Most Americans who know Grease are familiar with the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, which became the highest grossing movie musical. However, few are aware that the musical debuted on Broadway seven years earlier, garnered six Tony nominations, and went on to become the longest running musical in Broadway history (a record since broken). In 1994, the show was revived on Broadway and ran for another 1,500 performances. Currently, Grease is the most often produced show in regional, summer stock, and high school theaters.
Travolta and Newton-John are not the only actors to play the roles. The original Broadway Danny was Barry Bostwick, and the role was first performed in London by a then-unknown Richard Gere. Adrienne Barbeau, Brooke Shields, and Rosie O’Donnell have all played in stage versions of the musical as well. Now, two unknowns have the opportunity to star in a new production of the stage musical, courtesy of NBC’s new talent contest, Grease: You’re the One that I Want.
Unlike Idol or America’s Got Talent hopefuls, the contestants here have to be “triple-threats”: they must be able to sing, dance, and act. Each week, would-be Dannys and Sandys will do their best to convince the public and the judges — Grease co-creator Jim Jacobs, director Kathleen Marshall, and producer David Ian — that they are worthy of the prize. However, the new series fails to answer two important questions: why does the world need another production of Grease? And is the American public a credible judge of talent?
The second question is the greater concern. The public’s ability to separate talent from likeability is questionable at best. This is the same public that picked Fantasia over Jennifer Hudson and Emmitt Smith over Mario Lopez. It’s apparent from previous star searches that Americans are impressed by vocal tricks over subtlety. At one point in the premiere episode of Grease: You’re the One that I Want, Marshall mentions that she wakes up and wonders if she has made a huge mistake by agreeing to this casting process. She has good reason to worry. Were I the director of a $10 million Broadway show, I’d be extremely hesitant to trust casting decisions to the same people who made stars out of William Hung, Paris Hilton, and Afroman.
At least the judges get to pick the finalists from which America will choose. Fifty contestants from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York will go on to “Grease Academy,” where they will be trained and evaluated. From this group, the judges will select 12 to appear on live broadcasts. The first two episodes feature the large cattle calls, with Los Angeles and Chicago shown in the premiere episode and New York saved for Episode Two.
The first followed the usual audition episode format: contestants are highlighted, some good and some atrocious, with anywhere from two to 30 seconds of performance shown. Judges praise or quickly dismiss them, usually without Simon Cowellesque sarcasm (Jacobs was the most acid-tongued of the three, telling one of the older hopefuls that she looked like she was from the 1978 version of the show). Those whose singing gets the thumbs up get to come back the next day to learn a dance routine, and then the judges make their final decisions.
The contestants also tell stories. A few were touching (one young man was auditioning because it was his late brother’s dream to play the role of Danny), but most were mundane (“Gee, I wanna be a star”). Many competitors were clearly wrong for the parts they wanted — too old, too heavy, too dorky — and the judges cruelly approved some to come back for the next day’s dance test, knowing full well the misfits would never be cast.
A theatre director told me once that you can judge the quality of a show by how long it takes before you look at your watch. I was watching the clock 12 minutes into the 90-minute premiere. I hoped something would break the monotony of sappy stories followed by snippets of singing, but was disappointed. The few scenes of dance auditions were so rushed that it was impossible to get a sense of who had moves and who didn’t, save for one contestant, an ex-marine who was prominently featured, who looked completely out of his element.
I was also dismayed that the show relied so heavily on the film for examples of how Grease should look and feel. The new production will not be a revival of the original show, but a staged version of the film, which deleted some of the stage production’s songs and added three new ones: “Sandy,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and “You’re the One that I Want.” The TV series treats Travolta and Newton-John with such reverence — even stating that the film made them stars when both had well-established careers before Grease — that it seemed that the new production is hoping for Travolta/Newton-John clones, although the judges are surprisingly color-blind and have left the option open for a black Sandy or Latino Danny.
The devotion to the film version underscores the question of whether another production is necessary at all. If this one has nothing new to offer, why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier just to rent the DVD? Thirty-five years ago, Grease was fresh and different. Today, it’s overdone and tired. So is the television show it has inspired. Grease: You’re the One that I Want is indistinguishable from countless other star-search shows. In the end, Jacobs, Marshall, and Ian may get their perfect Sandy and Danny. But they could have done that through the usual casting process and saved us all from this tripe.