Grease has been at the top of many musical theater enthusiasts' wish lists for a live television broadcast since NBC resurrected the genre in 2013 with the Carrie Underwood-helmed (and famously reviled) The Sound of Music Live! About the 'opposites attract' love affair between 2 teens and their gang of classmates, Grease is a fluffy slice of Americana that's mischievous and subversive, yet enough fun for the whole family. Its songs and ever-popular 1978 film adaptation, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, have propelled it to become the most-produced musical in the United States. Naturally, if NBC didn't make a move on it, another network would. With Grease: Live, FOX marked its first foray into the live musical theater event, and what a foray it was!
I have to start by acknowledging the wonderful team assembled by executive producer Marc Platt and the folks at FOX. Renowned casting director Bernie Telsey filled principal roles with a truly diverse mix of the brightest (and prettiest) young talent on television and Broadway. Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit and even Vanessa Hudgens were not surprising selections for this project; they'd be on anyone's short list. Talent like Keke Palmer (a haughty and precocious Marty), Carlos Penavega (an adorably dim Kenickie) and singer Carly Rae Jepsen (a delightful, angelic Frenchy) were more inspired choices: famous and endowed by any definition, but not likely to be first thoughts for a piece set in a typical American high school in 1959. The casting of the "adults" was no less impressive. Ana Gasteyer, a proven comedic powerhouse, and Wendell Pierce, one of our most underrated actors, both have Broadway and musical theater credits. As a stage actor myself, I'm generally hard on performers in these projects, but I had real trouble finding a weak link in the cast. Hough and Hudgens were standouts as the show's leading ladies, Sandy and Rizzo, respectively. Hough oozed the greenness and earnestness her character required. When she launched into "Hopelessly Devoted to You" after Sandy is jilted by her beau, Danny Zuko (played with equal parts cocksure bravado and puckish boyishness by Tveit), one believes that a girl so innocent would respond to a perceived sleight with the passion and dramatics the song demands. Hudgens fabulously commanded her Pink Ladies squad and created near-tangible, white-hot chemistry with Penavega. Her rendition of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" was the best vocal of the night. Other notable performances include Kether Donohue's unabashedly quirky Jan, Haneefah Wood's scene-stealing, gum-chewing school secretary Blanche, and Jordan Fisher's way-too-sexy-for-Doody vocals on "Those Magic Changes."
Grease: Live knew what it wanted to be and what it wanted to say. It was the 1st major production of Grease that wasn't beholden to time period loyalties. Kail approached the piece by adding a millennial gaze to the tropes embodied by its characters. For instance, labeled nerd Eugene (played by Noah Robbins), persistently offers to fit the T-Birds car with turbo speed, not because he wants to gain their approval by helping them win the race against the Scorpions, but so he can try out the invention he designed for the Rocket Club. Earlier on, he covers Patty Simcox's (Elle McLemore) student council campaign signs with Rocket Club posters to encourage her to court the "unpopular vote." When she asks why she should do that, he responds, "Because we're [i.e. the "uncool" kids] the majority." Eugene's perspective on his status as an unpopular "nerd" is very current. In 1959, a student like him would cower in fear. In 2016, a "nerd" can stand on his own and create his own lane. Another example: in the film, Kenickie bows out of the Thunder Road drag race after Danny accidentally injures him. In the live version, he admits his apprehension about racing to Danny because he thinks Rizzo may be pregnant and he wants to do right by her and his unborn child. Danny purposefully injures Kenickie to prevent him from participating and protect him from very real danger. These kids have increased agency, care about each other and make their own decisions. They know what is best for them, whether they choose to follow through or not. As opposed to rebellious juveniles who are at the mercy of the adults around them, they're depicted as doing the best they can to live in their world. For this edition of Grease, the kids are in fact alright.
Now that we've finally seen how fantastic live TV musicals can be with this and NBC's The Wiz Live! last December, I'm excited for their remake of Hairspray and The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Emmy nominee Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black). FOX will keep their ball rolling with a Tyler Perry-hosted event surrounding Jesus Christ's crucifixion. The network would be crazy not to enlist Kail and the rest of his Hamilton dream team (composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, production designer David Korins and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire) to work on next winter's live musical.