From a decaying mansion in the nasty republican town of East Hampton, to a picture perfect suburban house in Hartford, to the beauty salons on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Composer Scott Frankel and Lyricist Michael Korie have taken their audiences to interesting and dramatic slices of American life through their Broadway musicals. The characters this songwriting team decide to write about are larger than life. However, through their brilliant music and lyrics, the team is able to find the empathy, sympathy and pity within these characters in order for the audience to see their humanity. This blog will discuss and examine their three musicals; Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven and War Paint. This blog will also discuss the show’s similarities, the scores and how the work fits in the historical context of 21st century American musical theater.
Disclaimer: Although the team has also composed the musicals Doll and Happiness, the contents of this blog will concern with their major Broadway works, or their musicals that have an accessible cast recording or libretto. Therefore, this blog may be considered biased in regards to comparing their work because it does not include Doll or Happiness.
Plot: Grey Gardens is the hilarious and heartbreaking story of Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They were once bright names on the social register who would later become East Hampton’s most notorious recluses. Act One takes place in 1941 where Edith Bouvier Beale is throwing a party to announce the engagement of her daughter Edie to Joseph Patrick Kennedy. However, when stories of Edie’s scandalous past is told to Joe Kennedy, in addition to a telegram from Mr. Bouvier Beale desiring a divorce from Edith, the engagement and the party are off. Act Two takes place in 1972 in which the Beales live in squalid conditions in their dilapidated house filed with “racoon, flees and virtually no plumbing”. The two women argue, relive moments from their past and question what brought them to living in such shambles. Edie begins to be fed up with her mother’s comments in addition to the presence of Jerry, the Beale’s friend and houseboy. She plans to leave Grey Gardens for good although in the end she never does.
Theme: The theme of the musical mostly revolve around the undying love and dangers of a mother and daughter relationship. This is showcased through the Beales, particularly at the end when Edie decides to stay with her mother.
Musical Styles: The first act pastiches the type of parlor songs the Beales listened to and sang during that time: European Operetta, Tin Pan Alley, Soft Shoe, Minstrel tunes, and Gershwin. Act two has no pastiche style (besides the WWII number “The House We Live In”) but rather a musical theater sound similar to Sondheim.
History of the musical: Grey Gardens premiered at Playwrights Horizon and was a such a resounding success that it transferred to Broadway to glowing reviews and two Tony Awards for the actresses portraying The Beals. PBS’s Independent Lens would create a documentary discussing the original film and the creation of the musical entitled Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway. A 2009 HBO movie titled Grey Gardens starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange as the Beals would premiere two years after the success of the musical.Since closing in New York, it has played in regional theaters all over America and around the world.
Far From Heaven
Plot: Its autumn in Connecticut 1957. Cathy Whitaker seems to be the picture-perfect wife and mother to her family and to her community. But roiling beneath the surface are the secret longings for her African American friend Mr. Raymond Deagan and the forbidden desires of her closeted husband Frank. These desires and complications would help causes Cathy’s world to unravel, with incendiary consequences.
Theme: The show revolves around how the leads, Cathy, Frank and Raymond, are affected by the repression, hypocrisy and snobby conformist rules of the ‘50s. The show also showcases the false facade that the decade and characters put on.
Musical Styles: The music and sounds resemble the music of 1950s suburbia: cocktail music, jazz, film noir, and latin salsa.
History of the musical: The show premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 then Playwrights Horizon a year later. When it premiered at Playwrights Horizon, it received good but mixed reviews. Although the musical did not reach the Broadway stage (probably due to the show’s “non-commercial” nature), it did receive a cast recording and is now available for licensing through R&H.
Plot: War Paint is a biography musical about Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden who defined beauty standards for the first half of the twentieth century. Brilliant innovators with humble roots, both were masters of self-invention who sacrificed everything to become the country’s first major female entrepreneurs. They were also fierce competitors whose fifty-year tug-of-war would give birth to an industry. From Fifth Avenue society to the halls of Congress, their rivalry was relentless and legendary – pushing both women to build international empires in a world dominated by men.
Themes: The musical showcases the battle of women fighting against a male dominated world and the costs Arden & Rubenstein paid for in their personal lives in order to break the glass ceiling. Another theme is revealed In the final scene when Elizabeth Arden asks Helena Rubinstein this question: “Did we make women freer or did we help enslave them?”
Musical Styles: Act One captures the swing music and big band sounds of the 1930s. Act Two captures the rally calls of WWII and the bongo sounds of the 1950s. Elizabeth Arden’s music is in a major key, bright and laid back. Helena Rubinstein’s music is in a minor key, brassy with chunky chords.
History of the musical: War Paint had an out of town tryout in Chicago before opening on Broadway a year later to good but mixed reviews. It received four Tony Award nominations and lost all. 2017 was a watershed year on Broadway and unfortunately War Paint was lost in the mix of innovative contemporary musical theater shows such as Dear Evan Hansen, Great Comet, Come From Away and Groundhog Day. The show closed prematurely after 236 performance when it was announced leading lady Patti LuPone was to have hip surgery. The show is now available for licensing from Samuel French.
Similarities Within Their Work
The musicals of Frankel and Korie have a distinct style and pattern to their work the same way any great artist such as Picasso or Miro does;
- Their musicals are based on a film: Grey Gardens and Far From Heaven are based on the documentary/film of the same name and War Paint is based on the documentary, The Powder and Glory (in addition to the book of the same name!).
- All the shows are directed by Michael Grief
- The shows are center around incredible and strong American women: In Grey Gardens, the Beals, Far From Heaven, Cathy and in War Paint, Arden and Rubinstein.
- The show also deals with how these women’s lives are comprised by the men in their life: In Grey Gardens, Edith is despised and resented by her father, Major Bouvier while Edie blames her problems on Joe Kennedy’s resentment to marry her due to his strict rules on what his ideal bride is supposed to be. In Far From Heaven, Frank’s unfaithfulness to Cathy in addition to his rude comments to her and his physical abuse causes Cathy to unravel. In War Paint, Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis and Rubenstein’s business partner, Harry Fleming, both feel undervalued and not appreciated for their devotion towards the company’s successes. In retaliation, the men backstab the women by working for the opposite companies (Lewis goes to work for Rubenstein while Fleming goes to work for Arden). Furthermore, both the men give away the top secrets of the previous company. This causes Arden and Rubinstein to lament in the number “If I’ve Been a Man”.
- The musicals are tailored made for star vehicles: Grey Gardens’ stars were Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, who both won Tony Awards for their performances as the Beals. In Far From Heaven, the stars were Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale were the Whitakers (this was a year before they would pair up again as star crossed lovers in musical adaptation of Bridges of Madison County). War Paint’s stars were Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden and Patti LuPone as Helena Rubinstein. Both women were nominated for Best Actress at the 2017 Tony Awards.
- Their musicals have underlying camp elements, deal with gay subject matters or appeal to gay audiences: Grey Gardens is considered to be one the definitive gay camp classics alongside Mommie Dearest and All About Eve. What makes this film appealing to gay camp lovers are the headstrong Beal’s quotable phrases, fashion statements, unique voices and catty arguments. Although all of these elements are intact in the musical, Frankel & Korie also attach a sympathetic and saddened look at the Beals rather than making them the cartoon drag queens as they have become over time. This pathos view of the Beales is evident in numbers like “Jerry Likes My Corn” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town”. Furthermore, Grey Gardens’ George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s confident and soulmate, is portrayed in the musical as flamboyantly gay. Although some might consider Far From Heaven campy due to the story’s melodramatic structure, it is FAR FROM camp (see what I did there?). Frank Whitaker is a closeted gay man and drives the plot forward when his wife Cathy finds him making love to another man. Frank considers being gay a disorder in his mind and discovered he had this “illness” while he was enlisted in WWII. Frank showcases these problems in the musical numbers, “Secrets” and “If It Hadn’t Been (Reprise)”. When Frank finally gives into his “illness” in the musical number “I Never Knew”, he decides to live with another man, divorces Cathy and crushes her spirit in the process. Like Grey Gardens, War Paint deals with two headstrong fabulous woman at constant battle with bitchy one-liners. War Paint’s Harry Fleming is a gay man who works for Helena Rubinstein. Fleming is caught when a late night tryst blackmails Rubenstein for money, Fleming goes against Rubenstein and discontinues to be with her, which is somewhat similar to what Frank did to Cathy in Far From Heaven.
- Their musicals take place during the mid-20th century: Grey Gardens’ first act takes place in July 1941 while Act Two takes place in July 1972. Far From Heaven takes places from autumn 1957 to spring 1958. War Paint takes places from 1930s to the early 1960s. Having the shows take place during the mid-20th century allows the musical language to consist of jazz and swing style or consist of music of an era before rock ‘n roll. Speaking of the music…
- Each musical beings with a prologue then goes into a splashy opening number: Grey Gardens’ prologue begins in 1972 with a newsreel giving the audience a brief background on what the mansion is and who is living in it. The scene then transforms into Grey Gardens in its heyday in 1941. Their is excitement in the air with preparations for Little Edie’s engagement party and is displayed in the opening number “Five-Fifteen”. Far From Heaven beings with a musical prologue (It’s the musical’s main leitmotif and is the basis for the song “Tuesday’s, Thursdays”). The original staging used this musical prologue to showcase the different types of people of Hartford, Connecticut; the snobby middle class whites versus the working class African Americans. This prologue segues into the opening number, “Autumn in Connecticut” introducing Cathy in her perfect 1950’s life as she gets ready for the fall season. War Paint’s prologue, “Best Face Forward” begins with different beauty advertisements taunting New York’s society ladies ladies with their imperfections in order to buy makeup products. This prologue then segues into two opening numbers, one for each of the leading ladies. Elizabeth Arden’s opening number is the swinging “Behind The Red Door” and Helena Rubinstein’s opening number is the brassy “Back on Top”.
- Their shows ends with the heroine(s) looking back at her life and singing an 11 o’clock number: These 11 ‘clock numbers are ballads that are more like 21st century opera arias than musical theater numbers. Grey Gardens’ “Another Winter In A Summer Town” is sung my Little Edie reflecting on her life and how Grey Gardens is a metaphor for her crumbling life. In Far From Heaven’s “Tuesdays, Thursdays” Frank is informing details about his divorce with Cathy. In return, Cathy looks back at her perfect life with her family and community. She finally realizes that it was all disillusionment and begins to feel all alone in the world. War Paint has two 11 o’clock numbers. The first is for Elizabeth Arden who has been asked by her board to leave the company and her signature color, “Pink”. She looks back at her illustrious career and her personal sacrifices only to discover that the only legacy she will leave behind is a basic color that she never liked in the first place. The second 11 o’clock number is for Helena Rubinstein as she reminisces all of the famous artists who have painted portraits of her and made her “Forever Beautiful”. She also looks back at her life filled with constant battling from disapproving men.
- Other minor similarities: Grey Gardens and War Paint book writer is Doug Wright. All these shows had out of town tryouts. Another minor similarity is two of their musicals feature a song about the character’s relationship with art. In Far From Heaven, it’s the song “Miro” and in War Paint it’s the song “Forever Beautiful”. Grey Gardens and War Paint both feature a pastiche of a WWII fighting song, “The House We Live In” in Grey Gardens and “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” in War Paint.
A Sample of Their Work
The videos attached below give the sense of Frankel and Korie’s music and the mes-en-scene of the original productions of their musicals.
Far From Heaven
This video, “Building Broadway: War Paint”, showcases Frankel, Korie and book writer Dough Wright as they discuss the songs and creative process for War Paint. It’s also entertaining, hypnotizing and absolutely astounding to watch Frankel play the piano. Watching Frankel play his score details how rich and introquite his music is.
My Favorite Songs
What I enjoy most about their work is Scott Frankel’s complex music. I feel smarter just listening to it. Just hearing the music one gets a sense of its complexity. When I saw the Piano/Conductor scores for Frankel’s shows, it’s even more intricate then listening to it. Crunchy jazz chords, music that flies by so fast in addition to the constant changing of musical keys and time signatures. Michael Korie’s lyrics are pure poetry that are appropriate for the period and the characters. Here are a couple of my favorite song from Frankel & Korie’s musicals with my commentary on what makes their songs sparkle.
- Grey Gardens:
- The Five Fifteen: A great vamp and the harmony the characters sing at the very end is extremely exciting to listen to!
- Drift Away: Truly evokes the Gershwin-esque parlor songs of the era in addition to evoking a beautiful grey sky on a Long Island beach. My favorite rendition of this song was actually performed by one of my dearest friends Bradley J. Beherman. You may think I am saying this because he’s my friend or I am doing a shameless plug in but I’m not. Bradley’s voice is perfect for this song and the key it’s performed in gives the music a more melancholy feel. Give it a listen and see for yourself!
- Around the World: This song takes the audience on the flustered emotions Edie is feeling. My favorite part of the song is when she discusses about one of the things in her collection, “a bird cage for a bird who flew away…”. I feel Edie resents this bird because unlike her, the bird is able to escape the closed off world of Grey Gardens.
- Far From Heaven
- If It Hadn’t Been (Reprise): Frank’s aggressive vamp is such fun to hear. I also enjoy the end of the song where Frank out of nowhere sings an F with opposing music in what sounds like a different key. You would think he would hit an F#/Gb instead, which would make sense musically. However having Frank hold out an F gives the impression that his sessions with the doctor to cure his homosexuality in addition to his willingness to go forward with this treatment is as faulty and as sour as the note he hits. It sounds dissonant at first but it is absolutely fascinating and wonderful for the ear to hear.
- Miro: Frankel & Korie at their best! Atmospheric music with haunting lyrics that captures the artwork of Joan Miro. It also communicates the intellectual sides of Raymond & Cathy, how they are the only ones who appreciate this art with descriptive words compared to the Ladies auxiliary whose only comment on the artwork is “interesting”.
- Picture In Your Mind: A beautiful ballad that deserves more attention. That being said, heavy caution when listening to this song, you’ll need several boxes of tissues before diving in. It shatters my heart each time I hear it. Cathy and Raymond’s harmonies soar to lush romantic heights when they sing “And although I maybe far away we’ll never say goodbye/For in that moment we were free”. Another favorite moment is when the couple sings in harmony “When will I learn how to let go” against clashing music. To me the unison melody represents their love while the clashing music symbolizes the society that wouldn’t allow them to be together.
- War Paint
- Behind The Red Door: A great opening number that sets up the character of Elizabeth Arden and how she runs her business. Furthermore, the number takes the listener back to the Golden Age where the biggest concern was “When is the Grand Madame arriving?” and when she finally arrives, she glides down a grand staircase to triumphant music.
- Back on Top: An exciting and engaging number with an amazing Bb13b9(#11) chord at the end.
- Step on Out: An amazing and complex swinging dance break!
- Oh That’s Rich: A juicy vamp and key, one of the first songs from the score I feel in love with. The song is simply delicious! But not as delicious as what is inside the beauty jars of Arden and Rubinstein…
- Face to Face: Oh that poor brass section at the very end.
- Fire And Ice: Someone was listening to Judy Garland’s rendition of “Come Rain or Come Shine” while writing this song. Bongolisous!
Their Work in the Context of Musical Theatre History
21st Century musicals in my opinion fall into roughly four different categories in regards to new musicals. The first category is “Contemporary Musical Theater” with composers like Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Bridges of Madison County), Dave Malloy (Great Comet, Ghost Quartet) and songwriting teams such as Pasek & Paul (Dogfight, Dear Evan Hansen), Kitt & Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then). The second is “Commercial Contemporary” that blend a Golden Age style show with contemporary composers like Shaiman & Wittman (Hairspray, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Alan Menken (Sister Act, Aladdin).The majority of shows are based on popular films like Anastasia, Wedding Singer, MeanGirls, and Once to name a few. The third I’d like to call the “I’m Still Here” category. This category, which I named after Sondheim’s tune from Follies are shows that have a specific target audience, come across as doing art for art’s sake and although are artistic success, they are usually commercial failures.They also come across to me as the type of shows similar to the musicals that Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim created during their time in the 1970s, thought provoking musicals with depth using a musical mixture of content dicating form, contemporary and golden age sounds. Composers of this category include Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, Light in the Piazza), Kander & Ebb’s later work (The Scottsboro Boys, The Visit) and Jeanine Tesori (Caroline or Change, Violet). The fourth category are jukebox musicals consisting mostly of famous performance artists from the later part of the 20th century (Motown, Boy From Oz, Summer, Beautiful, etc) or of composer George Gershwin (Nice Work, An American in Paris).
Now, where do Scott Frankel and Michael Korie fit in? They most reside in the “I’m Still Here” category. Although their musicals are based on films like the pattern followed in the “Commercial Contemporary” category, the films they choose are not popular or comedies like School of Rock or Newsies. Although their musicals are just as musically challenging as the composers of the “Contemporary Musical Theater” category, Frankel & Korie do not choose to have a pop or rock sounding score compared to composers like Pasek and Paul or Frank Wildhorn. The reason they fit into the “I’m Still Here” category is because the musical sounds of their shows are often referred to as Sondheim-esque to critics who described in their reviews of the shows. The reason for this is because Frankel’s beautifully complex arias and Korie’s poetic lyrics sometimes do come across like the type of songs Sondheim wrote. Furthermore, like the other shows in this category, Frankel & Korie’s musicals are artistic success but not commercial ones. The team’s two Broadway shows have stayed on the Great White Way for less than a year and did not recoup their profits despite the big star names attached to the projects. Far From Heaven has never premiered on Broadway. Frankel & Korie’s shows also have a very specific target audience. The subjects they choose to write about are usually for older adult audiences who appreciate traditional musical theater. This makes their shows difficult to sell to Broadway’s larger target audiences of teenagers (looking for something to fan over like Dear Evan Hansen or Newsies) and tourist looking for more towards “Broadway shows”, and then seeing “musical theater” (or another analogy I’d like to use: tourists and teenagers want to see a “cotton candy” show rather than seeing a “T-Bone steak” show). Frankel & Korie’s shows also have not seen much life outside of New York; Grey Gardens get produced but only once in a blue moon, while Far From Heaven has been only performed in two regional theaters and War Paint has not been performed regionally yet.
The musicals of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie challenge their audiences with their complex melodies and witty lyrics. Furthermore, their work has the ability to communicate with their audiences the emotional heights their characters deal within the show. Their work keeps the art of musical theater alive and I look forward to see what the team has in store next. If you haven’t yet, I highly suggest to listen to the cast recordings and read the librettos of Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven and War Paint. If you have the opportunity to see these shows in your community, do so! While you watch or listen to these shows, see how the characters, in particular their leading ladies, through the songs communicate their personalities, connect with the relationship with other characters and lament their struggles.
For more information:
Michael Korie has beautiful website of his life and works at http://www.michaelkorie.com. Although Scott Frankel does not have an official website, information about his life and accomplishments can be found on various different sites via google search.
Photo Credits: The New York Times