Envisioning Beauty And Damnation In Old Westbury

Local playwright-composer brings musical based on F. Scott Fitzgerald to Old Westbury Gardens.

Old Westbury Gardens is the former estate of John Shaffer Phipps (1874-1958), heir to a U.S. Steel fortune. It has been open to the public for tours since 1959. (Credit: Onasill ~ Bill, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While many of us have gotten to know F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, in written or film versions, fewer are familiar with the work he published immediately beforehand, The Beautiful and Damned, which closely mirrors many of the challenges that Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda encountered in their life.

This June, Nassau County residents will get a unique opportunity to experience this work in the form of a stage adaptation written, choreographed, and starring Oyster Bay resident Brooke Di Spirito, who’s bringing The Beautiful and Damned to Old Westbury Gardens.

The show had its Long Island debut in Port Washington last summer at the Landmark’s Jeanne Rimsky Theater, then had a brief stint at 54 Below in New York City this winter before heading back to Nassau County.

On June 9 and 10, Di Spirito and her castmates will perform the work in the music room of the Westbury House at Old Westbury Gardens, a local gilded-era jewel that Di Spirito would visit often as a child (and which evokes the very kind of old-money majesty that Fitzgerald featured in his New York-based novels).

“I’ve been to Old Westbury many times, and it’s so beautiful, and always what I had dreamed would be a perfect background for the show.”

The “vast majority” of the people working on the show are also from Long Island, she noted, making it a highly local affair.

“The orchestra is entirely from Long Island, and has been with the show since at least last summer. Most of the crew and the cast are as well, including Sarah Anne Fernandez, a very, very talented singer, a powerhouse, who joined us coming off of the Wicked tour.
Di Spirito explained that she first started the project while an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, where she read Fitzgerald’s second novel and felt it was “screaming out” to be a musical due to its intense characters and emotions.

Like the novel, the musical follows the lives of a young couple as their romance fades and the consequences of their actions unfold. “When I was reading The Beautiful and Damned, on every single page there is something that is the perfect moment where someone is so moved that they could go into song or dance,” Di Spirito said.

Brooke di Spirito. (Submitted photo)

In college, Di Spirito majored in English, and said she felt as if writing the script and lyrics for an adaptation would serve as the perfect bridge between her passion for theater and language. After experiencing the performing arts in an administrative position, Di Spirito decided to begin her first project transforming a book into a stage musical with The Beautiful and Damned.

By 2019, the script was complete, and by 2020 it was ready to debut at Northeastern University as a jukebox musical, using music from preexisting shows. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the performance before its run, Di Spirito became inspired to compose original music for it. After workshopping the musical virtually, and two more cancellations in 2021, the production first debuted last summer.

In regard to her first draft of the musical, written during lockdown, Di Spirito said: “I decided I would learn to compose and write. I’m not a professional by any means, I’m just self taught. I had no idea what it was going to take to do that.”

With her first draft of the musical, Di Spirito was accepted into a program with the New York Youth Symphony, where she was able to learn more about composition and rework her existing pieces. After receiving direction from professionals, Di Spirito explains that this program changed “how [she] looked at theater.”

Di Spirito also has a long history in ballet, and after growing up dancing, she decided to begin choreographing during her time at Northeastern. Throughout the production process she has served as the show’s principal writer, lyricist, and choreographer, and also composed the show’s musical themes.

Di Spirito used the ballet style as the foundation for much of her choreography, exhibited by the numbers performed on pointe. Other dance styles that were popular in the 1920s, like several forms of jazz, are incorporated into the musical as well. Given her own theatrical experience, Di Spirito wanted to root the show in ballet, while also taking on new influences.

“It’s been really awesome to watch this production grow over the past three or four years, and it’s extra special to have the production on Long Island, with professional singers and musicians.”

After years of work, it seems her and her team’s efforts are paying off. After humbly prefacing with “I don’t know if this is relevant,” Di Spirito noted, “Because of this project, I was invited to speak at the international F. Scott Fitzgerald conference in Sweden, and we’ll be presenting the show there at the end of this month.”

“That was an amazing honor, and I cannot believe that this little project is actually going anywhere.”

And while Fitzgerald apparently didn’t like the 1922 film adaptation of his novel (now a lost film), it seems likely that Di Spirito has tapped into the young-and-old soul of the story, as it were.

Toward the end of his life, Fitzgerald once wrote in a letter to his wife, “I wish The Beautiful and Damned had been a maturely written book because it was all true. We ruined ourselves—I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other.”

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