by John Greco
It began with an idea from Jim Jacobs who thought it would be cool to do a show with 1950’s rock and roll music. He mentioned it to his friend, and fellow amateur theater associate, Warren Casey. Both men had nine to five jobs, but Casey would soon lose his job, and to pass the time he began to write what would turn out to be the pajama party scene in the finished musical. The two men got together and worked on the book and some music, and then just like in the movies, they managed to put on a show. The venue was in Chicago, a small theater called Kingston Mines. It was a low budget production with cheap painted backdrops; the cast included an unknown Marilu Henner as Marty. The show itself was still evolving, a few of the songs were there from the beginning (Beauty School Dropout, Grease Lightnin’), others would be added later. Two New York producers saw the show and thought with a few changes, but keeping its rough edges intact, the show would make for an interesting Off-Broadway production.
In New York, songs were added but the show’s unpolished primitiveness was purposely preserved. “Grease,” like “Hair,” its rock musical predecessor, was not going to be a slick showy production. It’s values and look would be closer to Off-Off Broadway and the experimental theater of the 1960’s than with the traditional Broadway musicals it would eventually play alongside of like, “No, No Nanette” and “Sugar.”
“Grease” opened at the Off-Broadway Eden Theater on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street to mixed reviews in February 1972 playing for four months before moving to Broadway where it would run for eight years (it was the longest running Broadway play up to that point in time). The original cast included Barry Bostwick as Danny Zuko and Adrienne Barbeau as Rizzo. Future cast members included Jeff Conaway, Treat Williams and Patrick Swayze all playing Danny Zuko, Marilu Henner as Marty and John Travolta as Doody. Contrary to what many believe, John Travolta did not play Danny Zuko on Broadway.
The original 1972 musical was raw and unpolished, you hear it in the original Broadway Cast album; it purposely lacks the polish of the customary Broadway musical which is exactly what the creators and producers wanted. Their desire was to capture the feel of those early rock and roll records, the doo-wop sounds of the urban streets. Jacobs and Casey grew up in that environment, listened to those records back in Chicago and captured it perfectly, the language, the violence, the themes of teenage love, pregnancy, friendship and rebellion.
Hollywood came knocking in the guise of Allan Carr (Can’t Stop the Music, Where the Boys Are ’84) and Robert Stigwood (Stayin’ Alive, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Anyone familiar with the work of either of these men would realize trouble was on the horizon. It was decided the book, and some of the music, for “Grease” was too rough edged, the language too vulgar, too much about city kids in Chicago, pregnancy and gang violence, and not suburban, white bread enough for general audiences, so Carr, who had a hand in adapting the play for the screen, softened up the storyline and softened up the character of Danny Zuko in particular. (1)
Having seen the original Broadway production a few years earlier, the movie version of “Grease” has always felt like a guilty pleasure. (2) It was clear the folks who made the film did not understand or did not care what the show was about; turning it into a pandering twisted aberration of 1950’s wistfulness. The film was released in 1978, while the hit Broadway show was still running strong.
In some ways, “Grease,” the movie is not much different than those Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Muscle Beach Blanket Bingo Party films that filled the screens in the early sixties. All were pure Hollywood fantasy of what young teen life was like. The main difference between those A.I.P. films and this Paramount production is the budget dollars spent. Set in 1959, the film has little to do with 1950’s urban high school life or the early days of rock and roll, and more to do with a re-imagined, sanitized Hollywood account of what this period was like. Unlike the original production, there is nothing subversive or rebellious about the film, even if Jacobs and Casey did it all with a wink and a nod.
The setting is Rydell High School where the guys wear leather jackets, smoke excessively and walk cool. These are the Thunderbirds consisting of leader Danny Zuko (John Travolta), a blueprint for “Happy Days” loveable greaser, Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli, both who are about as threatening as Eric Von Zipper. There is also Kenicki (Jeff Conaway) and three dorks who must be the illegitimate children of the Bowery Boys. The girls are the Pink Ladies, led by gum chewing toughie Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Add on to all this the inappropriate disco sounding Barry Gibb penned title song sung by Frankie Valli, the awful, awful, awful, and bogus Sha Na Na, who perform during the school dance and the bland white bread king himself, Frankie Avalon as “Teen Angel.” It all adds up to the likes of someone sniffing a little too much Brylcream.
That said, I enjoy watching “Grease,” it is a fun film to watch; it has an infectious quality thanks to some nice energetic and engaging performances from John Travolta, a perfectly bland Olivia Newton-John (who better to play bland) and Stockard Channing. The young Travolta, fresh off a major success with “Saturday Night Fever,” makes for a lovable gang leader (how many of those have you come across?). He shakes struts and quivers through a series of catchy songs, many of which became top 40 hits. Travolta never looked better, a cross between young Elvis and James Dean, he burns up the screen. Olivia Newton-John, making her screen debut, is sweet and virginal, perfect for the role of the Sandra Dee blonde figurine who falls for the lovable greaser, Travolta, and manages to go, unconvincingly, leather jacket to leather jacket with him by the end of the film. (3) The real acting highlight though is Stockard Channing as Rizzo, the school’s tough, dirty talking broad, who underneath is as mellow as the cliché Hollywood hooker with a heart of gold. One of the strongest highlights of the film is her mocking version of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” With it she comes close to stealing the movie from the two leads.
The film sucks in all the 1950’s nostalgia it could with the casting Eve Arden, the star of 50’s sitcom, “Our Miss Brooks,” as the school principal, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of “77 Sunset Strip” fame as DJ Vince Fontaine and the great Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar Hour) as the school’s Coach. The hair cream gets piled even higher with the aforementioned early 60’s teen idol, Frankie Avalon crooning “Beauty School Dropout.”
As I mentioned earlier in this essay, I find “Grease” an enjoyable, fun, guilty pleasure. It’s easy to understand why it was and remains so popular. Yet, the filmmakers got so much wrong. Most of the musical numbers are unimaginative and the direction is dull, just look at the “Grease Lightnin'” number which by the way was performed by Kenicki in the stage version. That made sense since it was his car and only was changed in the film to spotlight Travolta (must have pissed off Jeff Conaway). Then there are the new songs not in the original stage production like, “You’re the One That I Want,” which sounds more like 1970’s pop music than 1950’s, plus the previously mentioned inappropriate title song. The film is also a bit sloppy in it nostalgia, I mean, did anyone ever notice that during the opening animated credit sequence, the cartoon drawn Elvis character is wearing a 1970’s jumpsuit!
“Grease” the movie was a revisionist intent to change how we look at the early days of rock and roll turning 1950’s teenage rebellion, even it Jacobs and Casey did it with a wink and a nod, into glitzy empty headed, water downed pabulum for the entire family. The film doesn’t rock as much as it slips, slides and oozes its way into your heart. Like I said earlier, for me it’s a guilty pleasure, it’s a sit on the couch with some munchies and a cool drink and let yourself have fun kind of a movie. Only I keep thinking on how great it could have been if they actually had been more faithful to the original production.
(1) The evolution of “Grease ” from a raunchy rock and roll musical, anti-establishment theater piece to the bowdlerized film version, to future glossy productions, and even still “cleaner” High School productions, is as drastic a transformation as the early rebellious Elvis transformation into the overweight Las Vegas “lounge” singer he became later in his career . Original songs from the first production (Freddie, My Love, Mooning, All Choked Up) were dropped while new songs like “Sandy,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” were added in for the movie version. The bastardization of the stage musical continued with its two Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007 when songs written specifically for the movie were incorporated into the revivals including the Barry Gibb disco like title song. High School productions sanitized the language even more and social issues were minimized turning it into a Disneyfication of its former self.
(2) I was rather surprised to see “Grease” positioned in 39th place while the only other rock and roll musical to place in the top 50 in the survey, Richard Lester’s innovative and influential, “A Hard Day’s Night,” came in at 44? That was a jaw dropper! The visual style of Lester’s film, the editing, the music are all at such a higher level compared to Randall Kleiser’s bland direction that I was stunned by this result more than any other ranking in the survey.
(3) Because Australian accented Olivia Newton-John was selected for the role of Sandy, the character’s name was changed from the ethnic Sandy Dumbroski to Olson in the film.
How Grease made the ‘Elite 70’:
Judy Geater’s No. 19 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 35 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 35 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 59 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 67 choice