Originally published Feb. 4, 2004, in Mountain Xpress| (c) Mountain Xpress, 2004
Well-oiled musical continues peppy, preppy, Grease-y mythologizing
In the dried-up summer of ’78, I sat in a chilly three-screen theater in a baking Carolina town, peering up wolfishly at Olivia Newton-John’s modest backside contoured in skin-tight, shiny-black leather.
My companion, also then age 12, resoundingly agreed that the petite, doe-eyed Aussie pop singer was, like, the ultimate, y’know, I’d bang her, well, yeah, y’know, I would, too.
Though in truth, Newton-John’s polished posterior was merely a dab more Grease on the cake for my childhood buddy, who would, in later years, lose most of his hair and open a carpet business.
Because my former pal loved it all – the movie musical’s whole faux-’50s milieu: Happy, rock ‘n’ rollin’ Rydell High, with its weary principal and ditzy staff. The bad-ass T-Birds, and those spunky, French-inhaling Pink Ladies. The conflicted, I’m-not-a-lover-I’m-a-fighter-no-I’m-a-lover Danny Zuko. The climactic race at Thunder Road. And, oh, all those double entendres – that is, the penis jokes (that is, those few of them that my adolescent acquaintance actually understood).
But beyond Newton-John’s emboldened behind, I myself could have mostly cared less. Mostly.
“Grease” may have been the word, as the movie’s theme song has it, but I was never all that compelled to speaks the language.
Which put me distinctly in the minority: Since the film version came out back in that bygone summer, it’s pulled down in excess of $400 million – and done a lube job on popular taste.
What’s that word again?
Soundtrack songs clogged the airwaves in late 1978: the Frankie Valli title cut, along with Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and her duets with John Travolta (“You’re the One That I Want,” “Summer Nights”).
As for Travolta, a veteran of the Broadway production that inspired the hit movie: He was suddenly a matinee idol (the popular press dubbed his dimpled, duck-tailed Danny as “dreamy”).
And Newton-John as the prim Sandy Olsen: My college buddy Larry “Bug” Wooten, a Hank Jr. fan who collects Japanimation paraphernalia, maintains a crush on the pint-sized pop thrush to this day.
The film Grease came out on DVD not quite a year-and-a-half ago (should you need to, you can now still-frame Newton-John’s can-can like you never could-could before). Meanwhile, the current revival of the original musical is booked through July in venues nationwide, stopping next week in Asheville.
Because America can’t get enough of its own overblown myths, especially when those iconic tales buff out our culture’s defining rough edges, and everyone involved just struts and sings and hugs and gets the girl or guy in the end.
And in that, we’re hardly alone: In a recent poll by British TV’s popular Channel 4, Grease topped the list of the UK’s favorite musicals of all time. The Irish Examiner reported that the ’50s send-up “pipped” even The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz.
Fans of the film face some surprises upon first seeing the stage version. Some songs are different (“Grease” has never actually been the word on Broadway, for instance, while the butts-aft stage favorite “Mooning” was never bared in the movie).
The story line, too, is slightly changed. While the film is disproportionately skewed toward leather-jacketed Danny Zuko’s love for preppy Sandy Olsen, and Sandy’s tough-‘n’-sexy turn to win her bad-boy man, the touring musical is more democratic in its focus.
“In the stage production, you get to know the individual greasers [better],” Jacqueline Colmer, who plays Rizzo, noted by phone from a Texas tour stop. “It’s really more of an ensemble piece.”
More time is given, for instance, to Rizzo’s pregnancy scare with Kenickie, Danny’s best T-Bird buddy. And the film’s Sandy Olsen becomes, on stage, Sandy Dumbrowski, arriving at Rydell High not from Australia, but from a cloistered Catholic school.
Danny’s conversion from greaser to track star to try to win Sandy’s love is also given greater play on stage, a veritable feminist coup.
“I think there’s a compromise in our show,” Colmer muses. “I don’t think it’s necessarily just the woman changing for the man.”
Rizzo is the word
Ah, Rizzo. I blame her for so very much.
Because she’s just so distinct from the rest of the Brylcreemed-and-bouffanted bunch. As portrayed in the film by Stockard Channing, Betty Rizzo is that archetypal bad girl hiding a tender, troubled heart. Her bruised maturity and filthy mouth had me chasing her, so to speak, for years.
She’s truly a hoot to play, confirms Colmer.
“Rizzo does what she needs to do, and she’s not afraid to ask, and she pretty much gets what she wants,” explains the Boston Conservatory of Music-trained singer. “She’s my kind of girl.
“People just love her.”
Which leads me, unfortunately, to reveal my own persistent affections.
Colmer is unfazed. After having played Rizzo some 400 times in the past two years, she must be used to such midlife-man true confessions.
I guess I should be grateful. The real Rizzo would have blasted me with sarcasm, then hung up.
Her character has so many different levels, Colmer suggests
“I think she’s really tough, but she’s also very sensitive and very vulnerable, and I appreciate that about her. Where the audience might see her sarcasm and her bitterness, there’s clearly a lot under that.
“I think it’s always fun to find out what’s really going on in those kinds of characters,” Colmer continues, “as opposed to … just being the ingénue.”
So, I ask bluntly, is it more fun to play the bad girl?
There’s a long pause – maybe Colmer hung up after all?
Then, finally, “Yes.”
Sidebar: Random oil spots
• The original musical, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, began as community theater in Chicago in 1971. Grease opened on Broadway a year later, on Valentine’s Day.
• The current stage production includes nearly 60 wigs, and exhausts about 10 cans of hairspray in one week of shows.
• Among the performers who’ve appeared as Danny on the Great White Way: Richard Gere (the Chicago pretty boy first understudied on Broadway, playing the lead T-Bird in a 1973 London production) and Patrick Swayze (that, y’know, great American singer).
• As Sandy: Debbie “Only In My Dreams” Gibson (as if Newton-John wasn’t squeaky-clean enough).
• As Rizzo: Rose O’Donnell (that’s just wrong), Brooke Shields (in a different way, even, well wronger), Debby Boone (as wronger as you can get) and Xena babe Lucy Lawless (not that‘s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!)