Following the two Edies from documentary to Broadway

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It was no surprise in 1975, when the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Grey Gardens” was first screened, that people in the Hamptons rushed out to see it. More than a few were already aware that a couple of women from the ranks of society’s finest were living in spectacular squalor in East Hampton’s tony Georgica neighborhood.

Nor was it hard to believe when the film by David and Albert Maysles became a cult classic. After all, the women, Edith Beale and her daughter Edie were aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and, as everyone knows, Kennedy-watchers, and Jackie-O devotees in particular, are legion.

But when composer Scott Frankel set out to convince backers that a successful musical could be made from this story of recluses who never left their decrepit 28-room mansion and greeted each day as an opportunity to provoke and perform for each other, the initial response from even his most promising prospects was two thumbs way down. A couple of women of a certain age “living in filth and squalor” was apparently not Lou Gonda’s idea of promising musical material.

That Mr. Gonda and his wife, Kelly, were eventually persuaded to pursue the idea is a tribute to Mr. Frankel’s belief in his vision and his perseverance. With lyricist Michael Korie and dramatist Doug Wright on board and the Gondas as producers, the show opened on Broadway in November 2006 following a successful Off-Broadway run and went on to be nominated for 10 Tony Awards, win three, and bring a new wave of fame for the ever-compelling Beales.

Now, to satisfy the curiosity of those whose appetite for more on the East Hampton Edies never seems to be sated—and perhaps to show acolytes of a life in the theater that anything is possible—the Gondas have taken the story a step further. Ms. Gonda’s East of Doheny production company is behind “Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway,” which had its broadcast premiere on December 23 as part of the PBS-TV series, “Independent Lens.”

A documentary that tells the back story of the musical’s creation 30 years after the Maysles brothers made their film, it is the collaborative effort of Ms. Gonda and Albert Maysles, who serves as cinematographer and speaks on camera of his fond, respectful relationship with his subjects. As commentator, he is joined by other players and pundits, whose views on the success of the musical and the ingredients that make the Grey Gardens story so fascinating are woven together with clips from the Maysles’ original film.

Once again, there are special treats for Hamptons audiences, some of whom may have been acquainted with the women who were not, as Mr. Maysles points out, recluses of the unfriendly, scary variety. In fact, they were known to spend a good deal of time on the telephone and to indulge in cordial conversation through the kitchen window. While there can’t be many around who remember when “Little Edie” (once engaged to Joe Kennedy Jr.) was known at the Maidstone as “Waddabody Beale,” turning heads wherever she went, the Bouvier legend is strong in and around East Hampton, where the family gathered every summer at Lasata, the patriarch’s 14-acre estate on Further Lane. (The family, minus a few members, is re-gathered for eternity in East Hampton’s Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cemetery.)

So it is especially delicious to watch a film clip of Little Edie, still a fine figure in her extravagant but flattering finery, and hear her pronounce East Hampton “a mean, nasty Republican town” where “they can get you for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.”

What many seem to find most difficult to understand, and thus most intriguing, is the drastic change the two Edies—both beauties in their time, well-connected and clearly intelligent—deliberately chose to undergo, morphing from Maidstone belles to eccentric stars of their own nutty show, living together in a house so distressingly unhygienic that imminent eviction by county health authorities was avoided only when Aristotle Onassis intervened.

So, what happened?

Mr. Maysles, who, after all, knew them best, believes the answer lies in their desire to break the bonds of polite society, which were putting a serious crimp in their highly developed sense of style and self-determination. As Bouviers, he suggests, they couldn’t be themselves, so they abandoned their caste-conscious clan and found a kind of freedom out on their own—together.

In “Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway,” Scott Frankel returns to that eureka moment when he found an approach to his musical that would set up this transition: by showing its seeds in a pre-Grey Gardens Act I and its full flowering in Act II. As he explains on camera, their story resonated with him because he saw their struggle to express their creativity as similar to his own. His previous work for the stage had never gone as far as he’d hoped and he likened those disappointments to the Beales’ story of unrealized, unfulfilled promise.

With the musical, and now the back story of the musical, the Edies have acquired a new generation of fans. And their story seems destined to keep inspiring writers, playwrights and filmmakers indefinitely. “Little Edie and the Marble Faun,” a play written for the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Annual Author Fest, premiered in January 2008 and an original HBO dramatization, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, is said to be in the works.

“Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway” first aired on December 23 as part of the PBS “Independent Lens” series. Additional information can be found at pbs.org/independentlens.

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