Kathleen Marshall is dealing with durability these days, finding a new way to tackle Grease, a pop staple of musical theater for more than 30 years.
Born in Chicago in the early 1970s, Grease, a raucous celebration of 1950s high school life, has never really disappeared. Critics may not have embraced it, but it has spawned two long-running Broadway productions (the 1972 original and a 1994 revival), a hit movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and countless stock, foreign and amateur incarnations.
Now Marshall is shepherding the musical back to Broadway in a $10-million production that had its Danny and Sandy - Max Crumm and Laura Osnes - chosen this year on an NBC reality series, Grease: You're The One That I Want.
"The TV show did exactly what it was supposed to do: find us two talented, young, fresh people to play these parts," says the director-choreographer, who along with the musical's lead producer, David Ian, and co-creator, Jim Jacobs, were the show's judges.
"It also has brought a whole new audience to the Broadway show," Marshall says before a matinee preview performance. The show officially opens Aug. 19.
"I talked to one family - father and son - and they said they were going to take their family vacation in Hawaii, but the kids loved the TV show so much that they decided to take their vacation in New York instead. I figure, if we get audiences hooked, if they have a good time, they will come back. Maybe they will experiment and see a show they haven't heard of before."
Marshall, a two-time Tony winner, says she has had an advantage as Grease's latest commander in chief. She never saw the Broadway original or revival. She did see the movie in high school.
"I'm approaching Grease like it was a new show," Marshall says. "Even though, obviously, it's a musical that's really well-known and beloved, it's still kind of fun to say, 'Okay, let's get to know the story and these characters and figure out who they are.' "
Who they are include bad boy Danny Zuko (Crumm), the virginal Sandra Dee stand-in Sandy Dumbrowski (Osnes), bad girl Betty Rizzo (Jenny Powers) and the rest of the gang at Rydell High.
Introducing an era
Marshall examined the musical, written by Jacobs and Warren Casey, with a meticulous attention to period detail and to the actors she has chosen to inhabit a specific era. She did a lot of research for her young cast (14 are making their Broadway debuts). "A lot of them weren't even born when the movie came out in 1978," Marshall says.
Marshall and her production team created a library of DVDs for the cast to watch. Classic '50s/early 1960s teen-flavored flicks such as Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, The Young Savages and Rock Around the Clock. There were CDs, too, featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bill Haley and the Comets, Bo Diddley, Connie Francis and Chuck Berry.
"We put together research boards on the walls of the rehearsal room - all about car culture, teenage dating at the time, clothes, where (kids) would hang out and more," Marshall says.
Although she loved doing the research, Marshall says it's the characters and actors portraying them who really count.
"We've got a lot of fresh faces in the cast, and they range in age from their early 20s to early 30s," Marshall says. "The great thing about the TV show is that we could just cast the best people for all the rest of the roles. There was no pressure about big names."
Grease purists - there must be a few - will be surprised to discover that this latest revival is not a replica of the original show.
"This is the first Broadway production that has permission to use songs written for the movie," Marshall says. Four have ended up in it: the title song, Sandy, Hopelessly Devoted and, of course, You're the One That I Want.