If theater is a hot medium, musical theater burns, making it a particularly bad match for the coolness of television. The three recent live musicals on NBC (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz) have been more or less successful — usually less — on their own terms but in no case came close to convincing a theatergoer of the worth of the attempted temperature translation. The cold silence of the studio, the absence of human connection, and especially the phenomenon of actors belting to an unblinking lens all contributed to their eerie, dead affect, even when those actors were excellent and the material fine. The resounding success of last night’s live production of the 1971 musical Grease on Fox was therefore a huge surprise, and a relief, even if it was the result of just a few relatively sensible innovations on the part of its producers and its director, Thomas Kail. It’s not too much to say that they may finally have cracked open this recalcitrant egg — though, sadly, what was inside it was still Grease.
The most significant innovation was the addition of an audience, which was not only constantly audible, duly clapping, but frequently visible, tucked in among the extras on bleachers and playgrounds of Rydell High as if its members were part of a pep rally. This completely reset the thermostat of the proceedings, warming things up for both the performers, who had someone to bounce off, and for the audience at home, who did not feel they were looking into a diorama. The change also suggested all sorts of other ways of adjusting the medium to lift the material out of the dead zone. Take, for example, the moment when hot girl Marty Maraschino, at a sleepover with her friends, starts bragging about all the soldiers and sailors she has sending her love tokens from overseas. (The story takes place in 1958 and 1959.) Instead of just letting her stand there to sing “Freddy My Love,” her doo-wop tribute to servicemen, Kail goes for some stage magic, courtesy of costume designer William Ivey Long. As the camera closes in on Marty’s face, we hear the live-time rip of Velcro; when the camera quickly pulls back we find that her blue teddy has transformed into a red sequined gown. Now we get a cinematic moment, as the actress, Keke Palmer, slips through a gap between soundstages and emerges in a 1940s movie, wherein Marty imagines herself singing to the troops at a USO hall. Finally, at the end of the song, the magic reverses; the USO hall disappears, we’re back at the sleepover, and the gown turns back into a teddy.
The three-hour production (almost a third of it, seemingly, commercials) was filled with marvelous moments like this: theatrical reveals, cinematic dissolves, television tempos. Often the tricks were replayed during commercial bumpers to show how they were achieved. (We also saw how the performers were rushed from set to set on golf carts or studio buses that sometimes seemed in as much danger as the drag racers in the story.) What this Grease also offered were long-form production numbers that, for the first time in any of these televised musicals, actually rendered some of the excitement of stage dancing. That excitement was not just the result of the choreography (by Zach Woodlee, who choreographed for Glee) but the camera positions and the studio audience’s live reaction. These things were all beautifully thought through and astonishingly carried out.
What no production of Grease seems capable of doing anymore is make a credible or even coherent case for the material itself. Last night’s version was a Frankenstein combination of the original (which opened in a small theater in Chicago in 1971), the 1972 Broadway production, the 1978 film (one of the most successful movie musicals ever made), the terrible Broadway revivals of 1994 and 2007, and new material by various hands. The animating idea — a frank and satirical look at the sexual transformation of working-class American teenagers through rock and roll — has by now become so thoroughly denatured that it seems to be making an entirely opposite argument. Of course, almost all of the dirt has been scrubbed: Lyrics like “You know that ain’t no shit / I’ll be gettin’ lots of tit” or “You know that I ain’t braggin’ / she’s a real pussy wagon,” from the original version of “Greased Lightning,” were excised. (And yes, “Born to Hand Jive” was once a double entendre.) But many other changes, unnecessitated by censorship, have left the material little more than a revue of cute numbers about those darn teens learning to dress sluttily. For this production, as an example, Sandy, the lead, has been given the last name Young — she’s not just a Mormon, I guess, but a descendant of the Ur-Mormon — instead of Dumbrowski. (She is also, apparently, rich, to judge by the exterior set of her beautiful house.) This change totally unhitches the logic of the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” while also trivializing the character’s need to rebel. (She has daddy issues, not socioeconomic issues.) The sexual revolution isn’t sexual or even rock and roll anymore; it’s conformist and pop. And the dead-end darkness of the story, which was never exactly Street Scene to begin with, is ferociously fanned away with, well, hand jives.
Still, I’ll gladly take it over the terrifying inertness of, say, the live Sound of Music, which did not reach the question of fidelity to the underlying story because of (among other things) Carrie Underwood’s inanimate performance. The live Grease was very well-cast, almost entirely with performers who actually possess the skills called for. Aaron Tveit, perhaps a bit old at 32 for the high-school alpha male Danny Zuko, nevertheless pulled off the singing and dancing with terrific sex appeal while giving good pompadour. Julianne Hough as Sandy is a weaker actress but held her own as the deracinated good girl. In general, the supporting women were shown to better effect than the men, but that’s at least in part because of those fantastic costumes; as the tough girl Rizzo, Vanessa Hudgens, a botch on Broadway as Gigi, nearly lived up to her Chita Rivera styling.
So if Kail & Co. solved many of the style issues that have bedeviled the format previously without solving the content problems of Grease itself, perhaps that’s enough for now. They’ve found the temperature in which something even better may grow someday.