This show was a critical smash, with good-to-great reviews and the biggest, most lauded star performance in years. Even Forbidden Broadway had nothing bad to say about it…so why did it only run six months?
It’s a common cliché to say that a show has ‘second act trouble’, so much so that Steven Suskin even named a book after it. Well, this is a rare case of a show with first act trouble. The second act of Grey Gardens is one of the finest pieces of theater in the whole second half of the decade, entrancingly atmospheric, brilliantly played by Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, and featuring a string of marvelous songs.
However, the first act, which takes up more than half of the show’s running time, is far more conventional in style, and to be honest a little dreary. Granted, Ebersole gives a superb performance here too, and there are a few outstanding songs, such as the infectious “The Five-Fifteen” and the beautiful ballads “Drift Away” and “Will You?”.
But even if the floppo numbers like “Body Beautiful Beale” and “Better Fall Out Of Love” were largely cut by the time the show reached Broadway, the first act score is too often perfunctory and lacks spark, with too many earnest, conventional character pieces that lack the vitality and inspiration of the second-act songs.
And in any case it comes as a letdown that almost two-thirds of the show is given over to what basically amounts to a massive dump of exposition. True, doing the show without it would be awkward, since Act Two is virtually plotless, and integrating the backstory into individual flashbacks would only have disrupted the act’s glorious sense of atmosphere.
But as classy and impressive as the show was, the first act-second act imbalance ultimately doomed it to cult-flop status and made its loss to Spring Awakening at the Tonys that year less than surprising. Or so one would think: actually, the Tony race that year got particularly ugly fan reactions on both sides, which is surprising given that the race was between an indisputable success and a beautiful but still undeniable failure.
Ultimately, I think it was less about the shows themselves and more about what they represented. They embodied two totally different approaches to Broadway’s future: Spring Awakening was a rock musical, Grey Gardens was post-Sondheim Broadway avant-garde; Spring Awakening had a cast of unknown kids, Grey Gardens was a star vehicle; Spring Awakening was a smash hit, and Grey Gardens was, even then, pretty obviously going to be cult flop. But you have to admit, as cult flops go, it’s a pretty great one.