I suppose you could say they had me at the umbrellas. Over two years in the planning and threatened by heavy rains all day, Fox’s sprawling presentation of Grease Live went forward Sunday evening with nary a hitch and one last-minute change in the out-of-doors opening number that paid tribute to the greatest movie musical of all time, Singin’ In The Rain. As singer Jessie J led the cameras across the soundstage from a brief opening scene onto the Warner Bros backlot, we were brought outside where the rain finally held off but the streets were puddled and the cast sported bright umbrellas for the opening number, Barry Gibb’s “Grease Is The Word.” Announcer Mario Lopez introduced the cast with an ad lib, “and our special guest of the evening, El Niño.”
From the first seconds of the three-hour broadcast to the exuberant finale that returned cast, crew and live audience to the streets, everything about the presentation of this 1972 musical salute to the late 1950s said to a 2016 audience: You’re in good hands.
In fact some kind of history was made with this production, a combination of technical dazzlement and perfect casting that made the innocuous material seem practically revolutionary. NBC’s three recent outings with these live presentations of branded musicals — The Sound Of Music, Peter Pan and most recently The Wiz! — have had varied success, but none hit the stratospheric highs of this show. Credit the seemingly no-brainer decision to have a live audience to urge the performers on and a level of risk that matched the technical sophistication of a show spread across three enormous soundstages and included a drive-in movie, a traveling amusement park running at full throttle, and enough costume changes to make young heads and bodies spin in a constant swirl of motion.
I haven’t even gotten to the really good part yet, which is that, keen as memories may be of the 1978 Paramount film starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing, this cast left ’em in the dust. (Paramount produced this show for Fox.) OK, no one but no one here looked like they’d seen the world through teenage eyes in a long while. But it didn’t take long for that to be non-issue (just as it was for the film’s stars). As Danny and Sandy, Broadway hunk Aaron Tveit (Enjolras in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables film) and Dancing With The Stars champ Julianne Hough (who opened last week in Dirty Grandpa) couldn’t be better matched as the head of the T Birds and the sweet new girl from Utah. They didn’t get enough dance time, but what they had was electric (credit choreographer Zach Woodlee especially for the split-scene “Summer Nights” and the big dance-at-the-gym number, “Born To Hand Jive.”
And then there was Vanessa Hudgens, the former High School Musical star who recently played the title role in a good but uninspired revival of Gigi on Broadway. Here she was all but unrecognizable as Rizzo, the Channing role of the wise-cracking, tough-shelled leader of the Pink Ladies. With her hair in an Annette Funicello cut, her doe eyes at odds with frequently pursed lips and a limber ferocity that turned the dance at the gym into the Dance At The Gym as if she was Anita in West Side Story, Hudgens stole the show. And it wasn’t until the final credits rolled with “In Loving Memory Of Greg Hudgens” that the general audience was let in on the secret that the 27-year-old actress lost her father on the eve of the performance.
There were plenty of other terrific performances as well in a cast blessedly indifferent to race and ethnicity, including Keke Palmer as the snooty Pink Lady, Marty Maraschino, divinely dressed by the show’s legendary costumer, Broadway’s William Ivey Long. Boyz II Men showed up as Teen Angel to sing “Beauty School Dropout” against a Dreamgirls-like setting of tiered platforms and a girl group in glitter, glitter, glitter. This came right after Carly Rae Jepsen’s pouty Frenchie gulped out “All I Need Is An Angel,” an addition to the Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey score from Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind Tveit’s breakout Broadway show Next To Normal. Carlos PenaVega was the ideal second banana as Zuko’s buddy Kenickie, and Ana Gasteyer was the stout principal, and there was Didi Conn — who played Frenchie in the movie — as a seen-it-all waitress.
Did I say revolutionary? The co-directors were Alex Rudzinski and Thomas Kail, the staging genius of Broadway’s Founding Father juggernaut Hamilton; and the sets were by Hamilton‘s David Korins. The camera work flowed effortlessly from the musical on stages to shots from backstage of actors racing to be ferried from one sound stage to another, or just hanging out in rare moments when the tension let up. The “American Bandstand” scene at the gym switched between the Technicolor live action to the black-and-white screens of people watching on TV (“20 inches?” one of the girls exclaimed. “How will you know where to look?” The winking references were, thankfully, kept to a minimum, as when one of the kids at the drive-in said, “I wish there was a way to watch movies at home — any time I wanted,” to which another replied, “Yeah, we’ll get to the moon first”).
For a few brief moments the sound went out and then came back in a fuzzy mess, but it was short-lived. I’ve never seen a more inventive interplay between a show and just enough of the mechanics of the deal to make it all the more engaging. That, and the audience that played its essential part in moving Grease Live along with enthusiastic applause replacing the dead air that followed key moments in the earlier live broadcasts, set a new standard for this kind of presentation that will be tough to top.