Grease Live was so smartly cast and so inventively staged — and so much communal fun — that it was easier to forgive the fact that it was still Grease, a dopey, dated, leather-deep show about the 1950’s manifestly inferior to such sharper, similarly-themed entertainments as Bye, Bye Birdie and American Graffiti.
Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit) met Sandy, the girl of his dreams (Julianne Hough) over the summer, not knowing that she would enroll in Rydell High and join the Pink Ladies, the girl gang that has a love-hate relationship with his own gang, the car-obsessed T-Birds. And so it takes many songs for them to get back together.
The continuing affection for this slight show 45 years after its stage debut is surely due to generations of high school productions, a handful of catchy tunes, and a 1978 movie – still the highest-grossing movie musical in history — that showed off the terrific dancing and comedic chops of one John Travolta.
This was the fourth live television broadcast of a musical since NBC began this renewed trend in 2013 with The Sound of Music. Fox used the NBC template, and added enough new features – the inclusion of a live audience; the use of 44 cameras to film outdoors and in more than one huge soundstage; the behind-the-scene glimpses introduced by Jessie J in the opening number, and then live-streamed and narrated by Mario Lopez during each commercial break — to suggest the beginnings of a new genre. But, for what it’s worth, this is a new genre of television, not theater.
Yes, Grease Live involved some of Broadway’s best and most prestigious – director Tommy Kail, best-known as the director of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s two Broadway hits, In The Heights and Hamilton; music superviser Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal” and “If/Then”), set designer David Korins (“Hamilton”); costume designer William Ivey Long, the six-time Tony winning designer of some 70 productions on the Great White Way; writers Robert Carey and Jonathan Tolins, who provided additional material for the recent revival of On The Town (Tolins is best-known as the playwright of the Barbra Streisand fantasy Buyer & Cellar); leading man Aaron Tveit, a four-time Broadway veteran (Hairspray, Wicked, Next to Normal, Catch Me If You Can); and, among other theater veterans, as the chief nerd, Noah Robbins , who’s established a noteworthy New York stage career in the six years since his Broadway debut at age 19 as the star of the revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Even some of the pop stars in the cast have Broadway credits – Vanessa Hudgens made her Broadway debut in Gigi, both Carly Rae Jepsen and Keke Palmer in Cinderella.
But, like many first-rate theater artists, their terrific talents lose something in the translation from the legitimate stage. The TV production was most impressive for its technical ingenuity and camera work. Director Kail was partnered with “live television director” Alex Rudzinski, and one sensed that their energy went into figuring out what would look most cool on TV. So Keke Palmer as Marty sang “Freddy My Love” at a pajama party in a classmate’s bedroom that suddenly became a USO show with Palmer in a glittering gown on a fashion runway. Why? Ours is not to reason why.
The rhythm of the show – thanks in part to its dozen commercial breaks – was distinctly that of a television show. The language was cleaned up for a TV audience. The broadcast took its cues primarily from the 1978 movie, which was greatly altered from the stage show. The choreographer, who seemed to borrow heavily from the 1978 movie, was Zach Woodlee, best-known for his choreography of the TV series Glee.
There was some effort to update the script to reflect present-day sensibilities, such as a line about women not having to rely on men, and an expansion of the roles for nerd Eugene (Robbins) and nerdette Patty (Elle McLemore) that suggest a tiny bit more respect for education and intelligence. But such changes only made the Grease on display on Fox more muddled: Is Grease a spoof of or nostalgia for 50’s life – or 50’s shows? — or has it become nostalgia for 70’s shows?
The live audience, theoretically a chance to make the show more like theater, seemed to consist entirely of cheerleading extras swaying to the music – a casting director’s high concept of a theater audience.
Yet, the actual casting stood out in this production. There were some good small touches: Wendell Pierce (Bunk from The Wire) as Coach (a part portrayed by Sid Caesar in the movie), BoyzIIMen as Teen Angel (played by Frankie Avalon in the film.) “Dancing with the Stars” veteran Julianne Hough as Sandy, competent as an actress and very fine as a singer, was able to show some spectacular dancing, especially during cheerleading routines that seemed tailored to her abilities. Other stand-outs included Jordan Fisher, swoon-worthy as T-Bird Doody, and Carly Rae Jepson, whose turn as beauty school dropout Frenchy suggests great potential as an actress. (She also sang the one new song composed for the broadcast, “All I Need Is An Angel,” by the “Next to Normal” team Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which will probably not be added to future Greases.) Vanessa Hudgens as tough-girl Rizzo deserves special kudos not just for putting over a role that is a big departure for her, but for performing live on the same day that her father died.
There were a few glitches during Grease Live — it rained; the audio went kaput in the middle of “Born to Hand Jive,” there were moments of static. All these wound up enhancing the broadcast, as if the fates were telling us “Live means risk, and makes it all the more worth watching” — something theatergoers already well know. What some theatergoers resist, which Grease Live again drove home, is how enhanced a show like this can be by live-Tweeting it.