For the final shot of Grease Live, the camera swooped around the cast and outside the soundstage to reveal an enormous carnival. In that moment, there was no denying the production's prowess.
Director Thomas Kail (of Broadway's reigning champ, Hamilton) pulled off some incredibly tricky technical feats that would've been impressive after editing, let alone a live performance. The cast — led by Julianne Hough as Sandy, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, and Aaron Tveit as Danny — turned in solid performances, fueled by almost manic enthusiasm. Guest stars (Ana Gasteyer, Didi Conn, Wendell Pierce) threw in their hats for the sheer fun of it. There were no embarrassing musical numbers, no catastrophic flubs. Everyone did their job, and did it well.
Grease Live was slick — but it still couldn't hide the fact that Grease, as a musical, is bad.
When I was a kid, Grease was my favorite. It was bright, eager to please, easy to memorize, and perfectly suited to accompany the frantic flailing I thought qualified for dancing. When actors embrace the show's camp and commit to its cheesiness, Grease can be a whole lot of fun.
But after rewatching Grease in preparation for Grease Live, I've come to the conclusion — with sadness weighing heavy on my bruised and nostalgic heart — that Grease is just no good.
Grease requires as much enthusiasm as possible to distract from how thin it actually is — and on that front, Grease Live delivered
For all of Grease's attempts to be a sweeping epic, a summer fling turned romance for the ages, it's really just about a creep who keeps blowing off a hopeful girl because his friends might make fun of him. It's a lame premise, kept afloat by eager performances and inoffensive songs, better suited to a jukebox than a stage.
But dammit if Kail and crew didn't do their best to convince us otherwise. It was clear from the second Grease Live started — with a long tracking shot following pop singer Jessie J throughout the studio lot for her performance of "Grease Is the Word" — that Kail and Fox weren't messing around. The combination of Kail's direction, the work of Grease Live's camera crew, and the grand scale of the production was astonishing. (The budget was reportedly around $16 million.)
Though there was some noticeable scrambling outside, thanks to Los Angeles experiencing an uncharacteristic storm, the sets of Grease Live spared no detail. Every setup — from gymnasium to malt shop to that closing carnival — was meticulously tailored to the filming, a problem that NBC's live musicals have struggled with in particular. The opening Jessie J scene was a spectacular feat of staging, and Kail's smooth work at the school dance showed off everyone's bubbling energy — and Hough's dancing.
Kail even built up so much goodwill for his work that it was charming to see him fake the story's big drag race with fancy camerawork surrounding the still cars.
Grease Live one-upped NBC's productions in another arena, working in a live audience on bleachers and surrounding the cast in various sets — though that sometimes backfired on the show when the fans screamed through numbers.
Kail filmed Grease Live like a particularly ambitious episode of television — which, of course, it was. It's just a shame this level of production splendor was used on such a wheezy musical as Grease.
The T-Birds should not be the protagonists of anything, because they are disgusting
One of the biggest problems with Grease is that the T-Birds — Rydell High's shit-talking, pelvic-thrusting greaser gang, which boasts male lead Danny Zuko as a member — are garbage.
Sure, there are some vague attempts to make Danny a little more sympathetic. Tveit, for all his commitment to every sliding lick, could never be quite the bad boy Danny Zuko is supposed to be. But the T-Birds still spend all three(!) hours of the musical glorifying the kind of machismo that can turn teen boys into nightmares — and we're still supposed to root for them.
While Kenickie (Carlos PenaVega) is the most blatantly repulsive of the T-Birds, pushing Danny to be the biggest jerk he can be, his giggling sidekicks are rarely better.
Grease Live at least gives Jordan Fisher more to do as Doody, the bespectacled T-Bird; his crooning to an acoustic take on "Those Magic Changes" during Danny's attempt to be an athlete was a genuinely lovely interlude.
Grease Live also decided to change some of the musical's racier lines — like "the chicks'll cream for Greased Lightning" to "the chicks'll scream" — the better to be "family-friendly." Not one person lit a cigarette.
But the producers still elected to keep in lines like Kenickie's infamous, "Did she put up a fight?" in "Summer Nights." They still let Teen Angel (a collectively smooth Boyz II Men) tell Frenchie (Carly Rae Jepsen) that no beauty client would hire her "unless she was a hooker."
And before you protest that Grease was from a different time, just consider this: The romantic lead's big, emotional moment in this musical happens when he gets upset that a girl won't let him grope her at the movies when she might as well put out, come on, he thought she liked him!
Put another way: Why are we supposed to care about Danny's dumb feelings when there's a group of much better characters right across the stage?
Grease should be about the Pink Ladies
The greatest tragedy of Grease is that it's about a romance between two bland saltines instead of the Pink Ladies, Rydell High's resident teen girl gang.
While Danny and Sandy are off sipping malts and trying to force a summer fling into a relationship, the Pink Ladies don't just rule the school; they rule the musical. Each Pink Lady has a distinct personality, is fiercely funny, and knows she's better than every single person who dares to enter the gang's glittering orbit. These young women are the reluctant heart and soul of Grease, and every song without them suffers for it.
Grease Live's Pink Ladies casting proved to be spot on. Kether Donohue (You're the Worst) channeled all her dizzy energy into Jan, the Pink Ladies' "weird" girl who snarks through snacks. Keke Palmer (Scream Queens) took on Marty, the sexpot with a long list of pen pals, to deliver a powerful performance of "Freddy My Love" (a song that is featured in the musical but didn't make into the 1978 movie).
Jepsen was the only one who seemed a little lost, due to an indecipherable Jersey-ish accent and a solo song that was ostensibly written for her but instead swallowed up her voice.
Even the Honorary Pink Lady did well for herself. Julianne Hough was perfectly sweet as Sandy, playing up her naiveté with wide eyes and a permanent smile. But for as much as Hough gave, there was very little hiding the fact that Sandy is just about the most boring musical heroine imaginable. She is purposely bland, a blank slate in a neat headband and dutifully clasped hands.
So while Grease is built on Sandy and Danny's romance, neither is interesting enough alone to be all that compelling as a lead character — especially when there's a candidate with a much better story arc right there.
More specifically: Grease should be about Rizzo
The real test for any Grease production is its take on Rizzo, the Pink Ladies' snarling ringleader. In the movie, Stockard Channing, her every sentence dripping disdain even as the chink in her emotional armor kept growing wider, made the part iconic. For every bland moment of Sandy gazing wistfully off into the distance, Rizzo has a snappy line that can electrify scenes back to life.
The best, and most uncharacteristic, song in Grease is "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." Though Rizzo's romance with Kenickie never holds that much water, her one moment of vulnerability can steal the entire show. She's watched Danny, her ex-boyfriend, run off with the polar opposite of herself; she's scared by a possible pregnancy with Kenickie. But she defiantly looks them all up and down and decides she knows herself better than anyone, so screw everyone else.
Thus, Vanessa Hudgens had her work cut out for her — especially because she revealed early Sunday that her father died this weekend of stage 4 cancer, and she would be dedicating her performance to him.
Though Hudgens acquitted herself well during "Sandra Dee" and assorted sarcastic scenes, her version of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" was astonishing. Not only does Rizzo's alto range suit her, but Hudgens looked as comfortable as she ever has while striding through the school's hallways as Rizzo, singing her heart out about how everyone around her thinks she's trash. Hudgens had intimidating shoes to fill, but she did as well as could be expected, and then some.
The musical's pat ending tells you otherwise, but "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" isn't about a dumb boy; it's about Rizzo staring down her own reputation and trying desperately to maintain her tough-as-nails demeanor when she starts feeling small.
It is, in other words, a rare moment of maturity in a show that could lose a full hour if it cut pelvic thrusts. If Grease Live had more moments to work with like "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," it might have been truly special — but there was only so much it could do when the musical itself didn't have anything else to give.
Grease Live can be watched right now on Hulu.