Cult Follower: Doug Wright

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Grey Gardens

Doug Wright just can’t stay away from weirdos. His play Quills dramatized the Marquis de Sade’s exploits, and I Am My Own Wife told the story of an East German transvestite informant. And now he’s written the book for a new musical, Grey Gardens, based on the Maysles brothers’ 1975 documentary about Jackie O.’s crazy aunt and cousin, Big and Little Edie Beale, living out their days in a dramatically un-Martha-like East Hampton mansion. Wright spoke with Boris Kachka.

The Beales have become gay icons. Did you feel like you were treading on dangerously hallowed ground?
Several actresses had approached me, hoping I might adapt it, but I thought the movie defied adaptation. [Composer] Scott Frankel was perverse enough to suggest a musical, and I thought, Well, that means if something goes terribly awry there’ll be all these extra people to blame. Scott was almost beaten on the streets of Provincetown when a group of unruly homosexuals discovered he was turning their Edie into a musical diva.

This is not exactly a camp romp, though—it’s a two-act musical, straight out of the American songbook.
We were hoping to do something that honored the women’s pathos as much as their humor.

Little Edie was still alive when you were making this—did you get in touch with her?
No, but Albert Maysles wrote her about it, and she wrote back, “Oh, that’s glorious. With all we didn’t have in life, we always had music and song.” So we thought that was a kind of benediction.

You write lots of screenplays, and you’re adapting The Little Mermaid for the Disney stage. Hardly a theater purist, are you?
They asked me, “Won’t this be a marked departure from your previous work?” And I said, “Don’t flatter yourself. Ursula the Sea Witch and the Marquis de Sade have more in common than you might admit.” But it’s the curse of my upper-middle-class upbringing—wanting a real mattress instead of a futon.

Is there anything you’ve turned down?
Oh yeah. After Quills, I was getting all kinds of really salacious stuff. There was a memoir by a prominent madam—something like Thighs and Whispers.

Your work is a far cry from the living-room plays that dominate Broadway. Should playwrights get out more?
I do think affluent people in well-appointed living rooms dramatizing their problems for affluent people who have left their well-appointed living rooms for the evening has perhaps finite aesthetic returns. Theater is the only form where you can slap up a hand-painted sign that says POLAND on a bare stage, and 800 people sitting in the dark will go, “Oh, we’re in Poland.”

Now Drew Barrymore’s working on a fictionalized Grey Gardens movie, with Jessica Lange. Will there be a film of I Am My Own Wife?
I resent this popular notion that the greatest thing an American play can achieve is to be made into a mediocre movie.

Grey Gardens at Playwrights Horizons Through March 26

Cult Follower: Doug Wright