Grease was the word on Sunday night — and Vanessa Hudgens was the star to watch, according to reviews from social media and established theater critics alike. The 27-year-old triple threat, portraying tough girl Rizzo, “brought her A-game,” “stole the show,” and “literally embodied” the famous Pink Lady, according to just a handful of reviewers. And none could help but add the detail that made Hudgens’s performance even more amazing: She had lost her beloved dad to cancer just one day before the show.
Hudgens (pictured above with her father) announced the news of her dad’s death on Sunday via Twitter. “I am so sad to say that last night my daddy, Greg passed away from stage 4 cancer. Thank you to everyone who kept him in your prayers,” she wrote in a tweet that has since been retweeted more than 28,000 times. She added, “Tonight, I do the show in his honor.”
In light of the young actress’s loss, viewers watched her with special fascination — and seem to have been particularly blown away by what they saw.
“So much of the audience watching Hudgens perform was willing to give her a pass if she fumbled a line or missed a step due to whatever else might be on her mind. But Hudgens didn’t need any benefit of the doubt. She was, to borrow a lyric from Grease, electrifyin’,” noted Vanity Fair. “But the actress was the most impressive especially when she tackled the emotional number ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do,’ the whole audience reading layers into the lyric starting with ‘but to cry in front of you…’”
Vanessa Hudgens, second from left, as Rizzo. (Photo: Fox via Getty Images)
As Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted after seeing Hudgens nail that number: “Imagine you had Vanessa Hudgens’ day, and doing that. What a superhero. In total awe.”
The tweets went on and on and have yet to stop flowing, with others calling her performance “heartbreaking,” “inspiring,” “incredible,” “brilliant,” “magical,” “unbelievable,” and one that “blew everyone away.”
The fascination around Hudgens’s triumphant performance may come down to one basic fact, notes Fredda Wasserman, clinical director of adult programs and education for Our House Grief Support Center, based in Los Angeles. “Grief is a mystery,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “No one talks about grief. It’s one of the most hidden phenomena — which is ironic and a little bit hard to believe, because everybody loses somebody.”
But it stays largely unknown, Wasserman says, because “people often don’t ask what it’s like, so we kind of keep ourselves in the dark.” People aren’t sure if it’s OK to ask bereaved people what it feels like, she explains, just as those who are grieving “don’t know if it’s OK to pour their hearts out, so they don’t.”
Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images
With Hudgens, Wasserman says, people are likely thinking her performance was “either the greatest thing, that she would honor her father like this, or they are saying, ‘How could she?’” The actress may have still been very much in shock and was “just going on autopilot,” with the possibility that in a few days or weeks her grief might hit her so strongly that she won’t be able to perform at some other juncture.
Connecticut-based psychologist Barbara Greenberg tells Yahoo Parenting that perhaps Hudgens was able to go on because she’d known her father’s days were numbered since at least August, when she announced his cancer publicly. “She had time to prepare, which I’m sure contributed to her resilience,” she says. “She maybe did even a better job because it was in honor of her father. It could’ve been therapeutic for her.” But, Greenberg adds, it’s important to realize that people have all different ways of grieving. “For all we know she is having a terrible time. But maybe when she’s throwing herself into her passion she’s OK,” she says. “People who are grieving aren’t necessarily grieving all the time.”
David Kessler, grief expert, author, and creator of Grief.com, believes that Grease: Live viewers were particularly taken with the unique image of grief Hudgens showed the world. “We love to see people give grief its due, and so many times we see it as crying or sadness rather than honoring,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “She showed us the honoring, and we connected with that inspiring performance.”
How she was able to do it, Kessler adds, could have simply been a dose of “healthy denial,” as well as strong motivation to give it her all for her father. “Some people want to make meaning out of loss, so, for instance, last night with this performance — like we see with sports figures, even at a high school game, when a player might lose his or her parent and want to play in the parent’s honor,” Kessler says. “It’s the mind making meaning for them. We all do it differently. Some may say, ‘I can’t go on.’”
For those who worry that Hudgens may not have given her grief its due, he offers reassurance. “Our grief will always sit on the shelf — she can do that performance and her grief will be there for her,” he says. “It’s no different than the family on a trip where the dad gets killed, and that mom doing what she has to do to get her kids back home. … We just do what we have to do, in work and in life, and can rest assured that our grief will be there waiting for us when we’re ready.”
(Top photo: Startraks Photo)