For better or for worse, Grease: Live revolutionizes the live TV musical

For better or for worse, Grease: Live revolutionizes the live TV musical

Photo: Grease: Live (Fox)
Photo: Grease: Live (Fox)

Grease Live

"Grease Live"

Season 1 , Episode 1

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Grease is a terrible musical. Its gender politics are troubling, its plot is meandering, and its music ranges from generic to nonsensical (What the hell does “Grease is the way we are feeling” mean?). Grease is the kind of vapid, upbeat, soulless show that makes people think all musical theater is, well, vapid, upbeat, and soulless. So director Tommy Kail—who’s almost certainly going to win a Tony for his work on Hamilton—and broadcast director Alex Rudzinsk—who cut his teeth on Dancing With The Stars—had an uphill battle to fight in bringing the musical to life on TV. And while they couldn’t do much about Grease’s so-so story, they at least elevated the musical’s style with remarkable confidence. Unlike NBC’s previous stage-bound live musicals, Fox’s Grease: Live was a 360 degree event that blended theatricality and filmmaking in ways never seen onscreen before.

Grease: Live threw down the gauntlet early and often—opening with a quick scene of lovestruck teens Sandy and Danny at the tail end of their summer romance before pulling back the camera to show stars Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit backstage on the show’s massive soundstage. For her opening performance of “Grease”, Jessie J (and a talented steadicam operator) traveled through the production’s byzantine sets—including a rainy outdoor locale—while interacting with the cast and acknowledging that, yes, what you’re about to see is highly theatrical.

Peter Pan Live! made stabs at adding cinematic movement to its camera work (something neither The Sound Of Music Live! nor The Wiz Live! really did), but it doesn’t hold a candle to Grease: Live’s truly impressive cinematography, which made the entire production feel more like a movie musical than a stage play. Some of the big ensemble numbers were just stunning to watch, particularly the high school dance sequence that culminated in an exhilarating performance of “Hand Jive” (sung by none other than Joe Jonas). The camera fluidly weaved among the cast as they threw themselves (quite literally) into Zach Woodlee’s dazzling choreography.

That visual feast is the saving grace of Grease: Live, which unfortunately doesn’t have the powerhouse cast that made The Wiz Live! such a joy to watch. Hough’s Sandy—admittedly a wet blanket of a character—is a washed-out vanilla cupcake who’s only charming when she’s dancing. Her final transformation into “Sexy Sandy” is supposed to reflect a spark we’ve seen in her throughout the show, but Hough found no quirks behind Sandy’s prim and proper exterior, even if she did belt out a nice version of “Hopelessly Devoted To You.”

Meanwhile Tveit, who is one of my favorite musical theater performers working today, is woefully miscast as Danny Zuko. Tveit is great at playing either smarm or earnestness, but “bad boy” is totally out of his wheelhouse, not to mention the fact that his pure musical theater belt (which normally makes me swoon) is all wrong for this role. As with Hough, however, his dancing was a highlight. But sadly it wasn’t a matter of two halves making a whole: Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta have more chemistry in one GIF than Tveit and Hough showed all night.

But while no one rose to the heights of The Wiz Live!’s Shanice Williams, nor did they pull a Carrie Underwood; Hough and Tveit are both solid enough not to embarrass themselves. Elsewhere Carly Rae Jepsen showed off some surprisingly nice acting chops, but fell flat on her drippy new number “All I Need Is An Angel”—odd, given that it was written specifically for her. Jordan Fisher briefly stole the show with Doody’s charming rendition of “Those Magic Changes” and Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo emerged as Grease: Live’s MVP thanks to her heartbreaking, beautifully sung performance of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”—the only real moment of depth in Grease.

(Its also worth noting that Grease: Live’s cast is diverse in a lovely, low-key way that musical theater has been embracing for years.)

Yet for all its visual innovations and solid performances, Grease: Live sometimes struggled to capture the spirit of its source material. The characters of Grease take themselves seriously, but the show—for the most part—shouldn’t. Yet Kail’s cast bring a weird gravitas to their scenes, adding Pinter worthy pauses and moments of contemplation that don’t fit in a show that’s mostly about high school kids being idiots. Grease: Live didn’t really work either as a celebration of 1950s nostalgia or a critique of ’50s society, which leaves it just kind of sitting there thematically (which, again, isn’t that uncommon for a show as shallow as Grease).

During the many, many dialogue-heavy scenes the actors seemed unclear on whether to go for a more naturalistic film acting style or a more heightened theatrical one. So everyone ends up making a different choice with Hough, Tveit, Fisher, Jepsen, and Wendell Pierce (as Coach Calhoun) going for naturalism while Keke Palmer (as elegant Marty), Kether Donohue (as enthusiastic Jan), Carlos PenaVega (as crude Kenickie), Noah Robbins (as nerdy Eugene), Elle McLemore (as uptight Patty Simcox), and Haneefah Wood (as scene-stealing secretary Blanche) seemed to have stepped right off a Broadway stage. Either choice could work in this still-evolving live TV musical format (Palmer, Donohue, and McLemore are a lot of fun to watch and Jepsen is a breath of fresh air), but mashing them together is just jarring. Again Hudgens comes across well by splitting the difference between making Rizzo a fun caricature and a realistic human being.

Unlike NBC, Fox was smart enough to film Grease: Live in front of an audience, but it unfortunately proceeded to use them in the worst way possible. Appearing as “crowds” at various Rydell High events, the audience was apparently instructed to stay dead silent if they weren’t clapping for a musical number or screaming during the middle of one. Fox seems to have taken its cues from a rock concert when it should have been looking to Saturday Night Live. Most of Grease’s humor relies on dramatic irony and its book scenes fall flat without laughter to highlight how ridiculous the characters are. It’s funny when the Pink Ladies namecheck Rock Hudson as their ideal “marriage material” or when Principal McGee informs the students, “Nothing makes a cheerleader more nervous then when she’s late,” but you wouldn’t know it from this production. Ana Gasteyer makes a meal of McGee’s ridiculously long school announcements, but the studio audience wasn’t biting.

But what truly haunts Grease: Live is the iconic 1978 film that cemented Grease in the public consciousness. That unexpected blockbuster took a raunchy little satirical musical about Chicago teens in the 1950s and (mostly) sanitized it into a cheesy, nostalgia-focused candy confection, held together almost entirely by the charm of its cast. The movie drastically changed the source material, adding beloved songs like “Grease,” “Sandy,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” and “You’re The One That I Want.”

The problem isn’t that Grease: Live adopts many of the changes made for the film—it’s almost impossible to find a contemporary production of Grease that doesn’t—but that it so often steals its visuals directly from the movie, apparently afraid that if Danny doesn’t wear a pink shirt while he hand jives, fans will revolt. There’s no particular reason for Rizzo to have short hair, Frenchy to be a redhead, and Jan to wear pigtails, but that’s how the girls were styled in the movie so that’s how they’re styled here. There’s a fine, fine line between nostalgic and lazy.

A great musical theater production will find ways to reinvent a show while staying true to its essence. For much of its run, Grease: Live skips the reinvention part and just asks its cast to do passable impressions of their big screen counterparts, sometimes down to the line reading. Everything from the aesthetic of “Greased Lightning” to the girls’ costumes in “Beauty School Dropout” to a decent chunk of the choreography is lifted wholesale from the film. And since the movie does almost all of those sequences better, that leaves little incentive to revisit Grease: Live rather than just pop in the Travolta DVD instead—something that can’t be said for The Wiz Live!, which compliments its big screen adaptation without borrowing too much from it.

Yet because so much of Grease: Live looks familiar, the few moments of originality really stand out. Particularly brilliant was the transition from Marty’s bedroom rendition of “Freddy, My Love” to a fantasy USO concert that saw her performing in a red sequined gown with the other Pink Ladies as her backup singers. Palmer’s strong vocals and natural stage presence sold the dreamy concept, creating one of the most memorable sequences of the evening.

And if Boyz II Men didn’t exactly nail the humor of “Beauty School Dropout” (or, frankly, their choreography) the number still massively benefited from a new take. Their soulful Motown rendition felt fresh in a way that the nearly shot-for-shot recreation of “Summer Nights” didn’t. (And “Summer Nights” could’ve easily referenced the film without mimicking it by juxtaposing the boys and girls in one wide shot rather than keeping them in separate close-ups.)

While book writers Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins tried to blend the best bits of the stage show and the movie into their new adaptation, Kail and his designers remained too indebted to the latter. Yes Olivia Newton-John sang the “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Reprise)” on a concrete ravine near a chain-link fence, but that doesn’t mean Hough has to do the exact same thing here.

But like every live musical except perhaps Peter Pan Live!, this production improved as it went along, thanks mostly to the cast’s sheer force of will and the general excitement of watching live theater. Grease: Live saved its best numbers for last, including a dynamic rendition of “You’re The One That I Want,” a traveling performance of “We Go Together” (in which a golf cart full of actors almost crashed on live TV), and an insanely energetic curtain call (finally!) that saluted both the leads and the hardworking ensemble members. Those last 10-15 minutes went a long way towards helping the audience forget the fairly glaring weak spots of the evening and instead focus on how fun Grease can be. There’s something to be said about sticking the landing, and Kail and his cast pulled a major Kerri Strug tonight.

An odd mix of revolutionary presentation and too-familiar staging, Grease: Live was a confident, competent three hours of musical theater. As more and more networks attempt their own live musicals it will be interesting to see which lessons they learn from this one: To push the envelope or to play it safe. Wop ba-ba lu-mop and wop bam boom!

Stray observations

  • Incredible kudos to Vanessa Hudgens, whose father passed away from cancer yesterday. Performing after that loss must have been a Herculean task, and she should be incredibly proud of the performance she turned in tonight.
  • Let’s examine the end of the Sandy/Danny arc: He tries to feel her up in a car and she’s so freaked out she has to literally run away from him. She briefly speaks to him at a drag race, mostly to try to convince him not to put his life at risk. After watching him win the car race she decides to change herself and shows up in a sexy outfit to win him back. Maybe Grease is trying to say that Danny and Sandy are a good couple because they push each other out of their comfort zones, but if that’s the case we need a lot more scenes between the drive-in assault and the finale. Also if Sandy changes aesthetically for him, Danny should definitely keep that letterman jacket on for her in “You’re The One That I Want.”
  • That’s Barry Pearl (the film’s Doody) as Mr. Weaver and Didi Conn (the film’s Frenchy) as the waitress Vi. Perhaps Travolta is saving his live musical cameo for NBC’s Hairspray.
  • Oh and Mario Lopez was there too as both Grease: Live host and in-world host Vince Fontaine. I was pretty impressed with his motor-mouthed intro to the dance and less impressed with his attempts to hit on Keke Palmer.

  • I’m sorry but this version of Danny Zuko looks like he should be worrying about mortgages, not prom dates. Travolta felt too old for Danny in the movie version and he was a good 10 years younger than Tveit is now.
  • Grease: Live aired an hour earlier than any of NBC’s musicals yet also featured a scene in which two teenagers enthusiastically decide to have unprotected sex. Odd.
  • “Those Magic Changes” is a lot cuter when the ensemble sings the chord progressions, but I appreciated how this revamped script transformed what is a generally a throwaway number into a commentary on Danny’s arc.
  • In this version of “Greased Lightning” the infamous line “she’s a real pussy wagon” was changed to “she’s a real draggin’ wagon.” Meanwhile “the chicks’ll cream” became “the chicks’ll scream” and “You know that ain’t no shit we’ll be getting lots of tit” became “You know without a doubt I’ll be really making out.” That didn’t stop the production from adding sexy babes to grind on the T-Birds though! (And, yes, those are the lyrics you’ve been singing along with forever.)
  • That ridiculous drag race scene would have worked perfectly well if the rest of the production had been a campy and fun. As it stands, I’m not sure why Grease: Live felt the need to keep that particular element of the movie. (There’s no car race in the stage show.)
  • As Jenny Jaffe pointed out on Twitter, Sandy’s transformation is especially egregious considering this version of the show added a scene where the T-Birds come around to respect Eugene for who he is and welcome him to their group with open arms.
  • “You don’t always have to do something just because they expect you to.” – Sandy not understanding the message of Grease.