EXCLUSIVE: Success rewards some artists with an opportunity to shoot the moon, take a risk, do something completely unexpected. Direct Grease Live for example.
“It was an easy decision,” Thomas Kail says about switching gears from Hamilton, Broadway’s rap-suffused blockbuster about nation creation, to that show about Danny and Sandy, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, capri pants, leather jackets and, y’know, scoring. Says Kail, “I just think of it as going from 1758 to 1958.”
We were talking by phone a few days ago between New York and Los Angeles, where Kail was putting the final touches on Grease Live, which Fox is presenting Sunday night from 7-10 P.M. The production is a hat-tip, purposely or not, to NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, who began — resumed, actually — slating live versions of Broadway musicals three years ago with The Sound Of Music, followed by Peter Pan and most recently The Wiz! They found there’s a lot of cross-generational love for these shows, and with studios returning to Broadway with major investments (think The Lion King, Wicked), the crossover is going in both directions.
Grease, for example, ran over eight years on Broadway beginning in 1972; the 1978 Paramount film co-produced by Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr — with John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing — made it a cultural phenomenon, riding the retro wave of ’50s nostalgia surging through movies and TV, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek (“Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”). Paramount is producing the broadcast, with Wicked‘s Marc Platt overseeing.
For Grease Live, Kail and Alex Rudzinski, who’s billed as Live Television Director, have cast dancer Julianne Hough (ABC’s Dancing With The Stars) as Sandy and Broadway star Aaron Tveit (Next To Normal, Catch Me If You Can) as her sun-crossed lover Danny, while Vanessa Hudgens (the Disneystar who recently played the title role in the Broadway revival of Gigi) is Rizzo, a different kind of girl. The new script will go slightly meta for the stars: listen for Hough to wonder, for example, “Who wants to watch a bunch of amateurs in a dance contest on live TV?” There will be cameos and more by Boyz II Men, Jessie J, Ana Gasteyer and other recognizable names and faces.
One key difference between this and the NBC presentations will be the presence of a live audience, which has been a factor in criticism of the earlier shows. These musicals were built around buttons, as theater people like to say, that push an audience to respond, with laughter or applause or whatever general hoopla. The dead air following a song like “I’ve Gotta Crow” in Peter Pan can have a thudding effect on the whole enterprise. That shouldn’t be a factor on Sunday, when some 700 people will be divided, Kail said, among several sound stages on which Grease is being presented. That will require some ferrying of actors between scenes. “There’s been a certain amount of talk about the weather co-operating,” Kail said, “which is not normal conversation on a theater production.”
Kail acknowledges that the mild updating of the show has presented some challenges, Fox being more skittish about such subjects as menstruation and teen pregnancy than Paramount was with the PG-13 film. The Pink Ladies had a notable fondness for nicotine for example, but that’s a definite non-starter today.
And juggling Hamilton and Grease presented its own challenges, as both projects came together at around the same time.
“We all started working together on Grease in September 2014,” when the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was in rehearsal. “I would press pause and talk about the Revolutionary War and then pause again for the dawn of the ’60s. The idea was about how to access the celebratory spirit of Grease — how to own and embrace the fact that we’re doing it live, this show about the first time you fall in love, have freedom.”
Kail hopes the trend for live presentations will extend to non-musicals as well. That’s of course where much of Golden Era TV got golden — the live broadcasts on Playhouse 90 and other programs that showcased the country’s emerging talents.
In the meantime, Kail himself is quickly returning to just such a project, staging Sarah Burgess’ new play Dry Powder at the Public Theater with a cast including Claire Danes, Hank Azaria and John Krasinski. “It’s a new and thrilling play by a writer to be reckoned with,” he said. Just the sort of thing success lets you dive in to.