There’s a fine line between popular and inescapable, and Grease was BORN ubiquitous. First a 1972 stage show and later an immortal 1978 Olivia Newton John vehicle, Grease’s many songs about teen horniness are now more permanently ingrained in our collective conscience than “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But it’s like none of this was by choice? I’d never properly seen Grease in any form, but while watching Fox’s Grease Live! broadcast it occurred to me that I already knew all the songs and characters and storylines as though by heart. For better or worse, Grease is in our DNA and that’s the truth.
So what could a modern, live TV version possibly have to add to the Grease experience that wouldn’t feel familiar or tired or like a cynical grab for nostalgia-stained dollars? Previous live network TV musicals offered a range of approaches: The Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live! were ultra traditional but not particularly beloved, possibly because making either of those shows feel fresh or exciting was an impossible task to begin with. The Wiz Live! was pretty fantastic — mostly because its vivid cultural importance was baked in — but it also felt like a chintzy, pharmacy-grade cough syrup nightmare at times. So it was with no small amount of surprise and excitement that Fox took a whole other route with Grease Live! Not only is Grease as a musical just more inherently fun, the overall production was as ambitious and awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen on TV in, well, possibly ever?
The primary master stroke of Grease Live! was in how it basically acknowledged that nothing about the Grease story or even soundtrack is capable of surprise, so the producers doubled-down on spectacle and made it all feel celebratory. Grease Live! didn’t simply replicate a stage-show… It embraced the magic of television itself. Freed from the airless diorama soundstages of those previous network musicals, Grease Live! was filmed in or outside of 21 different locations scattered across the Warner Brothers backlot. It was so ambitious and sprawling that the actors needed to ride in golf carts between stages during costume changes, and these behind-the-scenes moments were included as part of the experience, and even more amazingly, incorporated into the climax of the show itself. So basically even if you know every syllable of every song already, wait ‘til you see them performed by a cast of hundreds while people race golf carts through a rainy outdoor carnival! From its scope to its youthful yet tasteful casting, to, yeah, the musical itself, Grease Live! felt sincere, inspired, and special in a way I was not personally prepared for. I didn’t want it to end.
Hey, let’s count the ways in which Grease Live! was wonderful!
1. That Bonkers Opening Performance of “Grease Is the Word”
After a brief flash of Danny and Sandy’s summer fling, Grease Live! took a turn for the ultra-meta by then unleashing British scream-singer Jessie J to trundle around the Warner Brothers backlot where she encountered crewmembers, fans, and even characters just hanging around in weird pairings. Boyz II Men featuring Ana Gasteyer? Why not! But the real question was, what on earth was going on here, and can every live TV event feel this fun? (Bonus points to the rare cameo appearance by Los Angeles rain! Couldn’t have chosen a better day to show up than the day a huge outdoor musical was going to aired on live TV!)
2. Julianne Hough as Sandy
The Sandy character has always been a slightly thankless role to pull off, which was perhaps why Olivia Newton John became so beloved for managing to make her likable and relatable. But aside from Julianne Hough’s starring role in the hilarious Nicholas Sparks comedy Safe Haven, she’d mostly only appeared in Us Weekly, right? Put simply, I had no idea who she was or what she was capable of, but now I know one thing: Lady can SING. We were wrong to doubt this.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy
Frenchy was always just a fascinating side-character, but I really enjoyed what Carly Rae Jepsen brought to her (aside from the array of pastel-colored wigs). While Jepsen definitely gave off nervous non-actress vibes and seemed to be working very hard at remembering her lines, it actually worked in her favor! Frenchy is a highly sympathetic character with relatable ambitions, so Jepsen’s more organic take made her seem less cartoonish than she is in the movie. Apparently Frenchy’s new original tune “All I Need Is an Angel” was written specifically for Jepsen, but let’s be real, it was definitely no “Call Me Maybe.” The unexpectedly poignant highlight of Frenchy’s arc was her brief scene with diner waitress Vi, played by original Frenchy Didi Conn. Again, Grease Live! knew when to get meta, and this winking moment added both subtlety and meaning to a familiar scene.
4. The Constant, Non-stop Homoeroticism
Duh. This IS Grease we’re talking about. As Danny, Aaron Tveit was maaaybe distractingly mature looking, but he was definitely a hunk who knew his way around a high-kick, so nobody’s mad.
5. Keke Palmer’s Incredible Show-Stopper
While Scream Queens had been Keke Palmer largest role so far, the actress’s show-stealing performance of “Freddy, My Love” was her truest star-making turn yet. First of all, Keke Palmer’s singing voice! Who knew? But in one of the production’s most dazzling moments, Palmer’s character Marty reminisced about reuniting with an overseas boyfriend as the camera tracked her seamlessly leaving a bedroom and suddenly appearing before a live audience where she performed USO-style for them (while slipping into and out of a sequined dress). Again, the song wasn’t even essential to the Grease story, but the staging and choreography (and obvious expense of it all!) brought a visual inventiveness to the proceedings that were both surprising and jaw-dropping. So, so good.
6. A Live TV Broadcast WITHIN A Live TV Broadcast
So meta it hurt — one of the more famous Grease set-pieces has always been the National Bandstand teen dance competition broadcast live from Rydell High’s gym. Obviously this was ripe for a riff, and we got a big one in the presence of Mario Lopez, who not only played the host of the show within a show, but also kind of hosted Grease Live! itself during commercial breaks? But at least a later joke about his heavy makeup explained why he was looking so frighteningly shellacked. (Also: Hey, Joe Jonas! Shout out to Fox for keeping so many of the Jonases employed lately!)
7. The Disappearing/Reappearing Audience
This will sound like a slight, but I actually found it very charming… Occasionally Grease Live! seemed to remember that the musical should be a communal experience, so after many of the songs an unseen audience cheered in approval. Which meant that for any scenes for which there wasn’t a live audience, it felt like the audience was sitting in stony, disapproving silence. If we’re being real, there probably should’ve been some semblance of a laugh track throughout — lord knows many of Grease’s jokes and double-entendres are cornier than any sitcom writing — but at least the occasional applause after the songs prevented it from feeling as dead-air-filled as those previous network TV musicals. Also, I appreciated that a couple hundred Grease fans were invited to sit in the bleachers to play students, but wasn’t it so weird that they were dressed like they were from 2016? Were they time-travelers? What a weird high school!
8. Boyz II Men Are Still Alive
Though Frankie Avalon’s performance of “Beauty School Dropout” in the movie is widely considered to be definitive and iconic, I appreciated the total curveball of casting no less than BOYZ II MEN for that role for the TV musical. Though these boyz are borderline elderly now (oh, their sad, shuffling choreography), between their appearance here and also their empty Vegas dressing room being featured prominently on last week’s Bachelor, Boyz II Men are relevant again! Hopefully behind the scenes they warned Carly Rae Jepsen against the dangers of accepting county fair gigs? That being said, I never expected I’d one day hear Boyz II Men beautifully harmonize the word “hooker,” and we are now all the richer for it.
9. Vanessa Hudgens, Hero
While it was noticeably strange to experience a Rizzo who did not appear to be in her mid-40s (here she was more of a mid-30s kind of gal), Vanessa Hudgens had all the right sass and pizzazz to bring everyone’s favorite bad-girl heroine to life. But whenever Vanessa Hudgens sang (as in the heartbreaking “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”), all that tough-girl posturing fell away to reveal a truly sensitive, vulnerable young woman. Again, the meta was a huge factor in this production, so the knowledge that Hudgens lost her father to cancer the day before couldn’t help but underline how incredible and meaningful her performance here was. Honestly cannot praise her enough.
10. The Golf Carts!
Will never stop thinking about those golf carts! In the night’s best “OMG THIS REALLY IS LIVE” moment (aside from some scattered mic issues), one of the castmembers’ golf carts hit a curb and very nearly toppled over right there on camera! Obviously it was a relief that nobody got hurt, but who among us wouldn’t have enjoyed at least some kind of live TV disaster? Truly what is the point of an overly impeccable live performance? Might as well pre-tape that junk. Give us more random accidents!
11. That Finale
Though Grease has a number of indelible tunes (which, again, many of us have listened to for years against our will), it saves its two most joyous songs for last. “You’re the One That I Want” is so diabolically wonderful it should be thrown in jail for crimes against our feels, and “We Go Together” should be tried as an accomplice. Grease Live! ended with both songs back to back, and they each soundtracked an impossibly joyful, Fellini-esque, literal carnival of a victory lap. This ten-minute sequence included complex, expertly executed choreography, set changes, costume changes, crowd work, the presence of American military (?), DRONE FOOTAGE, curtain calls, and was possibly one of the more rousing TV celebrations ever filmed. And they did it LIVE. Again, the scope and ambition on display were only outdone by the sincere emotions onscreen, and the incredible effect it had on me as a viewer. I didn’t know how much I needed it until i was seeing it.
I never thought I’d say this, but I think I love Grease now? I didn’t choose this life, it chose me. But if live TV musicals are going to be a thing now, we’d be lucky to have more of them be like this one. Honestly important television.
What did YOU think of Grease Live!?