Grease Live: the live musical you should've watched

We break down a night spent at Rydell High with Danny, Sandy, Mario Lopez, and Joe Jonas


Chris Plante: 2016: the year the live musical broadcast arms race began. Last night, Fox responded to a trilogy of successful NBC musicals with Grease: Live. The celebrity-dipped three-hour event didn’t reach the heights of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in a flying car, but it scaled the low bar set by NBC’s versions of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz. Those live shows stranded their rosters of talented singers and actors in front of a few crummy flats and a rear-projection system; Grease: Live opted for a more cinematic approach, connecting the dots between the live-to-tape soap operas of the 1940s and the "live music videos" you see at contemporary MTV awards shows.

It’s no surprise that Fox can hold its own in the war of event programming: this is the network that built its brand on wacky live-event television in the 1990s. Squint your eyes, and you can see how Alien Autopsy led to Fox freeing Mario Lopez from his cryochamber to serve as last night’s master of ceremonies. As a means of celebrating Grease: Live’s achievement before it’s surely surpassed by Tyler Perry’s The Passion of the Christ, my colleague Jamieson Cox and I are doling out a handful of awards and miscellaneous superlatives to last night’s performers.

Best production trick:

CP: Fox shrewdly paired Thomas Kail, director of Broadway hit-of-the-decade Hamilton, with Alex Rudzinski, the director of Dancing with the Stars. Kail handled stage direction, while Rudzinski handled the increasingly uncommon craft of live broadcast direction. A behind-the-scenes interstitial claimed the production spanned a 20-acre location, with multiple indoor and outdoor sets. Talent traveled by golf carts large enough to warrant the term "people movers," which featured prominently in the final number. This was huge. Kail’s going to scoop up a Tony for his work on Hamilton, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him add an Emmy to his mantle for last night’s show. If I had to pick one specific scene, I’d take Marty’s USO dream sequence (and stunning, instant costume change).

DNCE has to be the product of an SNL digital short

Jamieson Cox: I wasn’t expecting to come away from the show raving about the production quality, but there were enough incredible moments to make this the hardest award to hand out. The dress reveal was cool, but my favorite scene by a wide margin was the big dance, if only because there was just so much to juggle: dozens of couples, an integrated live audience, the flips to the black-and-white cameras, Joe Jonas’ unruly highlights. (I still have trouble believing DNCE isn’t the product of an SNL digital short.) The camera was darting around like crazy, and there were a few composed shots that struck me as movie-quality. You could tell there was a ton of expertise behind the scenes.

Worst production decision:

JC: I don’t know how they could’ve done it beyond actually filming at some kind of race track (an impossibility given the constraints on the production), but the big race at Thunder Road fell flat. The cars weren’t moving and it was almost pitch-black, so you couldn’t help but notice the lack of movement; there was some experimentation with steering-wheel cameras, but it didn’t make the scene any more engaging. It lasted twice as long as it should’ve and ended with a thud, and it might’ve been the lone misstep in what was an otherwise technically impressive show.

CP: It reminded me of the car chase sequences in Sin City, a film nobody wants their work compared to. I will say the race was responsible for the hardest laugh of the night. In the closing credits, the producers showed behind-the-scenes clips of various set pieces. When they showed a wide shot of the car race shot, as if the audience couldn’t tell the cars were filmed in park, I couldn’t restrain myself.

Best guest role:

JC: Haneefah Wood didn’t have a ton to work with as Principal McGee’s beleaguered assistant Blanche, but she was hysterical in every one of her scenes. Hangovers haven’t looked more painful, and xylophones haven’t ever sounded sadder.

CP: I want to say Wendell Pierce as Coach, a role originated on film by Sid Caesar, but instead I’ll second your vote for Haneefah Wood, who brought vitality to the Principal McGee scenes. Gasteyer played McGee with a subtle drollness that got lost in a production that steamrolled the script’s best jokes, but Wood juiced the screentime. Her eyes gazed through the camera and said, You will be entertained by this xylophone. (She also gave the world this bit of squadspiration.)

Best performance:

JC: Vanessa Hudgens seemed to pick up a ton of momentum as the show rolled forward, and she’d found the sweet spot in her portrayal of Rizzo by the time she had to sing "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." She achieved a balance of vocal power and grit everyone else in the cast had some trouble finding, and she lived up to the high bar Stockard Channing set in the movie version almost 40 years ago. Hudgens’ work is rendered even more remarkable by the fact that she was performing under insane personal turmoil: her father passed away on Saturday night after a battle with cancer.

Hudgens treated Hough’s goody-two-shoes Sandy with just the right level of disdain. (Let’s be honest: it’s not that hard to imagine her making fun of Hough’s demeanor on set deep within Coachella’s Gobi tent a few months from now.) Her interactions with the T-Birds had some real heat, which is remarkable given the degree to which the production was sanitized; she stole my eye in every scene. All of those years spent toiling in various High School Musicals paid off here.

CP: Agreed, Vanessa Hudgens gave the best performance. So I’ll handle runner-up: Jordan Fisher owned the role of Doody with an Elvis Costello meets Bruno Mars-like combination of nerdiness and swagger. Playing Carly Rae Jepsen’s love interest and not blushing yourself into a glowing puddle of unworthiness is a feat unto itself. That Fisher also overcame this photograph from Teen Beach 2 — he originated the role of Seacat, apparently — is further proof of his excellence. Listen up, Musical-Powers-That-Be! Next time make this guy the lead, and let the beefcake play second fiddle. Actually, don’t give Tveit a violin; he’ll eat it for the precious fiber and proteins.

Jordan Fisher somehow overcame Teen Beach 2

Best contractually stipulated addition to the show:

JC: Maybe I’m cynical, but Julianne Hough’s "anything you can do, I can do better" cheerleading segment felt more like a bit of written obligation than a crucial bit of storytelling. "I’m a two-time winner of Dancing With the Stars! I deserve the opportunity to show America what I can do! All of my dancing scenes were cut from Dirty Grandpa!"

CP: I want to give credit to what wasn’t contractually included: marketing. A live-broadcast with a 1950s set could have been a series of ads for soda brands — Coke was the official sponsor of the broadcast — and cleaning supplies thinly disguised as family entertainment. Something tells me Fox won’t be so generous next time. I hope to be proven wrong!

Most welcome original Grease cast member appearance:

JC: When Didi Conn — she played Frenchie in the movie version of Grease — showed up inside the Burger Palace as a kindly waitress and had the time of her life, my heart grew three sizes. When she watched the Rydell dance on a fuzzy diner TV and said, "I miss high school," it exploded out of my body and forced me to contemplate my own mortality. Happy! Sad! Bittersweet! Delightful.

Best male torso:

JC: Aaron Tveit didn’t exactly radiate danger or irresistible sexuality as Danny Zuko — when he said "Come on, Sandy, don’t make me laugh," it sounded like it was coming from someone who was actually scared of having to laugh for the first time in his life. Aaron Tveit’s arms, on the other hand — now we’re talking star quality! It’s probably not a great sign for your performance when your limbs are your most charismatic parts, but they were truly impressive, and they gave Tveit’s upper body the slightest edge over Carlos PenaVega’s robust torso. The T-Birds were boring, but there’s no denying they were stacked.

grease live sandy danny-fox-01

Worst chemistry:

JC: I found it almost impossible to imagine Hough and Tveit interacting with any warmth outside of a scripted encounter; I’ve never appreciated John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s innate sex appeal more.

CP: Seriously, Tveit takes the Chris Nolan approach, turning the schticky Travolta role into a self-serious loaf. Hough’s effort to parlay her dancing career into a singing career into an acting career doesn’t leave enough room for another body. Every other pairing laps these two: Frenchie and Doody. Jan and Putzie. Even Marty and Mario Lopez’s sex-hungry Dick Clark impersonation had more spark.

Best near-death experience:

JC: When the entire cast drove from the final gym scene to the mini-fairground in those extended-length golf carts, one of the drivers blew right over a curb and nearly sent a dozen various ensemble members flying. Look at the face of national treasure / Rydell athletics expert Wendell Pierce. That’s the look of a man who sees death on the horizon, right? I’m glad the cart’s center of gravity was low enough to ensure his safety.

Song from Grease 2 I would like to see performed by cast of Grease: Live:

CP: Force Tveit and Hough to sing "Reproduction," and they just might lower their guards and have some fun. "Now you see just how the stamen gets its lusty dust onto the stigma / And why this frenzied chlorophyllous orgy starts in spring is no enigma!"

grease live carly rae jepsen-fox-01

Best reason to #BuyEmotionOniTunes:

CP: I don’t know if Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchie song is in the stage musical. It isn’t in the film, and it’s obvious why. The tune is a cold bath in a show that’s loose, fun, and self-aware. That it lands just before "Beauty School Dropout" felt like an especially cruel joke: here’s Frenchie’s crappy song and, oh, here’s a Broadway standard reimagined by Boyz II Men. I liked the R&B trio’s rendition, but I’ve always wondered why Frenchie doesn’t get that number. It didn’t make sense with Frankie Valli, and it doesn’t make sense today.

JC: I like the collected works of Carly Rae Jepsen as much as any other self-respecting music critic, but it was a rough musical night for Canada’s sweetheart. The song we're talking about ("All I Need Is an Angel") was written just for this show, but it was sappy and anemic. Jepsen couldn’t stand up to her co-stars in terms of sheer vocal firepower. (When Vanessa Hudgens is blowing you off the stage, that’s not a great sign.) It’s unfortunate, because I otherwise enjoyed her gentle, forlorn Frenchie.

Most compelling bit of proof that Grease: Live was set in some kind of superior alternate universe:

JC: There was something touching about Grease: Live’s vision of a post-racial Rydell High. It must’ve been the most progressive high school in the US by a country mile when you remember we were watching the class of 1959’s senior year unfold. Every friend group was integrated to some degree; black people held positions of power at multiple levels within Rydell’s administration; Vince Fontaine was Latino; there wasn’t a single display of casual racism or aggression. Maybe everyone was too busy worrying about National Bandstand and the rumble at Thunder Road? The special’s diversity was welcome, but it was also a little... disorienting? I don't know.

CP: I think the disorientation factor is a dig at the competition. Grease: Live's casting yanks apart the hateful logic underpinning arguments like "the show should be period specific," or worse, "the best talent for these roles just happened to be white." The best performances in this show were by people of color, while the white people existed as passionless eye candy. When the performance began, I had that same thought: "there certainly wasn’t a high school like this in the 1950s." And then I thought, "Yeah, fuck the 1950s."

Grease was never really about the 1950s, anyway. The film spoke to the social and sexual anxieties of teenagers in the 1970s, lathered in the comforting veneer of a more stable, safer time. In theory, Grease: Live tried to update that examination and anxiety for contemporary audiences; it ended up serving as proof that "stable and safe" doesn't necessarily have to mean "white" anymore.

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