As a self proclaimed life-long Grease fan I was excited and nervous about GREASE LIVE. By the way, when I say “fan” I am talking about the movie and the soundtrack and not the Broadway musical which I have never seen – on purpose. I am also a fan of GREASE 2 and directed a live spoof once called GREASED TOO in Downtown Toronto at The Second City (Tim Sims Playhouse).
Let me just say right off the top I think GREASE LIVE was phenomenal. Nevertheless, the film version is so close to my heart and mind that I must confess a serious bias. But GREASE LIVE seems to understand the obsession with the movie and thankfully the Live version is a loving homage to the original.
And just for the fun of it here are my top 10 best and worst things about GREASE LIVE.
TOP TEN BEST THINGS ABOUT GREASE LIVE
- ORIGINAL RETELLING. Similar to The FORCE AWAKENS, GREASE LIVE is both a remake and update of a late 70s classic. The production takes elements of the original Chicago play, the film and its own modern take and combines them all into a three hour extravaganza. Over the years I have heard rumours of a GREASE remake and I would just cringe. Why remake something that is so close to being perfect? (Remember the PSYCHO remake? UGH!) But if you are going to do it, do it in a new original way.
- VANESSA HUDGENS AS RIZZO. I know I’m not the only one to point out how brilliant Vanessa Hudgens is as Rizzo (someone call the EMMYS). I think sometimes GREASE is considered a shallow story, but the song “There are Worse Things I Could Do” really shows the depth behind this character. As I get older I have learned to appreciate how important Rizzo is to the overall story. Not to mention that she had to do this performance shortly after the death of her father.
- The INCLUSION of FREDDY MY LOVE: I used to listen to this song on the album and wondered where it was supposed to fit into the story. My wife, who has performed in the play version, is my reference for these questions. This was one of the strongest parts of the GREASE LIVE version and gives us more insight into Marty’s character. During the sleepover scene Keke Palmer, playing Marty, shows the other girls all of her pen pals in the army and the song begins. As it carries on she transforms into a USO performer on stage with The Pink Ladies as her back up singers in classic GREASE fantasy style. Keke Palmer, by the way, could probably do a great version of Whitney Houston if anyone ever makes a serious film about the late singer’s life.
- The INCLUSION of THOSE MAGIC CHANGES: Certainly one of my favorite Side-3 Sha Na Na songs. Again, my musical theatre wife had to explain to me that this is one of the best songs in the plot-line of the story and not a throwaway “National Bandstand” number. In another difference from the movie, it turns out Doody (Jordan Fisher) is a guitar player. As he begins the song in the diner we cut to Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit) at the gym attempting to become an athlete. We cut back and forth as the song lifts emotionally with ascending key changes. (This segment has some problems but we’ll get to that in the next list).
- JESSIE J SINGS GREASE: Here again, the producers were wise to not try and recreate the brilliant animated beginning of the film. Instead we see Jessie J dancing towards the camera as she whizzes through the set. She does an excellent rendition. I’ll ignore the fact it seems to be missing the nostalgia aspect that I thought was the whole point of the Frankie Valli/Barry Gibb song (what era does she hearken back to? The early 2010s?). But I do like that visually this version salutes the work of those behind the scenes artists and technicians before the action of the play even really begins.
- STUNNING BEHIND THE SCENES WORK: Speaking of which, I’m still not sure how they pulled this all off. I recently watched a live CORONATION ST. episode and I was blown away, and that version was only an hour and no one had to sing! This was three hours live including singing and dancing! During commercial breaks we are shown different aspects of what went on backstage and how much work went into the production. The camera operators are credited with doing something called Crew-ography because they were also dancing around capturing live shots. This is much more impressive than the recent live version of The WIZ, which I enjoyed but really doesn’t hold a candle to this production.
- INTEGRATED CAST: If I ever had a major complaint with the film version of GREASE it is that the entire cast is white except for the one member of SHA NA NA who was black (RIP Dennis Greene). Considering that this musical is about rock ‘n’ roll, an African-American form of music, this white washed casting has aged the film. I loved the musical version of HAIRSPRAY for taking the energy and style of GREASE, but tackling the issue of integration in America. The completely mixed cast of GREASE LIVE really shows the progressive evolution of the musical.
- BOYZ II MEN ARE THREE ANGELS: I had no idea who the Teen Angel was going to be. I was pleasantly surprised to see BOYZ II MEN appear. Their harmonies were sweet and added a soulful touch to the original “crooner” version of Beauty School Dropout by Frankie Avalon. I guess Frenchy has three Angels this time. Why not?
- DIDI CONN AND BARRY PEARL ARE ALONG FOR THE RIDE: A true pleasure to see Didi Conn, the original Frenchy and only original member of The Pink Ladies and the T-Birds to return for GREASE 2. Apparently she had a GREASE 3 script under consideration for a while as well. In this version she plays Viola, the Diner waitress. She has a great warmth and comedic energy and she brings plenty of enthusiasm to this role. I honestly didn’t recognize Barry Pearl, the original Doody from the film. I suspected it was him but didn’t know for sure until just now when I looked it up (Thanks IMDB). I was happy to see him but I was a bit confused by the made up character they wrote for him. Still, it was important to me that they included some of the original actors. And clearly they are referencing the film in many different ways.
- EXTRA CHARACTER INFORMATION: I was curious to learn more about these characters. I am not sure how much is from the play and how much was made up recently but we learn some important things. Danny claims he has bad parents, for instance (bad parents who lend him their nice car for Drive-In dates). Sandy (Julianne Hough), who I suspect is Mormon, is afraid her parents will see her on National Bandstand which explains why she gets separated from Danny during the dance off. This never made a lot of sense to me in the movie and so I am glad it was explained a bit more clearly. We also learn that Murdoch (Eve Plumb), the auto shop teacher, has a criminal record and encourages the T-Birds to steal the parts. Hooray for Murdoch!
Just as a sidenote, some of the actors in smaller roles were hilarious in this version particularly Elle McLemore as Patty Simcox and Kether Donohue as Jan.
TOP 10 WORST THINGS ABOUT GREASE LIVE
By the way, did anyone notice one of those carts almost fell over trying to make a corner at the end? It was full of actors. That would have been a DISASTER!!!!!!
- CHEMISTRY BETWEEN SANDY AND DANNY: Okay this is real nitpicker list. The two actors who portray Sandy and Danny are absolutely fantastic singers and dancers. Hats off to them. But there is something about the energy between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John that can never be recreated. Even they couldn’t recreate it (ever see Two of a Kind anyone?) I don’t really like this Utah/Mormon version of Sandy. To me it makes more sense for Sandy to be from a country that is really far away, like Australia. It helps with the whole fish out of water scenario. This is one of many reasons the movie is an improvement on the play. Also, the eight year old boy inside of me is still in love with Olivia Newton-John and my brain just can’t process anyone else as Sandy. This Sandy even has a different last name!
- FRENCHY’S SONG: Okay they wrote a new song for Frenchy (Carly Ray Jepson). I’m not sure why they did this but I suspect it was because they hired a famous singer for the role of Frenchy and then had to figure out how to give her a song. The song called “All I Need is an Angel” isn’t bad. It is a standard musical ballad. But I really think the biggest strength of GREASE has always been the songs. Every song is stellar. Whether or not it was from the play or from the movie (which had fantastic newly written songs that almost outshine the originals). This one just doesn’t hold up in comparison. Probably because it wasn’t necessary and was stuck in there for contractual reasons. I feel the same way about Beyonce’s ballad “Listen” in the film version of DREAMGIRLS. Other than that I really enjoyed Carly Rae Jepson’s performance and she also looked stunning. She could have been a great Sandy, actually.
- COMEDIC TIMING: Again it is hard to recapture the comedic timing of the original film. GREASE had the advantage of having the honed comedic skills of Sid Caesar and Eve Arden (among others). There are a lot of happy accidents in the film in terms of comic timing. The scene where Kenickie and Danny embrace before Thunder Road was improvised and only one of many takes. But it was the improvised take that worked. They try to recreate that moment here but it just didn’t make me laugh. That happened a few times when I can’t help but compare the perfect timing of the actors from the film, to the hurried energy of the cast in the middle of a live televised performance. I should point out the movie was also shot in a short period of time after rehearsals. So it’s not like the original filmmakers had a lot of time to get those pitch perfect performances either. It is just part of the magic of the original.
- DANNY ALMOST KILLS KENICKIE! I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea for Danny to almost kill his best friend on purpose and then act like he was a hero for some reason. In the film the head injury is an accident. In this version Danny clearly slams the car door hard into Kenickie’s head. Why does he do this? Is it because he knows his friend might be a father and he doesn’t want him to kill himself in a race? Causing a permanent head injury is a weird way to show your love. Is it because Danny is jealous and wants to steal his “thunder”? I know this was an era where everyone played football and smoked cigarettes so maybe he just doesn’t think a head injury is a big deal. I’d also like to point out that Danny says he is a life guard in this version, but then for some reason has a problem performing several different sports later on. “He’s already a jock!” My wife exclaimed.
- CIGARETTES PLEASE: Look. I know smoking is bad. I am a reformed smoker myself. But these are supposed to be tough guys and gals in the 50s. Everyone smoked. And back then it was cool. In 1978 it was still cool. In 2016 it still looks cool but you are an idiot if you are doing it. But this was part of the sexiness and 70s chic of the movie. It’s sort of like taking James Bond’s gun away if you ask me. Or altering the original Star Wars so that Han Solo shoots second. I get the reason. The advertisers blah blah blah! This gang of tough guys and gals just don’t seem that different from goody two shoes Patti Simcox. No wonder Eugene becomes (spoiler alert) a T-BIRD.
- THE MAGICAL GYM WHERE NO ONE HEARS EACH OTHER Why can’t Sandy and Danny see each other in the gym when they are singing Summer Nights? How big is this gym? Wouldn’t the sound echo so they would hear each other? Can’t they see their group of friends right over there? At the end they are standing right next to each other!! Are you two IDIOTS!? There is also a bizarre reprise of this song that sounds like a horror movie. Truly the most frightening part of the production.
- The T-BIRDS ARE ANTI-SEMITIC BULLIES? I’m half joking here. When I was a kid I never really questioned Eugene Felznick. Why is it that the T-Birds hate Eugene so much? Is it just because he is a nerd? I’m not so sure. Is he a walking talking Jewish stereotype leftover from Vaudeville days? Do the authors support the possibly racist bullying? Or are they criticizing it themselves? In both versions Eugene has a bit of a comeuppance which would suggest the authors have empathy for him and are against bullying. Still, it’s kind of a dangerous stereotype in the middle of your storyline. In this version he helps with the revamping of Greased Lightning which earns him a T-Birds jacket (that should be useful to him in the future).
- LONG CHEERLEADING SEGMENT What was with that endless cheerleading segment? Was that necessary? This show is already three hours long! This could easily have been removed. I think it was the producers trying to show off Julianne Hough’s dancing skills, but it really does nothing to move the plot forward. Was this another contractual obligation scene?
- WHERE IS CRATER FACE? I always found the guy who led The Scorpions (named Balmudo in GREASE 2) a frightening looking man. The Scorpions were the more dangerous version of The T-Birds. And the leader is so ugly they nicknamed him Craterface. In this version he just looks like a normal guy. At one point Kenickie calls him HATCHET FACE! Hatchet face? How is he a hatchet face?
- DOODY CAN’T DANCE BUT CAN SING AND PLAY GUITAR: I know this is a nitpicker thing but there are a few things they try to over explain. In the movie Doody does not play guitar so it makes sense that he can’t dance and has to count out loud. But in this version he plays guitar, moves and sings and then suddenly can’t dance and has to count out loud. He tries to explain it but it just seemed like they were trying to fit in a joke that no longer made any sense.
On a final note, in both versions, why doesn’t Sandy know the name of Danny’s high school? Or his phone number? Or address? Doesn’t she know that she has possibly moved into his general area at least? This calls into question how serious the beach romance was in the first place. Hmmmm. Food for thought! Can’t wait for GREASE2 LIVE where it will all surely be explained.