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Olivia Newton-John, bringing ‘Grease’ to Tampa, talks Travolta and more

The forever Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko will reunite for a sing-along screening on Saturday at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.

Olivia Newton-John has flown with John Travolta. And not just in Greased Lightning, the vintage Ford De Luxe they rode into the clouds as the credits rolled on Grease.

Over the past 41 years, they’ve traveled across continents to promote projects, speak on panels or just get around via Travolta’s private air fleet, some of which he keeps at his home and private runway near Ocala.

“I feel safe,” Newton-John said, laughing about her experiences flying with Travolta. “We just have a great friendship, and a long one.”

But Newton-John and Travolta have never touched down together like they will this weekend in Florida.

On Dec. 13 in West Palm Beach, Dec. 14 in Tampa and Dec. 15 in Jacksonville, Newton-John and Travolta will reunite for their first-ever Grease sing-along screenings and fan Q&As.

At Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, they’ll sit down with Grease director Randal Kleiser and original T-Birds Barry Pearl (Doody), Michael Tucci (Sonny) and Kelly Ward (Putzie) as thousands of fans sing along to some of the biggest singles in cinematic history: Summer Nights, Beauty School Dropout, Greased Lightnin’, We Go Together and You’re the One That I Want.

But the stars of the show will be Danny and Sandy themselves, live in person, still going together like two of a kind, dip-di-dip-di-dip, doo-wop, da-dooby-doo.

“I’m very fortunate to have that," said Newton-John, 71. “To be remembered and beloved 41 years later is pretty amazing, and I can’t think of a better person to be linked to than John."

The idea for these “Meet 'n' Grease” events came straight from the two stars, who originally wanted to do something to celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary last year. That plan got nixed when Newton-John was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer for the third time since 1992. The disease spread to her sacrum, a bone at the base of her spine; a resulting fall left her with a broken pelvis. (Today, she said, she’s feeling “very good, thank you.")

Why revive the Grease revival now?

“Why not? People still love it,” Newton-John said. “It’s still the same movie it always was. People’s interpretations will change, but the movie is pretty simple: Boy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back. People love that. And I think they identify with the different characters in it. It’s fun, and the music’s great. Compared to movies that are out now, it’s very tame. At the time, it was probably a little naughty. But now, it’s like a cartoon."

Florida is a natural fit for these first few shows. Travolta, a longtime Scientologist, spends a lot of time near the church’s home base in Clearwater, and Newton-John has a home in Jupiter. And she has long served on the board of advisers at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, which often brings her to local galas and fundraisers. Namesake H. Lee Moffitt is a close friend and adviser — Newton-John said he’ll be at the Tampa show — who helped her set up her own cancer and wellness center in Australia.

From left, Florida's then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, H. Lee Moffitt and Olivia Newton-John visited during the 17th annual Magnolia Ball on April 24, 2010, at the A La Carte Pavilion in Tampa.
From left, Florida's then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, H. Lee Moffitt and Olivia Newton-John visited during the 17th annual Magnolia Ball on April 24, 2010, at the A La Carte Pavilion in Tampa. [ AMY SCHERZER | Tampa Bay Times ]

And lately, Newton-John has been in a mood to look back. This fall, she sold her personal memorabilia collection, including many Grease items, through an auction that raised a reported $2.4 million, much of it benefiting her cancer center. (Another fun local connection: The tight black pants Newton-John wore at the end of Grease sold for $162,500 to Spanx founder Sara Blakely, a Clearwater native and Grease superfan who hired Newton-John to sing at her wedding.)

“Everything from Grease has been passed on, moved on — someone else will enjoy it, and I can always look at the pictures,” she said. “It really wasn’t difficult. They were in a closet, and I really didn’t think about them, to be honest, until the idea of the 40th anniversary came up. I thought, gee, it’d be a great idea to sell the jacket and pants for my cancer wellness hospital in Australia, and then it kind of grew into a bigger thing. It’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to do something that has purpose — and also clean out my closet.”

While this weekend’s events are billed as sing-alongs, don’t expect Newton-John to actually, y’know, sing along. She may be one of the top-selling vocalists in pop history, but her health battles have meant she hasn’t performed live in more than a year. She hasn’t decided if she ever will again.

“My voice could be back in shape pretty quickly. I’m just not sure I want to yet," she said. "I’ve had some time off, and I’m kind of liking it ... I’m enjoying being at home more, being with my animals, spending time with my daughter.”

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in a scene from the 1978 film "Grease."
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in a scene from the 1978 film "Grease."

Newton-John and Travolta plan to get together before the shows to hash out some broad talking points, but for the most part, they’d rather hear what fans want to know. Maybe it’ll be about Grease. Maybe it’ll be about her music or his other movies. Maybe it’ll be about their lives in Florida.

If nothing else, it’ll be fun to hear out loud just how hard Grease fans still 'ship Sandy and Danny.

“For the last 20 or 30 years that I’ve been touring, I’ve seen different generations of people come to my shows," she said. “Then they bring their kids, and then they bring their kids, and so you’ve got my age group plus the little ones that have just discovered the movie, and it just keeps going. It’s amazing. It’s timeless.”


$20 and up. 7 p.m. Dec. 14. MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. (813) 740-2446.