Serge Seiden, Associate Producing Director of Studio Theatre, responded to Joel’s questions by written interview.
Joel: This production is among the first seen outside New York. You have created a Grey Gardens that is quite different from the Broadway production. Tell us how you approached directing this unusual musical.
Serge: We wanted to unite the style of the two acts. So we set both acts in a set design “frame” that evokes 1973. To me, Act I is more like a flashback of Big Edie’s…that’s how I staged the transition from the Act I Prologue into the first 1941 scene…Big Edie swirls on the turntable upstage as she sees herself at 45 years old sweep onto the stage.
Joel: Why was Barbara Walsh the perfect choice to play Edie/Edith?
Serge: She can CHANNEL Edie Beale and she has the delicacy and taste to play Edith in Act I. Plus she’s a dream to work with: collaborative, creative, brilliant and warm. I’m totally smitten.
Joel: The whole cast you selected is so brilliant, and I adored Jenna Sokolowski as Little Edie. Did you have her in mind, or did you find her in the casting process?
Serge: I love Jenna too and she is perfect for the role. I was so thrilled that she said, “yes!”
Joel: Speaking of auditions, how many actors auditioned for Edie/Edith?
Serge: About 150! And we had thousands of submissions from agents.
Joel: You decided not to mic the actors, an unusual move these days.
Serge: Our spaces are designed to bring the sound of the unamplified human voice to the audience no more than 8 rows from the stage. It takes a lot of work to balance the band and singers, but I think it’s worth it.
Joel: With Russell Metheny’s set design, we don’t see the elegant mansion in the first act, or the squalid set in the second. Without these visual cues, how did you show the deteriorated conditions of the mother and daughter?
Serge: Act I has gorgeous costumes and elegant props and furniture. Act II has decrepit furniture and costumes designed to emulate those in the documentary. I think the audience has enough imagination to fill in the blanks.
Joel: In NYC, “Entering Grey Gardens” used only actors, dressed as cats in black costumes, and in this production, the first act Beales appear. What do they represent in this number?
Serge: Edie says “Mother doesn’t have friends really, she just collects strays…” For me the cats are the ghosts of Grey Gardens past.
Joel: Was any of the score altered, or new arrangements made by Music Director George Fulginiti-Shaker?
Serge: The orchestration had to be slightly reduced, a key changed, and some musical lines traded or elided.
Joel: What scene and song evokes the most emotion for you?
Serge: ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’…I grew up in Maine…and I know VERY well what it’s like when the Summer people leave, the leaves change and the winter cold is about to set in…hibernation time.
Joel: Has playwright Doug Wright been in to see the show?
Serge: No, but I hear Michael Korie may come. Jerry Torre, the real Marble Faun, came two weeks ago and Ben Bradley and Sally Quinn came this past week. (They are the current owners of Grey Gardens)
Joel: Mr. Wright wrote the book for this musical after seeing the documentary film “Grey Gardens.” Next year, we will be able to see Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore in the movie “Grey Gardens.” Having thought a great deal about this mother/daughter pair, what do you hope the movie does to further tell their story?
Serge: I think the documentary says it all actually. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking. There are, of course, mysteries that remain…but I think the story of mother and daughter, weak and strong, love and loneliness, is timeless and needs nothing further…The movie will have to be judged as a work of art unto itself, just as the musical should be.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take away with them when they leave the Metheny Theatre after seeing Grey Gardens?
Serge: The humanity in these eccentric characters! To me the story of these women evokes existential questions about our own yearnings and our own illusions…how we survive in a harsh world. These are universal themes everyone can identify with.