Fox’s impressive and ambitious staging Sunday night of “Grease: Live” was a lesson in what a televised musical ought to look like in the 21st century: able to keep all eyes on the screen rather than the Twitter feed. It was a technological feat that was full of dazzle and tricky camera angles and, most important, it was unafraid of coming across as corny. Somewhere in its organized chaos, it honored the principles of live musical theater.
Instead of just playing to a vast sound stage and a satellite link, as recent live musicals on NBC have done, “Grease: Live” played first and foremost to a mobilized army of audience member/participants clustered throughout its acres of back-lot sets. This lent a much-needed hyperactivity to the proceedings, as “Grease: Live” drew on everything that the Fox network has learned about energy from its recent musical heritage, including the past glories of “American Idol” and “Glee.”
And rather than try to overcome any potential discord between the original 1971 stage musical and the 1978 film hit that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (another problem that stymied NBC’s more staid and faithful musicals, which favored old stagings over movie adaptations), “Grease: Live” simply mashed it all together, borrowing the best of both versions with great results and no apparent worries over creative license. This helped turn underappreciated numbers from the stage version (“Freddy My Love,” which got a dazzling update from Keke Palmer as Marty; and “Those Magic Changes,” similarly improved by Jordan Fisher as Doody) into memorable moments.
“Grease,” as high school drama teachers and community-theater revivalists have always known, is just about the most malleable Broadway show you can put on. Set it 1959, it is only merely suggestive of the ’50s. (For most of us, it’s really a musical about teenage sexual lust in the late ’70s, as conveyed by actors who were notably older than 18.)
Which means you can really have your way with “Grease,” which is what “Grease: Live” did, setting itself in an imaginary nineteen-fifty-eleventy-zero-something, where there is no such thing as school segregation or Jim Crow laws. “Grease: Live” projected a reassuring confidence about diversifying the past, asserting itself as very much a modern enterprise – a fact made clear with an opening number set backstage and outside the sound stage as Jessie J. performed “Grease Is the Word” and posed for selfies. The past and present lost all distinction as “Grease: Live” became more of a ’50s costume party.
Director Thomas Kail (fresh from “Hamilton”) and producer Marc Platt put audience satisfaction above all else. They built a high school with locker-lined hallways through which scenes and cast members and cameras could move, including a garage for shop class (taught by Eve Plumb, known forever as Jan Brady) and entire basketball gymnasium for the big spring dance scene. Toward the end of the show’s sprawling three hours (with commercial breaks), it was possible to believe that Platt and Kail were going to golf-cart everyone to the real Los Angeles River basin for an actual drag race. (Instead, they achieved it through fast-moving lighting and wind machines blowing smoke.)
It’s no surprise that in all the momentum and activity of “Grease: Live” something would get lost. That turned out to be the inherent sexiness that the show – and especially the movie – used to emit. “Grease” is full of sexual innuendo and (in some ways outdated) ideas about the mating ritual between genders. It sings of lost virginities and pregnancy scares and sluttines-as-destiny, and indeed, these subplots and through-lines were all present and accounted for in the dialogue and lyrics of “Grease: Live.”
But the show failed to come across with the same forbidden randiness that it had in Travolta and Newton-John’s day. Despite lots of effort from highly attractive, belt-it-out cast members (including Aaron Tveit as Danny; Julianna Hough as Sandy; and Vanessa Hudgens as a fine Rizzo, performing only hours after her father’s death) the libido in “Grease: Live” was still a quarter-tank low.
It’s hard to believe that “Grease” was once subversive; what viewers saw on television Sunday night seemed somehow cleaner and more perfunctory and cute. It was a fabulous, well-scrubbed and flawlessly executed show that could have been just a little bit greasier.