Never before has there been such nostalgia for the Camelot era of US history. From new books about JFK, films about Marilyn Monroe and the recently released Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis tapes, people seem desperate to grasp hold of whatever’s left from that period of hope and optimism.

Certainly, the time seems ripe for a Grey Gardens musical.

The stage adaptation of the camp 1975 documentary by the Maysles Brothers arrives at the Arts Centre, Playhouse this month. It brings to life the story of Edith and ‘Little’ Edie Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, who went from being socialites to squalor in sensational fashion.

Living in their Long Island mansion surrounded by dozens of cats and empty food tins, they became — and remain — a subject of much fascination, and embarrassment for their famous relatives.

Recently adapted into a TV movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange for America’s HBO cable network, the Australian production’s director Roger Hodgman said he can understand the duo’s resurgent appeal.

“We’ve become a much more cautious, conservative and puritanical society, certainly in places like America,” Hodgman said.

“Just watching these US Republicans at the moment, one of whom may well go on to be president, it’s all to do with God and getting rid of government subsidy of the poor.

“So there’s a nostalgia to the excitement of that period, the eccentricity, the colour. I think in some ways [the Beales] epitomise that.”

The musical won three Tony Awards in 2007, but it had its fair share of problems getting off the ground, especially with librettist Doug Wright — who wrote I Am My Own Wife — hesitant to get involved.

“When Wright was approached to write the book, he refused for over a year. He loved the documentary but said it couldn’t be done,” Hodgman said.

“Then they came up with this brilliant idea of having the first act set back in the heyday of these women in the early ’40s on the occasion of Edie and Joe Kennedy’s engagement, and once Wright came on board he was off and running.”

Hodgman said that when it comes to act two — which includes many quotes from the original documentary — there are wonderful echoes from the past that having the story on stage really facilitates.

“There are beautiful moments where the two worlds collide,” he said.

“We see them in their prime and it becomes an exploration of what made these women go off into the peculiar world they did.”

Adding the TV movie’s six Emmys in 2009 to the Grey Gardens collection of gongs (including a nod for Jessica Lange’s role as Edith), you’d assume the task of casting the iconic duo for a production like this would be no easy one.

From the beginning of the Australian production’s inception, however, Hodgman said Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes were at the forefront of his mind.

“Ken Mackenzie-Forbes from The Production Company came to me with those suggestions years ago and we actually postponed it a year because we couldn’t get them, and they were worth waiting for because I think they are perfect,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for Hodgman has been the complexity of the music. With no chorus or ensemble, the show’s group numbers require most performers on a different line without being backed by a group of baritones, for example.

“I’ve done a lot of Sondheim and the sophistication of his work reminds me of Grey Gardens,” he said.

“Scott Frankel, the composer, spent many years as a repertoire pianist for a lot of Sondheim productions, so I think there’s a real link there.

“I’m not saying the music sounds like Sondheim — there are certainly moments that do — but it has the same kind of dramatic bearing and complexity.”

Musicals based on films seem to be Hodgman’s forte for the moment with news of his attachment to the upcoming Strange Bedfellows: The Musical, which was due to start in Melbourne last month but was postponed by producers with a view to start early next year.

“It will happen, but I don’t know about early next year. Everyone’s really scared at the moment,” Hodgman admitted.

“They decided towards the end that it was just a bad time and you look at all the stories at the moment about how bad musicals are doing all over the place, especially new musicals, it was probably the right decision.”

INFO: Grey Gardens is at The Arts Centre, Playhouse November 24 – December 4. www.theartscentre.com.au

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