Grease: Live! Sets the Bar for Live Television Musicals

Angela Tricarico

grease live 3
AP photos

The bar for live television musicals has officially been raised by FOX’s live production of the 1971 stage musical and 1978 movie Grease.

Seen by over 12.8 million viewers nationwide, it became one of the most successful live musicals, only second to NBC’s The Sound of Music: Live! which aired in 2013. However, Grease: Live! was produced in a very different style than The Sound of Music had been, and it seems the style FOX went with is the one that is going to stick when it comes to making more live musicals for television.

Director Tommy Kail seemingly got everything right with this production. Kail, who also directed the Broadway smash hit Hamilton, was highly praised for the way he tackled Grease. The combination of film and stage musical elements worked well; for people only familiar with one medium, nothing was lost.

The set changes (over two soundstages and an outdoor set) were impeccably done, despite the thunderstorms they had to work with. The set design, done by David Korins, who is known for his designs of the sets for Hamilton, among other Broadway productions, felt very natural, unlike the hyper-staged sets that NBC’s musicals had used. Perhaps the most important piece of direction was with the live audience.    Having an audience took away a lot of the awkwardness of having actors singing their hearts out and not being met with the applause they deserve to get.

All of the iconic roles that Grease is known for were casted so well. Julianne Hough was perfect for Sandy, who was reworked the most through the process of going from stage to screen to small screen, but even then it wasn’t enough to change the character. Aaron Tveit, Danny, had chemistry with everyone. He was the exact brand of charismatic you’d expect from Danny Zuko. The supporting cast of T-Birds, Pink Ladies, and two specific nerds were all highly praised as well. Carly Rae Jepsen (Frenchy), Kether Donohue (Jan) and Elle McLemore (Patty Simcox) had infectious energy that made watching Grease so much fun. Carlos Penavega stepped into a big role as Kenicke, and he delivered, but the standout of the night was Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo. Hudgens lost her father to stage four cancer just hours before they were set to go live, and she decided to go on in his honor. It was an incredibly touching move.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical without music, and they delivered there too. Sometimes a live musical can be tricky to nail in the vocals department, and save for a few sound department errors, the vocals were definitely there. There were a number of Broadway veterans in the cast, including Palmer, Jepsen, Hudgens, McLemore and Tveit. The music of Grease is iconic and this served as a reminder . The choreography, at points, was identical to shots in the film. It included all the classics, from “Summer Nights” to “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to “You’re the One That I Want.” A new song was written by Pulitzer Prize winners Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey for Frenchy, and it was placed just before “Beauty School Dropout,” and while it wasn’t one of the greatest parts of the broadcast, it wasn’t the worst either.

The two biggest additions came from Keke Palmer (Marty) and Jordan Fisher (Doody). During the sleepover, Palmer sang a solo that was omitted from the movie, “Freddy My Love.” The set up was a USO show in her dreams, a dream sequence complete with the craziest, on-screen quick-change; a nightgown into a sparkly red gown, back into the nightgown she began singing the song in.

During “Those Magic Changes,” the entire country fell in love with Fisher. This was another song that didn’t make the cut in the film, but set backdrop to the montage of Danny trying sports in the gym set. It ended in a beautiful duet section between Fisher and Tveit. The song became the most downloaded one of the soundtrack following the production.

With NBC slated to make Hairspray their next live musical this winter, it’s going to be hard to top what Kail and FOX did with Grease. The bar has been set, and it’s a pretty high bar to try to surpass.