Why was 'Grease Live' so good? Here are three reasons
There is a reason every high school on the planet stages Grease the Musical. The Broadway show created in 1971 that later became the John Travolta-Olivia Newton John movie you know and love contains intensely likeable material, simple yet subversive stuff that when executed properly can send beams of joy out into the audience. Such it was with Sunday night's production of Grease Live, Fox's first foray into the live TV musical field.
It was a seamless, vibrant, energizing hit.
The Twitterverse in particular was full of praise for the three-hour production, which is saying something in the age of unlimited snark that has turned on other TV musicals like NBC's rather terrible Peter Pan Live! in 2014. As someone who credits the 1978 movie and soundtrack (both on loop during my formative elementary school years) with my deep love for musical theater, Grease Live made me giddy and excited in a way most TV (and, really, all media) does not. I think a lot of people watching at home felt the same way. Here's why.
Thomas Kail: Never heard of him? Get ready for that to change. Kail is the director of Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that will probably win him a Tony. He directed Grease Live, and deserves unending props for the way he turned what could have been a static, two-set production (looking at you, Peter Pan) into a living, breathing show that moved and grooved in and out of sliding sets. This show was a technical marvel, from the opening number that wound through the streets and backstage, to the whirling, acrobatic camera work, to the inspired set pieces and set changes (the Pink Ladies' sleepover turning into Marty's Freddy, My Love catwalk!). Kail had a vision for Grease Live, and everyone involved clearly understands the fundamentals of musical theater, and what makes the medium so exciting. (And you can tell they rehearsed a ton.) In particular, the choice to stage the show in front of a live audience seems vital to creating the kind of musical theater atmosphere that let this TV version shine. It pulsed with a palpable energy, no small feat for a show based on a musical/movie created 40 years ago.
Authenticity: There were many, many moments during Grease Live where the actors were essentially mimicking reactions, phrases and postures originated by Travolta and Co. And some set pieces were direct replicas of the ones in the movie. But, somehow, that made everything better. This production wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel; you can't, with a show like Grease. And so they leaned into the familiar, and because they pulled it off so well, it lent a level of authenticity to the show that was comforting and thrilling. And they built an actual, live carnival for the finale!
Casting: On paper, the cast of Grease Live looked kind of meh. In reality, everyone killed it, with one star-making turn after another. Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo? Keke Palmer's sultry, sassy Marty? Carlos Pena as Kenickie? Underrated American treasure Kether Donohue as Jan?! They were all great, and not in a high school musical kind of way, but in a way that was practically revelatory. And then there were Aaron Tveit as Danny and Julianne Hough as Sandy, the former a legit Broadway actor and the latter a really good dancer-turned-pretty good actor, coming together to form the show's core duet with such strong chemistry that I thought my TV was going to melt. Tveit is a babe with a heart of gold, which is essential for Danny, and he has the voice of an angel. (I also admired his commitment to the tiny white shorts a la Travolta during the sports montage. Very important stylistic choice.) Hough was blonde and naive and perky, and she did all of that while pulling off song after song with a surprisingly convincing singing voice. Also, Grease Live should forever be held up as a model for how to put together a diverse cast, in a way that felt natural and not showy. It seems like they simply cast the best people for the roles. What a concept.