Three Questions with Jerry Torre of Grey Gardens (and three more with Carla McDonald)

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Jerry Torre
  • Jerry Torre
Jerry Torre was 16 in the Summer of 1974, when he ran away from home and found employment as a gardner on oil billionaire J. Paul Getty's East Hampton estate. That same year the young man Little Edie Beale called "The Marble Faun," stumbled across Grey Gardens, and into pop culture history when his visits to the decaying mansion were captured by the Maysles Brothers in their famous 1975 documentary. Drew Hampton is currently playing Torre in the musical version of Grey Gardens, which is on stage at Circuit Playhouse through April 17, but here's what the original "Marble Faun" had to say about life at Grey Gardens, and its various translations to the stage and screen. And if this interview isn't enough Bouvier/Beale to quench your thirst for staunch characters, there's a second interview with Grey Gardens star Carla McDonald below the fold.

Intermission Impossible: Your proximity to the Beales makes you a fair judge: of all the versions of Grey Gardens we've seen in recent years, which one is most accurate in getting who the Beales were and what life was like in their peculiar corner of the universe?

Jerry Torre: The First film Grey Gardens [the documentary] is my choice with the two films. The conditions of the mansion were actually improved upon before this. Yet it does take the viewer into a brief understanding of the personalities, living conditions, and complexities of the women.

Intermission Impossible: What's it like to see your love of corn immortalized in song?

Jerry Torre: When I did hear the song "Jerry likes my corn" I was in awe of the interpretation's gravity into our relationship through a song. It captured what I had known about our relationship: a moment in our life at Grey Gardens. One of concern. I'm honored with [the] tender interpretation of our relationship. There was a young boy who shared the simplistic joys of caring about one's dear friend. Mrs.Beale was a mother to me. Only a few days into our relationship and I knew that I was home.

Intermission Impossible: Does the world's seemingly unending fascination with the Beales surprise you? What do you think it is that keeps people coming back for more?

Jerry Torre: Once I shared my thoughts on [the documentary] Mrs.Beale looked at me [and said], "Years into your life people will find our relationship to be one of interest." It has been 35-years since. It is one very fascinating event. One that begins with a grand old mansion on the East end of Long Island where estates have great history. When I walked into the mansion my very first day I felt the history of a family. Of a place where time had stopped. There were no people quite like Mrs.Beale and Edie. Their appeal lives on. One of individual expression in ones own choice of lifestyles. The appeal is one of individuals who seek to live.

Bates Brooks as Big Edie & Carla McDonald as Little Edie
  • Bates Brooks as Big Edie & Carla McDonald as Little Edie

Three Questions with Grey Gardens star Carla McDonald

Intermission Impossible: Okay Carla, here's the mandatory, "Were you a Grey Gardens" fan question. Were you? And what hooked you?

Carla McDonald: I first saw the documentary in the late 90’s when [Memphis actress] Ann Marie Hall set up a formal viewing party for me at her house. All of my Playhouse [on the Square] friends already had it memorized and—reluctantly—agreed to refrain from quoting during my first go round. I wouldn’t say I was “hooked” initially. The constant screaming and bickering between the two women and the squalid conditions of their home made me uncomfortable and itchy. I felt like I needed breaks in order to get to the end. But I eventually I powered through the whole thing, and even went back to watch the dances several times. I have seen it many, many times since.

I think what eventually hooked me was the recurring question of whether these ladies were the most forthright and transparent women on the planet… unapologetic about their strange existence…. or whether the depth of their delusion was such that they thought this film actually presented them in a positive light. There they are sitting on filthy beds covered with garbage and bugs, eating corn from a hotplate, and flirting with the film makers while cats do their business behind huge, ornate portraits and raccoons tear through walls. It was the same feeling I got as a kid watching Willy Wonka and all the old people shared that one bed. Where did they pee? Did they smell bad? Uncomfortable. Itchy.

If these women saw their lives clearly and still somehow managed to get up every day with new costumes, songs and dances, well, my hat’s off to them. If they didn’t see things clearly and were doing their best to survive by “believing” whatever they had to in order to get through another torturous day, my hat’s still off… just a different one. It’s fascinating either way.

Intermission Impossible: Little Edie—who you play in the second act— has such a unique way of speaking and moving and you do a great job with the impersonation. But how hard is it to take all of that and translate it into song? For me, the most impressive about what you're doing right now, is keeping the character vivid even when you're singing.

Carla McDonald: I have always been pretty good at impersonations, so the accent and physical affectations weren’t difficult for me really. The thing I’m most grateful about in this score is that the composers have given Little Edie several songs that are completely internal.

Thankfully, I’ve never seen an actress choose to do those songs in the Edie voice. So really, the "Revolutionary Costume" and the "Marching Song" are the only two songs requiring the East Hampton accent, and most of those lyrics are actually her own words taken directly from the documentary. They are both comedic songs as well, so you can get away with a lot more.

The other more emotional Act 2 songs ("Around the World" and "Another Winter") deal with things she is thinking rather than things being said to/performed for the camera. And I have decided the voice in her head sounds a whole lot like the voice I enjoy singing with on stage.

Intermission Impossible: You, Bates Brooks, David Foster, Emily Pettet... how many divas can you fit on one stage?

Carla McDonald: I’ll not be touching that one except to say that Emily should not have been included in that list.

UPDATE: I received a followup note from Jerry Torre. It said, "If you speak with any of the staff working on the musical, please let them know. It is magical and so dear to me. Their work is so close to my heart. Thank them in the kindest of words." Unable to come up with kinder words, I simply reposted.

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