on and began to descend them, and they immediately began to rise again, meeting the landing just in time to deposit her in the front hall, suitcase in hand, to begin her reprise of "Around The World".  (If you've made it this far and are curious: in the YouTube video, it occurs at exactly one minute past the two-hour mark).

Several thoughts occurred.  While the timing is such that Ebersole is being lifted up by the rising stairs just as Norman Vincent Peale and his gospel choir reach a hand-clapping crescendo, "Choose..." is still basically a transitional song, perhaps not worthy of a scenic flourish quite this grand (it's a striking one-off addition to an already lavish design, especially for Off Broadway).  The moment in question isn't exactly the pivotal one of (Older) Little Edie's choosing to leave Grey Gardens for good (or not), though Peale's hymn to positive thinking is clearly meant to supply her with some momentum in that direction.  (The more persuasive "moment," such as it is, sort of happens in stages, the most arresting of which occur directly before and after "Another Winter...", with no visual or choral support: Ebersole's performance is more-than-sufficiently spellbinding by itself).  It got me wondering whether this entire sequence might have changed at some point after Moyer completed his design, leaving his elevator effect without a really ideal moment to contribute to the staging.

Then again, for all of the money and engineering acumen (props to my Vineyard employer, Ben) this elevator-in-a-revolve must have cost Playwrights, judging by the video its deployment seemed neither as spectacular nor, conversely, as effortlessly-integrated an effect as Moyer and his collaborators may have intended.  In its single use here, the elevator never rises or sinks while the revolve is turning; I can't tell whether it would have been (or was intended to be) capable of doing so.  But elevating only half the staircase feels a tadbit clunky, especially when that portion only lowers shortly beforehand, to scoop Little Edie up, and then immediately rises again just so that she can descend four or five steps to the landing: it almost feels like too much automation, in too little space, occurring over too short a timespan, to be worth the considerable effort put into it.  It doesn't ruin the moment by any means, but I'm not sure it really enhances it all that much either. 

Meanwhile, the prominent gap between the landing platform and the upper steps reads to me, when seen from behind (above the two Edies' spindle headboards, in the bedroom where we spend quite a bit of Act II), more as scabbed-together stage scenery than as realistic architectural structure, even in a house that's supposed to be falling apart.  Not until the elevator finally does its thing can we infer why, in reality, the landing was built in two visibly-separate pieces -- by which time, that's the last thing we should be thinking about.

I seem to recall Ben saying the elevator was cut for Broadway simply because the Walter Kerr didn't have sufficient trap-room clearance under the stage.  Now that I've finally seen the effect on video, the upshot for me is that it wasn't actually that huge a loss.  But I'm still a fan of the idea, in principle, as a potentially gorgeous expansion on the sculptural/cinematic emphasis of the second-act design.  We go up- and downstairs often enough that the concept of both rotating and elevating the staircase feels right, and might not even need to be confined to just one, quasi-climactic moment.  With some refinement, I still think it could really drive home the idea of this house as a sort of monstrous puzzle-box.  But I suspect that Moyer's spot-on intentions may have been thwarted by limited tech time; by the sheer mechanical complexity of sinking even a portion of the stairs into a revolve, and -- as speculated above -- by the exigencies of a perhaps still-developing script and staging.

But at least I've finally seen what the effect looked like.  So that's one cobweb I can brush out of my brain.  Way off-topic, sorry.

For what it's worth, I am still listening to the GG OBCR; I put it back on this evening and have been scrolling around listening to bits and pieces and comparing some sections with the Off-Broadway cast recording.


I absolutely adore this score; occasionally it drifts out of my memory but then I revisit it and remember it is just perfect.  I saw the London premiere, at the Southwark Playhouse, with Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock (and one of my students playing Young Jackie), and I bawled throughout.  God, it was good.  I may look for the YouTube video.  Is the Off-Broadway recording you mention commercially available?
Self indulgence is better than no indulgence!


To my knowledge, there's no (legally) commercially-available video recording of any production of Grey Gardens.*

In terms of cast albums (i.e. audio recordings), there were two releases in the U.S.: Off Broadway and Broadway.  The main cast change was Davie taking over for Gettelfinger as Young Little Edie, and indeed -- as with Fun Home substituting Emily Skeggs for Alexandra Socha as Medium Alison -- I believe they mostly reused the original tracks from the Off-Broadway cast album, re-recording only what was necessary to replace Gettelfinger's performance with Davie's.

Of course, beyond just its cast, Grey Gardens itself changed more during the move uptown than Fun Home did, and the recordings reflect those changes.  If you want to hear the songs that were cut or replaced for Broadway ("Toyland" by "The Girl Who Has Everything"; "Body Beautiful Beale" and "Better Fall Out Of Love" by "Goin' Places"; "Being Bouvier" by "Marry Well," with the girls' parts echoing lyrical ideas from the cut "Tomorrow's Woman"), the OOBCR can be heard on Pandora, or found on CD (likely used, as -- again like Fun Home -- I believe the Off-B'way cast album was taken out of print as soon as the B'way one was released).

In terms of finding a copy on CD, it doesn't help matters that, on American Amazon at least, its cover design -- a photo of a crumbling stone cherub, from the poster art for the Playwrights production, alongside one of Ebersole's Little Edie in her winter furs -- appears (mistakenly) on the product page for the Broadway cast recording.  In the U.S., the furs-and-cherub cover was actually that of the Off-Broadway recording, while the Broadway version featured a completely revamped poster design based on this photo of the real little Edie, in shoulder-baring summer attire including a wide-brimmed straw hat, peering at the camera over a hand mirror which obscures most of her face.  As much as the more-revealing outfit, the main difference between the two designs is color: broadly speaking, the wintry Off-B'way image reads as almost monochromatic grey (enlivened only slightly by Ebersole's face and her brown fur coat), while the summery B'way one features a striking velvety-green background echoing the dark grey-green of her hat and outfit.  (I assume the model in the Broadway image is also Ebersole, but we see so little of her face that I couldn't swear to it).

* The musical, that is.  The spiffy Criterion editions of both the original documentary and its 2006 "sequel" The Beales of Grey Gardens are both available on DVD and Blu Ray, separately or sold together as a set; both can also be streamed on Amazon Prime.  HBO's film dramatization, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, is also available on DVD and streaming.  And for Christmas this year I received That Summer on DVD (but it too can be streamed on Amazon), collected from footage taken at Grey Gardens two years prior to the Maysles' documentary -- when Lee Radziwill (who's onscreen quite a bit) had been trying to persuade the brothers to make a film about her childhood summers in East Hampton, and got sidetracked by the cleanup operation in the wake of the local Health Department's intervention.  Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Mick Jagger also apparently visited, though we see them only in brief glimpses.


Self indulgence is better than no indulgence!


I have always liked the Off-Broadway version of Grey Gardens much more than the Broadway version.  "Body Beautiful Beale" and "Better Fall Out of Love" are brilliant songs, far better than many other songs in the score, and they really nail the early 1940's style.  In addition they very subtly lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that will end the first act, dramatizing latent conflicts in Little Edie's relationships with her mother and with Joe.  The song that replaced them, "Going Places", does none of these things, and just is not a very good or interesting song.  And those cut songs give us a really clear picture of Little Edie's personality as a young woman; without them she rather recedes into the background, because Big Edie's larger-than-life presence dominates the whole act.  Likewise, "Being Bouvier" draws a clear portrait of the Major, which shows us exactly why he is so disdainful of Big Edie's cocktail-party singing, setting the stage for his outburst during "Hominy Grits" which sort of comes out of nowhere in the revised text.  "Marry Well", the song that replaced it, is rather inane, more of an answer to another cut song "Tomorrow's Woman" than an expression of the Major's character.  And it's a small thing but "The Girl Who Has Everything" is a too on-the-nose comment on Little Edie's character, whereas "Toyland" is just a harmless pastiche - which really is the right thing for the moment -- sounding like just the kind of song Big Edie would actually have sung and recorded.

Going hand in hand with all of this is the unavoidable evidence on the recordings that Gettelfinger is a stronger singer than Davie, and a much better actress.  Time after time Davie seems not to comprehend Little Edie's attitudes toward the other characters -- gushing in delight over Big Edie's recital song list when in fact she is meant to be MORTIFIED.

I am so glad I got the off-Broadway Cd when it was still available.  The only change in the Broadway version that I like is the addition of the reprise of "Mother Darling" as the telegram song, a nice touch.  But it's not worth the loss of everything else.
I was born to ask "why was I born?"


In fairness, Davie wasn't actually "gushing in delight" over Big Edie's song list; gobsmacked by the surprise, her (or at least her Young Little Edie's) default in the face of such "mortification" was -- in keeping with the song's lyric -- to zoom in the opposite direction and try to pass off her shock as though it were that of delight and gratitude rather than of distress and resentment.

Which isn't to say that I don't agree (I very much do) with your preference for Gettelfinger's rendition, even of those specific lines. (Ben Brantley's preference for Davie in the role -- to the point of citing her ostensibly-unsatisfactory predecessor by name in his B'way review, which seemed uncalled-for -- always puzzled me).  But I feel compelled to defend Davie because, even though her casting here never struck me as ideal, she's neither untalented nor obtuse.

Self-serving as this sounds, I will say that I've never enjoyed her Broadway work as much as that in which I first encountered her: in a production of Jekyll & Hyde I designed a couple of years earlier, where her Emma actually elevated (so far as possible) a thankless role in a witless show.  By comparison, she's now been miscast (IMO) at least twice on Broadway -- in GG and, worse, in A Little Night Music as a mopey Charlotte ill-served by a leaden, half-tempo arrangement of "Every Day A Little Death".  Beyond that, I saw her as Jill Paice's replacement in Curtains near the end of its run (another relatively thankless role); as Violet in Side Show (a good performance in an unmemorable show); and as Yvonne/Naomi in Sunday in the Park With George (respectable, if again not ideally cast -- although, to be fair, Dana Ivey may never really relinquish her hold on those roles in my imagination).

About Grey Gardens in general, I agree that a lot of really great material got lost in the transfer.  I think the consensus at the time was that Act I was too long at Playwrights, so a lot of the changes were about compressing the 1941 material in order to get to Act II faster.  After seeing the video, I agree with you that the losses weren't necessarily worth it (though I do like "The Girl Who Has Everything" despite its being, as you say, a bit "on the nose").  And "The Telegram" wasn't even a net gain for the score itself: it was already in the Playwrights version, even though it didn't appear on the Off-B'way CD (cut for time, I assume: even without it, the disc is stuffed-unto-bursting in terms of its running length).


Happy 25th anniversary! (Gasp.)
I love this album. I don't know anybody else who has ever heard of it.



I've been revisiting Queen of the Mist lately, and I cannot get "There Is Greatness In Me" out of my head.

It is not the first time this particular song has lodged itself in my brain and refused to leave.

If asked to characterize the music of Michael John LaChiusa in a single word, "catchy" might not be the very first to spring to mind.  But, in addition to being a tour-de-force of dynamic exposition, a note-perfect introduction to LaChiusa's version of Anna Edson Taylor, and a thrilling bespoke vocal-dramatic vehicle (as is the whole show) for the incomparable Mary Testa, "...Greatness In Me" is also infernally sticky.


I'm listening to the new OCR of Adam Guettel's Days of Wine and Roses for the second or third (call it second-and-a-half) time since downloading it last week, and enjoying it more and more each time.  When last I checked, a few weeks ago, the show seemed not to be selling very briskly despite its good reviews, name (well, Broadway-name) cast and familiar, if hardly feel-good, title.  Brian D'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara sound wonderful on the recording and are reportedly heartbreaking onstage.  And Guettel's score, wedding his distinctive harmonic sensibility to a midcentury jazz idiom, is quietly devastating on Apple Music, so I can only imagine its effect live.  I may have to scrape together the cost of a ticket before the show's limited B'way run ends on April 28.

Days of Wine and Roses (Original Cast Recording ... - Amazon.com


Lots of Evita - likely to be our next school musical.
Self indulgence is better than no indulgence!