Fragments From "Astor: The Musical!"

From time to time the news cycle offers up an event of such import and complexity that it can only be comprehended through the medium of musical theater. This week resident composer Ben Greenman looks at the past and future of Brooke Astor, long the queen of New York society.

[BROOKE ASTOR sits on a couch in a room. She eats peas and oatmeal and waits for her son TONY to visit. She eats some more peas and oatmeal, falls asleep, wakes with a start.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

When I got to a hundred and four

I figured I couldn't go on anymore

When I got to a hundred and five

It made no sense to still be alive.

Now I'm terrified

Nothing's been clarified

What if this ordeal never

ends? What if I go on forever?

[DEATH comes in through the window. He knocks over a stack of bedpans and newspapers that has been left there.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

Hello, dear.

DEATH:

It's filthy in here!

[DEATH takes out his iPhone and checks the calendar. He looks at the screen, looks at BROOKE ASTOR, and touches a button on the screen.]

DEATH:

Check and check

Time's up, Mrs. Astor

I wish that the last few years

Could have gone faster.

[BROOKE ASTOR realizes her visitor is not her son TONY.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

You've come to give me my final reward?

I'm much obliged. I've been so bored.

DEATH:

I'm glad that you don't seem nervous

BROOKE ASTOR:

If anything, I feel expectant.

DEATH:

Let me spray some disinfectant

And then I'll show you our new service

[DEATH sits down next to BROOKE ASTOR, shows her his iPhone, and taps it with its finger. A movie appears onscreen.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

Talking pictures on a tiny transistor

Will modern wonders never cease?

DEATH:

Select one memory to watch

And then it's time for sweet release

BROOKE ASTOR:

Choosing just one seems terribly reckless

It's like singling out just one diamond necklace

DEATH:

Most of my customers pick their first moment of being

There's something about it that they find freeing.

[BROOKE ASTOR agrees to watch her own birth. It is March, 1902, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. JOHN HENRY RUSSELL, JR. and his wife, Mabel Cecile Hornby Howard Russell, have just become the parents of a baby girl.]

JOHN HENRY RUSSELL, JR.:

This child's name is Roberta Brooke Russell

It's a lovely long name that trips off of the tongue

I'm in the Marines, so we'll travel all over

She'll live nearly everywhere while she's still young

First, off to China, then Hawaii, then Haiti

Roberta will be a truly worldly young lady

[DEATH taps the screen again and the movie vanishes.]

DEATH:

Pretty sweet, huh?

This thing makes it easy

It can also store

All of my MP3s, see?

[DEATH sniffs.]

DEATH:

Something in here really reeks

It's like milk's been left out for weeks.

And I don't know how you're enduring

Sleeping soaked in your own urine.

[BROOKE ASTOR isn't listening. She's lost in a reverie.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

We went off to China, to Hawaii, to Haiti

I did learn to be a worldly young lady

When I was just seventeen, I wed John Dryden Kuser

A cheat and a scoundrel, a drunk, an abuser

We were pledged to each other by rule of law

But when I was with child, John shattered my jaw

[DEATH, nonplussed that he's being ignored, interrupts.]

DEATH:

You usually get just one quick scene

And then I make the lights go dark

But I think you earn a bonus moment

When you pass the century mark

Would you like to watch

The birth of your son?

I'll show you that, too

And then we'll be done

[DEATH taps the screen again, and it shows BROOKE, in 1924, holding her son TONY.]

BROOKE KUSER, 1924:

This darling newborn baby boy

Will be a source of joy, indeed

No child of mine will ever know

The painful ache of want or need

Material comforts, yes,

Are part of what I mean by this

But also my love and devotion

A mother's touch, a mother's kiss

I will hold him to my heart

And I will hold him to my brow

And goodness will pass into him

Like lifeblood; I can feel it now.

[DEATH taps the screen again and the movie vanishes. DEATH and BROOKE ASTOR sit silently for a second. BROOKE ASTOR turns to DEATH and grasps his hand.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

When you first came in, I thought you were Tony.

He's my son, but he's old, and his fingers are bony.

Can you believe that he is eighty-three?

He's the one who takes care of me.

DEATH:

I may be mistaken, but I don't feel

You should live on a diet of peas and oatmeal

When you have two hundred million dollars

Why should you suffer these pitiful squalors?

BROOKE ASTOR:

He tries to do as best as he can

Still, it's too much to ask of an elderly man.

DEATH:

Let's not start a conversation

The train's about to leave the station.

I granted you an extra showing

But now we really must be going.

[BROOKE ASTOR eyes the iPhone.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

I'm really excited to get where we're heading

But could I please look-see at my second wedding?

After ten years of beatings, I got a divorce

Married again in a few years, of course.

He was Charles Marshall, a broker in town

I remember the weather and my wedding gown.

He was heaven on earth, my one and my only.

Not for a moment was I sad or lonely

We were joined at the hip. We were one and the same.

I even made sure that my son took his name.

DEATH:

He sounds great

A real prize

But we're running late

So say your goodbyes

BROOKE ASTOR:

If my call for my second husband won't be heard

Then perhaps you could give me a glimpse of my third.

He was not a man of great popularity

But he helped me develop a strong sense of charity.

DEATH:

Okay, okay,

I'll do you a favor

But I need for you

To sign this waiver

[BROOKE ASTOR signs. DEATH begrudgingly shows her a series of scenes from the fifties and sixties during and after her marriage to VINCENT ASTOR. Most focus on her altruism.]

BROOKE ASTOR, 1962:

Wealth is faintly shameful

That is what I've found

Money's like manure.

It should be spread around.

Philanthropic living

Is the topic. Let's start giving.

Here you go, museum—I think that you will find

That you made out as well as the Lighthouse for the Blind

The public library, too, received a gift from me

I bankrolled the Fresh Air Fund's recent jubilee

Sooner or later you'll all feel my generosity

I'm giving away money with a breathless velocity

[DEATH sets the iPhone on the table.]

DEATH:

That's it. That's curtains. That's the end.

It's time to hit the road, my friend.

BROOKE ASTOR:

Can I see one thing from sixty-four?

After that, I promise, I won't ask for more.

DEATH:

We have to stop.

The shop is closed.

Don't make me sorry

I showed you those.

[BROOKE ASTOR grabs DEATH's cloak.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

Listen, sir.

I'm not so sure

You're understanding

What I'm demanding.

I want to see another scene from long ago.

These final grueling years have been a horror show

Dotage, infirmity, Alzheimer's disease

They've all been killing me by degrees

I forget more than half of the things that I've said

My mind's unmade like a child's bed

It's bleak and it's wretched. I'm sick and depressed.

So please do your damndest to meet my request

And show me life when it was good.

I devoutly wish you would.

DEATH:

I can't. We're done.

That was the last one.

I'm using the john

And then we'll get gone

[DEATH goes to the bathroom, leaving the iPhone on the table. BROOKE ASTOR picks up the iPhone and taps it. She touches the wrong button. Instead of showing her the past, it shows her the present. In it, she sees her son Tony lying about her financial circumstance and siphoning money out of her estate. BROOKE ASTOR tries to turn it off, but inadvertently presses another button and sees the future, in which Tony is arrested for larceny and forgery. BROOKE ASTOR gasps.]

BROOKE ASTOR:

Could this be what's happening

And what happens later?

Could my own son mistreat me

And act the vile traitor?

I almost wish that I could remain

And smack him hard in the head with my cane

[DEATH returns from the bathroom. BROOKE ASTOR hides the iPhone behind her back.]

DEATH

Okay. Good to go?

Let's get to the crypt

BROOKE ASTOR:

Young man, I must tell you

Your fly is unzipped.

[DEATH looks down, embarrassed. BROOKE ASTOR quickly replaces the iPhone. DEATH picks it up and holds out his hand to her. She takes it. She is light on her feet and he says so. She smiles graciously. An hour later, TONY MARSHALL comes to visit his mother. He finds her sitting in her chair. He feeds her some peas and oatmeal. He has her sign some papers. She mumbles "waiver," which he does not understand. He leaves. Five months later, she dies.]

Previously: Fragments from "Death Comes for Britney Spears! The Musical"

Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction. His latest book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both, was recently published.