8 Things Today’s Movie Musicals Can Learn From Grease

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Have you ever met anyone who hasn’t seen Grease, the movie? I’ve been aware of the movie for more than three of the four decades since it was first released in theaters (and only because there were a couple years on the front end where I wasn’t born yet), and I’ve yet to meet anyone who grew up in the English-speaking world who hasn’t sat through multiple viewings. I even remember watching it on VHS at a slumber party in about 1988, and a couple of classmates who had just moved the U.S. from apartheid-era South Africa — where cultural sanctions were so strict that they didn’t even have Sesame Street — squealed: “Oh my God, Grease! We love this film!” They’d each seen it about six times.

In other words, 40 years since its initial release Grease is an enduring and undisputed classic, a musical that even people who hate musicals have seen and love and can sing virtually every word of. But what made it such a pop-culture fixture? And what can the new crop of starry movie musicals that seem to be a now-staple of Hollywood learn from it? In honor of Grease’s theatrical rerelease, we’ve laid out eight important movie-musical lessons it has bestowed upon us.

1. Cast Hollywood stars, and play to their strengths.
Grease eschewed casting Broadway talents without much name recognition in favor of charismatic film actors able to excite a studio marketing department. But it didn’t ask them to do anything they weren’t great at, and audience was expected to buy into the delusion that say, Ryan Gosling is a song-and-dance talent on virtuosic par with Gene Kelly in La La Land, or that Amanda Seyfried, an excellent and appealing actress, is an operatic coloratura soprano capable of hitting that high B-flat at the end of a “A Heart Full of Love” as the adult Cosette in Les Mis (or, as long as we’re naming names, that Anne Hathaway’s throaty high belt as Fantine could really hold up for eight shows a week on Broadway).

John Travolta, fresh off Saturday Night Fever, was an incredible dancer oozing sex appeal. And as Danny Zuko, he was asked to do just that, and keep the singing mostly cosmetic (think about it: “Sandy” is mostly spoken; “Greased Lighting” consists of about three notes). Olivia Newton-John was a major pop-country crossover star who had never acted in a film, so “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was written specifically for her so she’d have a single — and the character of Sandy was rewritten to be an Australian, so she wouldn’t have to attempt an American accent. Any vanity or ego either of these stars might have had about their abilities on these scores either didn’t exist or weren’t indulged, and the film is all the better for it.

2. All the stars don’t have to be giant stars.
On the contrary. While the Grease cast seems starry today (sort of), at the time, most of the supporting roles were played by promising up-and-comers; familiar faces, but not yet at peak fame. Stockard Channing, 33 years old and playing Rizzo, had been hailed as the next big thing for a couple of years already, without actually hitting it big. Jeff Conaway, cast as Kenickie, had been floating around TV, films, and Broadway for years, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1978 (the year Grease was released) that he’d appear in his most famous role as the sweet-natured aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler on the classic series Taxi.

3. And some of them don’t have to be stars at all.
Didi Conn, as beauty-school dropout Frenchy, had made only one prior film appearance. Dinah Manoff, as Marine-courting sexpot Marty Maraschino, who would eventually find semi-fame as neurotic Carol Weston on Empty Nest, was a recurring character on the TV series Soap — and that was about it. As for the Jan and the T-Birds, had you ever heard of any of them before or since? Did it matter? The “more stars than there are in heaven” approach taken by so many big-budget movie musicals today (think the cast of Into the Woods, where you can’t throw a slipper as pure as gold without hitting a once or future Oscar nominee) can be counterproductive — sometimes sidekicks are just meant to be sidekicks, wisecracking in the background, for all eternity.

4. Use cameos wisely.
Eve Arden as Principal McGee; Sid Caesar as Coach Calhoun; Edd Byrnes, a.k.a. “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb,” as the American Bandstand–style TV host Vince Fontaine; and Frankie Avalon as the Teen Angel. All 1950s icons, wittily cast for the adults in the audience; all skillful performers so indelible in their roles that children watching decades later, with no idea who they were outside of Grease, experienced zero diminished enjoyment. Amuse yourself with cameos, casting directors of the future. But don’t count on the cleverness of the casting. Count on the talent.

5. The same goes for anachronistic humor.
Almost every musical period piece, intentionally or not, is rife with anachronisms and meta-humor — after all, it’s more or less an anachronistic form. Sometimes they’re played skillfully for knowing laughs, à la the zillion jokes about hair-care products and integration in Hairspray; sometimes they’re passed off as high-concept reinventions, like the steampunk nonsenseland of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (again, populated by people who can’t sing in one of the most beautiful and demanding scores of all time. Argh.) But in Grease, purposefully nostalgic though it may be, the anachronisms are treated with a light touch. My favorite one: When the graduating seniors listen over the intercom to Principal McGee’s parting message, and she muses that one of them might turn out to be “even a Vice-President Nixon” (this, a year after his resignation from office in the midst of the Watergate scandal). The look of shock and pride that crosses the face of T-Bird Doody (Barry Pearl) is a perfect anachronistic joke, at once insider-y and completely in character, a great comic beat in a movie that’s full of them.

6. Be faithful to the original.
I’m not a major fan of the stage version of Grease, which is, to my mind, coarser and less clever than the film. But fans of the original won’t be thrown by the adaptation, which is more or less faithful to the spirit of the show. There’s no high-concept reimagining to inject realism into what is essentially a fantastical form. (I still haven’t recovered from the musical dream sequences in Chicago, which seems to find it more realistic to give every character an internal mise-en-scène equal to that of its director, Rob Marshall, than to have them occasionally break into song and dance because they are performing in a musical. If you disagree with me, we are very different types of people.) Grease, the movie, takes what’s good about Grease onstage and sharpens it, with new wit and great performances, into something greater than the sum of its parts.

7. But not too faithful.
Film and theater are two very different forms of art, and Grease never loses sight of that fact. It trims the fat from the original show — I’ve personally never missed “Freddy, My Love” or “These Magic Changes” — and, as I mentioned earlier, allows its young stars to shine without demanding the impossible from them. I had a therapist who once told me that contentment and self-actualization comes when you stop asking other people for things they aren’t capable of giving. That’s sort of Grease in a nutshell — it refuses to be something it’s not.

8. Find the right scale for the story.
Which brings us to my final prescription. So many film adaptations in musicals talk about “opening up the world,” or substituting shock and awe and hugeness for the intimacy that the theater provides (or in the case of musical non-adaptations — your Moulin Rouges, your Greatest Showmans, were never there in the first place). Not Grease. It knows that it is first and foremost a teen comedy, and doesn’t have any locations you wouldn’t see in a similarly scaled nonmusical film. Almost all the action takes place at Rydell High, and the other locations — the drive-in, the beach, Frenchy’s room, the malt shop, the carnival — you can count on one hand. In fact, I just did. It is essentially a small, personal musical (based on the high-school experiences of its creator, Jim Jacobs), adapted into a small, personal film, which is perhaps why it still feels so small, personal, and intimate to every kid that watches it, even 40 years on. It’ll be around for another 40.

8 Things Today’s Movie Musicals Can Learn from Grease