Before Clearwater show, Olivia Newton-John talks legacy, cancer and that 'Grease' ending

Courtesy of Capitol Theatre
Courtesy of Capitol Theatre
Published Jan. 29, 2015

Women of a certain age saw Grease at least 20 times when they were in middle school and wore leg warmers to Jazzercize class as Physical pumped from a boom box — and now their own daughters are doing pretty much the same thing.

After 50 years in show business, Olivia Newton-John still finds new young fans in her audience, with kids singing along to Grease tunes or arriving in headbands after seeing her do a hilarious remix of Physical on Glee.

When she performs at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday, it will be filled with hopelessly devoted fans who have followed her career since the early '70s when she was one of the first country singers to cross over to pop and then was launched into mega-stardom in Grease.

Part of her Clearwater stop is a fundraiser for Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and her own namesake cancer center in Australia, for which she has raised close to $200 million.

"Lee Moffitt is my mentor," the singer said by phone recently of the lawyer and former legislator. "I'm so glad we finally got to be able to do a joint venture together."

The superstar was humbled with a breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, and became a tireless advocate for research. She also insisted that her cancer institute have a wellness center, with yoga, meditation, nutrition — the kind of support for the mind and spirit that was considered pretty "out there" when she was being treated.

"It's a different part of my legacy," she said of the cancer battle.

But you can't talk to Olivia Newton-John and not chat about Grease and the recent uptick in musicals both on TV and in movies.

Fox recently announced that Dancing with the Stars' Julianne Hough would take the role of Sandy in its live Grease to be broadcast next January.

"I think she's a great choice," Newton-John said. She's already played the innocent new girl seeking a fresh start in Safe Haven, she noted. And Hough shouldn't worry about being a 26-year-old playing a high-schooler, she said.

"I was 29 when I made Grease and I was really worried about it," Newton-John said. "But it's all relative, right?"

The 1978 film remains the highest-grossing movie musical ever.

But there have been feminist debates over the years that the ending in Grease — that Sandy changed for a guy — is a bad message. I confessed to Newton-John that I, too, never liked that ending until I read an interview with one of the co-creators of Grease, Jim Jacobs, who said in 2010: "It was a poke! A good old-fashioned razz against those ... Hollywood movies that turned the main guy into a fine, upstanding citizen."

I asked her if she ever looked at it as a girl-power moment.

"I've never really analyzed it," she said breezily. "I think it was just really funny. If you look how John (Travolta) changes for me, and he puts on a letter jacket — I don't know if there's anything deep in there. It's just a fun way to end a movie."