For co-creator Jim Jacobs, 'Grease' is still the word (even if it's cleaned up)

SLICK HICKS: "Grease" (with Taylor Hicks) started out as "heavy stuff," says co-creator Jim Jacobs. (Joan Marcus)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"I was a bona fide JD," says Jim Jacobs, co-creator of the oft-revived musical "Grease." He's not referring to a lawyer's juris doctor degree. He's talking about having been a juvenile delinquent. In his day, on Chicago's Far Northwest Side, teens from blue-collar backgrounds were JDs "who had a DA and a TC."

For the 1950s-era acronym-challenged, that's a juvenile delinquent with a hairstyle that congealed at the nape of the neck in the shape of a duck's behind (a DA), and with curls that Jacobs says looked like "a bunch of grapes hanging down on your forehead," a la the young Tony Curtis (a TC).

Jacobs, who co-wrote the book, lyrics and music for "Grease" with Warren Casey (who died in 1988), says he counts himself lucky to have discovered theater and come up with the idea for "Grease" back in 1971. Of his high school friends, Jacobs says, "an enormous amount of these guys went off to jail or got killed pullin' jobs, or they got killed in Vietnam, or drug overdoses, or heart attacks at young ages. . . . It's a very hard life to grow up in the working class and try to knock out a living."

And that may be why Jacobs only grumbles good-humoredly about the PG-ification of "Grease" since he and Casey wrote their gritty salute to bad kids of the 1950s. He has remained involved with all Broadway and touring companies and, presumably, continues to earn royalties. "Grease" enabled him to dodge the hard knocks his old friends endured. "I was fortunate that I had a rock-and-roll band in high school, and that led to theater and led, in turn, to me meeting Warren Casey. . . . It's a real case of there but for the grace of God go I, believe me."

The latest incarnation of "Grease," a touring version of the 2007-09 Broadway revival, will hand-jive into the National Theatre Feb. 9-21, featuring "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks as the fantasy figure Teen Angel, who sings "Beauty School Dropout" to Frenchy.

"He's hilarious, because he's not an actor, he's a singer," Jacobs says, laughing. "He does all the stuff like a basic, beginning actor would do, which means he really overplays it and hams it up. But for that character, it's gold."

Starting with the 1972 Broadway opening, the 1978 movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and the 1982 sequel (feh!), not to mention the Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007, "Grease" productions have tended to soften the story appreciably, says Jacobs. He adds, however, that the show coming to Washington "is 'Blackboard Jungle' compared to that version that had Rosie O'Donnell in it" on Broadway in the '90s. "That was in no way, shape or form what 'Grease' was all about. It sort of looked like 'Annie' with leather jackets. I made no bones about hating that version, but it went out on tour. It made money."

As the country has "gotten so into its hang-up with family values and political correctness," Jacobs says, the versions of "Grease" (including scripts designed for school use) have gotten "lighter and lighter and lighter. . . . People get offended that there are teenagers portrayed onstage smoking." Newer incarnations, he continues, "try to get away from the heavy issues such as the suspected pregnancy or whatever . . . but the original version was heavy stuff. . . . It dealt with some real issues of the blue-collar kids in America. They were basically the outcasts."

Jacobs says he's talking to a small Chicago theater company about a revival of the original "Grease." "You'd have to put a sign in the box office window saying, 'This version is R.' Don't bring your 9-year-old."

A first for 1stStage

In the middle of his company's second full season, 1stStage's Artistic Director Mark Krikstan got a phone call. His nonprofit, non-Equity theater, performing in a converted "flex space" on Spring Hill Road in Tysons Corner (, had been chosen to receive a special Helen Hayes Award -- the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.

"When I hung up, I said, 'Oh no.' Now I've got to make sure this show is good," recalls Krikstan, referring to the company's latest effort -- Irish dramatist Marina Carr's "By the Bog of Cats," running Friday through Feb. 28.

The show, Krikstan says, is "a takeoff on 'Medea' as only an Irish playwright can do, in terms of talking about dark revenge, laced with these wonderful comedic characters."

After that first phone call, Krikstan says he had probably 50 e-mails from patrons "who just felt so good that we were recognized, that hard work was recognized. . . . People have no idea how much energy goes into producing one of these shows. I had no idea when I got into it." Krikstan founded 1stStage, after 25 years of teaching high school drama, as a place where actors just out of college or conservatory can have their first professional experience.

In professional theater, Krikstan notes, "the stakes are higher. Your goals are higher. Commitment of everyone involved is stronger, so everyone is working that much harder. . . . An award like this is just a really nice opportunity to pat ourselves on the back. . . . It's really gratifying to know that the Washington theater community recognized our existence."

Follow spots

-- Washington-based director Jeremy Skidmore is the co-founder (with attorney Roger Yoerges) of a new talent agency for the D.C. area. Capital Talent Agency -- the first such in Washington, according to their announcement -- will offer representation to performers and designers, as well as help them with health-care coverage and financial advice.

-- Studio Theatre's annual fundraising gala takes place Saturday and will honor Founding Artistic Director Joy Zinoman, who has announced she'll retire at the end of August. Singer-actress Tracie Thoms and Lypsinka will perform. Tickets go for $400.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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