When William Ivey Long heard rumors of a new musical based on the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, about a reclusive mother and daughter living in squalor in an East Hampton mansion, his first reaction was dismay. He’d seen the documentary soon after it came out and found it quite depressing. “I’m from the South,” says Long, “and old ladies in reduced means — that’s one of our staple products.”
He reluctantly agreed to take on the project, but was unsure how to approach it. As one of Broadway’s top designers, Long had worked on several other “previously-owned vehicles,” including The Producers and Hairspray, which had been developed from films. He usually tried to avoid seeing the movie again, so that his approach for the stage would be fresh. However, Grey Gardens director Michael Greif had a very different idea. Greif asked Long to watch the documentary over and over, in order to burn the images into his mind. Long reluctantly agreed. “The first re-watching — again — was depressing,” says Long. “But by the second and third time through, I realized that Big and Little Edie were heroes; they were valiant.”
Little Edie was a well-known socialite in the 1940s, and cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier. Little Edie and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”), shone among the smart set of Long Island and New York City. But the women’s lives took a turn for the worse when Big Edie’s husband left her and disowned Little Edie. By the early 1970s, Big and Little Edie were living in Grey Gardens in seclusion. The 28-room, dilapidated mansion was overrun with cats and raccoons, making a filthy mess of what had once been the scene of many an elegant dinner and garden party.
Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles spent six weeks with the mother and daughter, capturing their arguments, song and dance routines and quirky personalities in the award-winning documentary. The Off-Broadway production of Grey Gardens, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, premiered at Playwrights Horizons in March, 2006, and moved to Broadway in October.
Act 1 of the play takes place in Grey Gardens in 1941, with Little Edie played by Erin Davie and Big Edie played by Christine Ebersole. Act 2 jumps ahead to 1973, with Ebersole taking on the role of Little Edie and Mary Louise Wilson stepping into the role of the mother. While the first act is filled with characters wearing glorious dresses and crisp suits and takes place in an immaculate grand sitting room, Act 2 is a study in contrasts: the dingy set is filled with debris and cans of cat food.
Little Edie, who has gone slightly off her rocker by this point, amuses herself by dressing with a flair for the strange. In the documentary, she covers her bald head with various sweaters and scarves, secured with a large brooch. She wears skirts upside-down, tied at the waist, drapes scarves around her like a cape, and often rearranges her outfit as she speaks to the camera.
“We tried to get inside the brain of Little Edie,” says Long, “with the idea that she’s constantly wrapping and rewrapping garments that once fit, and pinning them all with that one brooch. So we tried to do that.” Long made sweaters and skirts out of cashmere, then spent hours in a fitting room with Ebersole attempting to recreate Little Edie’s idiosyncratic attire.
Long came up with the idea of using a cardigan instead of a turtleneck as one of Little Edie’s wardrobe staples for two reasons: Ebersole wouldn’t be able to pull a turtleneck over her head without taking her head mic with it, and the cardigan could just as easily be reconfigured into a skirt, headscarf or sweater (worn backwards, of course). After figuring out exactly how Edie had assembled her outfits, replete with broken zippers and safety pins, Long reinvented versions with snaps that could easily be removed for Ebersole’s many quick changes.
The hues of the second act costumes are bold navies and reds that pop out against the dinginess of the set. Act 1, on the other hand, is a vision of pastels. “Ultimately, it needs to feel like a dream,” says Long. “The room in Act 1 is blue and white. While some ladies want to match their outfits with their rooms, Big Edie is bohemian, and she walks into a room and dominates it. So I played opposites on the color chart. The opposite of that turquoise was salmon, or peach, so I made that the color of the two ladies, and then it filters out and harmonizes with the other family members’ clothes. It was a way to say that Big Edie was out to take no prisoners, without program notes.”
Big Edie, in the first act, wears palazzo pants, a silk kimono, strings of beads around her neck and ornaments in her hair. Her daughter wears flowing dresses of corals and pinks and a stunning white engagement dress with an embroidered tulle skirt. Big Edie’s husband, played by John McMartin, is a conservative businessman with no time for his wife and daughter’s dramatic antics.
“So what does conservative mean?” Long asked himself when he was contemplating McMartin’s costumes. “It means that once he got the look of proper clothing, say in his 20s, he stuck with it. So you go back to what people were wearing then and you adapt it. That’s what the actor does, in researching their characters, and that’s my job as well.”
Long filled cork boards with different photos and drawings for inspiration. He sketched out scenes from the play, pasting the subsidiary reference pages around it. The fabrics for Grey Gardens included sumptuous cashmere, silks and pima cotton. It took about six weeks for the costumes to be built for the Off-Broadway run, followed by several fittings (and several more, in Ebersole’s case).
Before the show moved to Broadway, Long created doubles for the men’s shirts as well as costumes for the understudies. He also made ghostly doubles of the clothes in the first act for the characters that come back as faded figures of the past in the second. “For the girl’s party dresses in the Off-Broadway run, I just went to a ‘partydress.comtype’ Web site, ordered two dresses and dyed them grey. Done, happy to have them.” says Long. “But for the Broadway run we made exact duplicates in grey because I think the audiences can tell.”
The second act opens with Edie wearing the first of many strange outfits and singing “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” When asked which outfit is his favorite from the show, Long doesn’t miss a beat. “I’ve never worked on a project where you make a costume that has a song written about it,” says Long, “so I have to say that one is my favorite.”
Fiona Kirk is the former managing editor of Stage Directions.
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