Long before I’d ever seen Astaire and Rogers tap their toes together on-screen, there was one song-and-dance couple that ranked very highly on my list of favorite screen pairs: those ’50s (by way of the ’70s) high school sweethearts, Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko. My mom was a huge fan of Olivia Newton John’s movies and introduced me to Grease when I was very young. I watched it about a million times over, knew all of the songs by heart, and hoped with all my might that when high school came around I’d have a chance to join the Pink Ladies.
I never did join the Pink Ladies, but I love the film just as much today as I did then, and covered it in my “Favorite things about…” series in 2013. Naturally, I was a little skeptical when I heard that there would be a live TV version produced, blending bits and pieces from the film with bits and bobs from the Broadway musical. Grease: Live aired a week ago, so now that we’ve all had time to catch up on it (for those who, like me, taped it rather than actually watching it live), I thought I’d share my thoughts.
I have mixed feelings about Grease: Live. There was a lot about it that bothered me. Jessie J’s version of the theme song seems to have been tossed in just to give a random pop star a chance to show off her vocals. I found the live audience obnoxious and distracting, though of course a large number of extras is appropriate for certain scenes, like the big carnival finale. They were just so loud.
There’s another thing that bugged me, which I find very common in productions like this. It’s nit-picky and I have a hard time describing it, but there’s something about the way the actors talk… like they’re enunciating to well, if that makes sense. Their speech sounds very formal. Their pronunciation sounds harsh rather than relaxed and natural. Aaron Tveit (starring as Danny) and Julianne Hough (starring as Sandy) are both offenders. They also both seem very much like actors playing parts rather than truly becoming immersed in their characters, which is a bummer since they’re playing the central pair.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole special was the addition of a new song, “All I Need is an Angel,” sung by Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy. It’s a total snooze-fest of a tune and doesn’t fit into Grease at all. It’s in a much different style than the rest of the songs on the soundtrack, and it isn’t period appropriate, either.
With all of that negativity out of the way, let’s get to the highlights. Since this is a television production, I was happy to see multiple sets from the back lot incorporated. It really seemed like the medium was used to its full potential — more static than a film or non-live TV special (see: the car racing scene) but less static than a stage production. I also liked the black and white “Bandstand” segments, shown with a different aspect ratio.
Though Grease: Live‘s Danny and Sandy kind of underwhelm, several of the supporting performances are good. I immediately liked the Pink Ladies — Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer, Carly Rae Jepsen (aside from that one song), and Kether Donohue. Donohue in particular is very funny as Jan, the oddball of the group. Elle McLemore is absolutely hilarious as Patty Simcox, offering my favorite performance from the entire special. Didi Conn makes an adorable cameo as Vi, the waitress played by Joan Blondell in the 1978 film. And Haneefah Wood as Blanche — that scene where she took her lost bra and seltzer and ducked under the counter had me dying!
The first of my favorite musical numbers would have to be Boyz II Men doing Beauty School Dropout. The jokes weren’t as biting as in Frankie Avalon’s turn as “Teen Angel,” but they sounded amazing. I also found Julianne Hough’s rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to be very nice.
So, there’s a lot that disappoints, but also quite a bit to like about Grease: Live. I’d be lying if I said my greatest takeaway wasn’t an immediate urge to re-watch the 1978 film, but I don’t feel like I wasted my time on this new version at all. I’d say it’s worth a watch if you’ve enjoyed this trend of made-for-TV musical specials.