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TV's Grease: Live! captured lightning in a bottle last night

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

So that’s how it’s done! Fox’s exuberant broadcast of Grease last night proved that, in the right hands, musical theater and live television can go together like the proverbial rama lama lama kadingity ding dadong. It wasn’t just that this Grease was well cast, joyfully performed and ingeniously designed. It was that it seemed so comfortable in its hybrid skin, unabashedly theatrical yet also taking full advantage of what it could do better on TV.

Grease was on fire right from its extraordinary start: a brief scene of high-school summer lovers Danny (Aaron Tveit) and Sandy (Julianne Hough) on a beach that pulled back to reveal the actors on a set, followed by a breathtaking four-minute tracking shot of Jessie J singing the 1978 movie’s opening theme while strutting through the studio lot where Grease would be shot. We caught glimpses of the cast backstage, and heard the live audience roar. This didn’t merely get us rooting for the cast, and sweep us up in the energy of the crowd; in calling attention to the camera work and the artifice of the broadcast, the opening also helped ease the viewing audience into enjoying a night of song, dance and late-1950s teenage angst—a musical, presented as such with no pretense to a naturalism it could never have achieved anyhow.

Grease may not be a deep show, but like The Wiz—the best of NBC’s annual live musical offerings so far—it draws on a powerful double nostalgia, in this case for both the 1950s and the 1970s. This version of Grease was an amalgam of the movie and Jim Jacobs and Warren Case’s smash 1971 stage musical. (Revivals of the latter now incorporate elements of the former, including several major songs.) Viewers familiar only with the film may have been surprised at the prominence of some characters who were featured less prominently there, but Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary's adaptation cannily evoked the movie often enough to keep its fans satisfied.

The performer who most explicitly recalled the film version was Hough, who strongly resembled Olivia Newton-John. But unlike Newton-John, she could really dance, and her acting and singing were surprisingly solid. (“Oh girl, you are giving fierce disappointment,” a friend of mine gay-gasped when she sang of feeling "ripped at the seams" at Danny’s rejection of her.) Vanessa Hudgens, costumed very much like the film’s Stockard Channing, was saucy and affecting as bad girl Betty Rizzo. But many of the night’s most memorable performances came from side characters: Ana Gasteyer as Principal McGee, Haneefah Wood as her zany assistant, Brady Bunch alumna Eve Plumb as the tough shop teacher, Noah Robbins as a nerd with aspirations to cool.

Even as its characters wrestled to define and reinvent themselves, Grease moved forward with a strong and clear sense of what it was. This surely reflects the coordinated strength of its directors: theater man Thomas Kail (Hamilton) and reality-TV vet Alex Rudzinski (Dancing with the Stars), whose skills meshed well. The show was allowed to look like theater—major stage talents were among the creative team, including David Korins (production design) and William Ivey Long (costumes)—in ways that worked smartly for the new medium; and the dynamic musical numbers, choreographed by Zach Woodlee, were shot from far enough away to give a sense of whole stage-like pictures.

When the camera pulled in for a tight face shot of Marty (Keke Palmer) as she sang “Freddy My Love,” it seemed for a moment like an uncharacteristic bobble in the shooting. But then you realized that the close-up was there for a reason: It was disguising a rapid costume switch that was happening just below the screen, and when the camera pulled back, Palmer stepped through a panel of the set into a fantasy sequence on a catwalk surrounded by live audience members cheering for her song. Danny and the greasers’ automotive celebration, “Greased Lightnin’,” was similarly bumped up by a lightning-fast costume change. These were not just stage effects on camera, like the awkward flying in Peter Pan, but a television equivalent of stage magic. And scenes like the drag race were rendered far more effectively than they ever could be in a theater.

Grease was not perfect, of course. There were sound problems in Hough’s big song, “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” A new song for Frenchy (Carly Rae Jepsen), written by the Next to Normal team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, was obvious and out of period; it came off as a random pop song forced into the broadcast. And whoever put a big square mic pack in the back of Aaron Tveit's gym shorts did not respect a key part of the audience for this telecast. 

In all, however, this was a marvel of coordination: The enormous expense and preparation that clearly went into the production paid off. And that Grease was able to meet its daunting technical challenges while often also including a live audience of hundreds of people, who provided welcome boosts of energy for the musical numbers, should give the makers of NBC’s upcoming Hairspray something to think about. Grease raised the bar on what we can expect from live musicals going forward. Diverse in its casting, ambitious in its execution and classy in its theatricality—right down to the long curtain call sequence at the end—it managed to make not only musical theater seem vital, but network TV as well.

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