Billboard: ‘Grease: Live!’ Freshens a Favorite With Mix of Old and New

Originally published in Billboard.

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Kether Donohue, Julianne Hough, Carly Rae Jepsen and Elle McLemore during the dress rehearsal for “Grease: Live!” airing live on Jan. 31, 2016 on FOX. MICHAEL BECKER/FOX

 

Fox made a bold step into the live television musical arena tonight with Grease: Live!, a technically ambitious production that upped the ante set by NBC’s recent shows by adding multiple soundstages, exterior shots, and a live audience.

Unlike NBC productions including The WizGrease: Live! was based primarily on the 1978 film version of Grease, with story structure, sets, and even a significant portion of the script coming from Bronte Woodard’s screenplay (based on Allan Carr’s adaptation) rather than Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey’s script to the 1972 Broadway musical on which it was based.  

However, the television production did restore material for the show’s supporting cast. A few of the Grease stage songs that had been relegated to underscore in the film were put back into the mouths of characters for TV, most notably Marty’s (Keke Palmer) “Freddy My Love” and Doody’s (Jordan Fisher) “Those Magic Changes,” the latter given a new slot as the backdrop for Danny Zuko’s (Aaron Tveit) athletic montage. The Rydell High alma mater, which opened the original Broadway production, was incorporated into an early scene in the television version.

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Those Magic Changes

Two brand-new songs were penned by songwriters Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), “All I Need Is an Angel” for Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchy and “Maybe Baby,” performed by Joe Jonas and DNCE, who served as the school dance band as Sha Na Na had in the film. DNCE’s single “Cake by the Ocean” received a ’50s revamp for use in the show as well.

And taking advantage of having a dancer, Julianne Hough, in the role of Sandy, a new extended cheerleading sequence was created for her and Elle McLemore (as Patty Simcox), performed in front of a cheering, on-camera audience. Jessie J‘s rendition of the title song (from the film) was staged walking through the extensive production facilities to show off the scope of the operation at the top of the show.

The One That We Want

While it remains to be seen how Grease: Live! scored with audiences, the general consensus on social media was that the show was a success — with famous fans including Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Glee star Darren Criss, Anna Kendrick and more weighing in and applauding Vanessa Hudgens for triumphing in the show as Rizzo just one day after the death of her father from cancer (the Grease: Live! production was dedicated in his honor).

Even as viewers leant their snark toward the sexual politics of 1950s teenagers, the cast, camera work, choreography, and direction were all praised effusively. The presence of a live audience, though distracting during some scenes, added tremendous energy to the musical numbers and made for a particularly thrilling finale, staged on a full-sized carnival as in the film. It seems that Fox has captured “Greased Lightnin'” in a bottle, and the live television musical, like rock’n’roll, is here to stay.

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