The funny thing about Grease is that when it premiered on Broadway in 1972, it was meant to show a slightly darker side of the 1950s. Nostalgia for the “innocence” of the 1950s has been prevalent in our culture, to some degree, even to this day. However, as I used to tell my Literature of the Beat Generation students: “The 50s wasn’t just about poodle skirts and hula hoops.” Grease showed that the 50s weren’t quite so innocent. The leads in the musical had sex, drank wine, smoked cigarettes, and raced cars. Worse still, these “bad” kids lured a wholesome young girl to the dark side! Grease didn’t make any of their “bad behavior” read as dangerous, though, which is is what made it so subversive at the time. These kids were all so cool, fun, and lovable. Audiences can’t help but like them and root for them. The 1978 movie has become such a staple in popular culture, that Grease itself feels like a wholesome movie. Its songs are part of our cultural fabric; its characters are iconic.
I bring this up because when I saw the promotional advertisements for Grease Live, my first thought was that it would be a trainwreck. Not only is Grease iconic, it’s one of my favorite movies. It’s one of my go-to movies that I can watch over and over again. And I’m not alone in this regard. People love Grease! The songs are outstanding and the characters are fun. Why would any actor put him/herself in the position of being compared to John Travolta or Olivia Newton-John – an inevitable comparison – by playing these iconic characters? Which brings me to my second thought: the cast is a little too innocent, a little too mainstream; even despite the diversity in the cast, they all feel too whitebread. Sandy is a good example. Sandy is the most “goody-two-shoes” of all the characters, and even she had something of a kick with Olivia Newton-John’s portrayal. Newton-John’s Sandy may be sweet, but you can tell that she has depth. I was concerned that Hough wouldn’t have what it takes to capture Sandy’s depth. As for the other characters, I was concerned that Vannessa Hudgins would be too “Sandy” to convincingly play Rizzo. I was concerned that Carly Rae Jepson wouldn’t be able to act her way out of a paper bag. And I had, frankly, never heard of anyone else in the cast, but was fairly certain that they wouldn’t impress me either.
Turns out, Grease Live was a lot of fun! This show has taken the whole “Broadway Musical Live on Television” trend to another level. I’m not sure if the original intention of this trend, back when NBC aired The Sound of Music Live was to bring Broadway to people’s homes, but that’s not what’s happening at all. Grease Live didn’t feel like Broadway, but it didn’t feel like television either. Fox has given us something completely different here. It’s almost exciting to witness this new genre being born. Whatever Grease Live was, it was energetic and exciting. The way the cast and crew maneuvered through multiple sets was nothing less than magic. The precise choreography needed just to properly present any scene is mind-boggling. The first jaw-dropping moment for me happened when Marty, played by Keke Palmer, performed “Freddy My Love.” The song starts in Frenchy’s room during a sleep-over, wanders into a dream sequence in which Marty transforms into a fabulous singer in a sparkly red gown (to borrow from one of Rizzo’s lines, “a one-woman USO”) and then comes back to reality in Frenchy’s room. Stunning. Jordan Fisher as “Doody” also gave an oddly moving performance of “Those Magic Changes,” a song cleverly interspersed with Danny “trying on” different jock personas. Also, the car race at the end managed to look really cool despite the small scale, all with some smoke and lighting. I’m telling you, Grease Live was a spectacle to behold. It gives me hope for the rumored upcoming live performance of Rocky Horror and Hairspray.
As for the actors, it turns out I was right about Julianne Hough. Her performance was shallow, and her voice didn’t do anything for me. In fact, she seemed to struggle to hit the right notes (Was it me? Did anyone else notice that?) It wasn’t that she couldn’t hit high notes. It’s that her ability to sing the songs properly was…. wobbly. I always find “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to be a moving song. Always. When Darren Criss performed it on Glee, it brought tears to my eyes. Yet, Julianne Hough’s performance made me feel nothing. She’s a good dancer, but I would have gone with a stronger singer and actor to play the lead. Aaron Tveit was a much stronger Danny than I expected, but it’s hard not to compare him to John Travolta in the role, and frankly, Travolta IS Danny Zuko. I can’t really blame Tveit for channeling Travolta so much – it’s hard not to, and to some degree, every Grease Live actor channeled the film – but I wish he would have made the character more of his own. He has the vocal chops, so there was potential for an exceptional performance instead of just a good one. Vanessa Hudgins, on the other hand, blew me away as Rizzo. Her portrayal of Rizzo was softer than Stockard Channing’s, but I appreciate the way she was able to make the role her own, especially since they put her in the SAME EXACT wardrobe… down to the HAIR! When she sang “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” my jaw dropped. It was a beautifully vulnerable performance. And her voice! Shut the front door; I was impressed! I have never seen High School Musical, but based on her performance last night, I think I might want to. Carly Rae Jepson as Frenchie, though? Not so great. That song they wrote specifically for her, performed jarringly just before “Beauty School Dropout,” was a dud. Other than Hudgins as Rizzo, the other stand out performances of the night have already been mentioned in this blog: Palmer as Marty singing “Freddy My Love”and Fisher as Doody singing “Those Magic Changes.”
Oddly enough, though the actors all did well in this no-doubt challenging production, it wasn’t the acting that made Grease Live such a success. It was the creativity with which the producers approached live theater/television. I have never seen anything like it. They took source material with which I was intensely familiar and made it entirely new. It won’t knock the 1978 movie off its pedestal, by any means, but I predict that its’s a game changer for how television will present live content moving forward.