As was established in the 1970s and remains true today, Grease is the word. It’s a word that launches its original audiences into nostalgia for the 1950s. It’s a word that invokes happy memories of the ’70s for teenagers of that era who first saw the film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
But before the film, the original Broadway show tapped into the seemingly easy days of America midcentury. From American Graffiti in theaters to Happy Days on television, the tough but tender characters in leather and poodle skirts were all the rage 20 years later. Grease brought that energy to the stage for years before a film version was even considered.
From New York to Fort Wayne
And it’s that stage version which will hit Williams Theatre at the end of this month. Although a couple of songs written especially for the film will not be featured, the songs made famous by the original stage musical will be there in all their glory, including “Summer Nights,” “We Go Together,” “Greased Lightning,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
“We are using the original Broadway script and score,” said James Stover, assistant professor of acting and musical theatre at Purdue Fort Wayne’s Department of Theatre and the director of the university’s production of Grease. “We had some academic reasons for doing that and decided the original was better for an academic setting. So most of the songs people know and expect will be there, but the version we’re doing is from the original New York stage production because it lends itself to an artistic interpretation that is what we study and explore with our students here.”
Stover concedes that, unlike many musicals, the film version is the one most connected in people’s minds compared to shows like Chicago and Into the Woods that, while successful in the cinema, are far better know by audiences who attend live theater.
A couple of musical numbers here and there aren’t the only changes for those who know only the film version of Grease.
There’s also a matter of Sandy’s background (she wasn’t Australian pre-Olivia) as well as the ages of the actors on stage. (Newton-John was 29 when the film was released; Stockard Channing, who played Rizzo, was 33.)
“It’s true that our cast will be younger than many that people have seen,” Stover said. “Even the live version of Grease that aired on television a couple years ago featured a cast that was mostly in their 30s. The age of the characters and the cast is important because we talk a lot about the drama and the conflict that people face during that time of their life and how they can define who you are.
“We just had a super fun night at the Homecoming basketball game where we performed at halftime and did the ‘Hand Jive’ number. All that fun is in the show, but then we find our way to the analytical work. This generation is the first generation where the media impacts how they live their daily lives and how they see the world. They all have the presence of social media which affects the way they live, and that’s had a huge affect on young people now.”
A new social order
Perhaps not coincidentally, that same fear of a new social order pushing kids in a new direction is at the heart of Grease. Seeing the effect these influences were having on high school students caused the same concerns then that social media causes now.
“Parents hated rock n’ roll,” Stover said. “It was changing their kids, and for the first time parents weren’t the only major influence in their kids’ lives.”
It’s hard to imagine now how shocking Elvis Presley was to parents in 1956 when he burst onto the scene, but it was a revolution and one that was to inform and energize music forever after. Looking at the context of that revolution is part of the charm of Grease.
“I think people love the innocence of it,” Stover said. “Grease seems to have a tough, hard edge with some of the young people seeming very tough in some ways, but it was still a very innocent time especially when you consider that just 10 years later we’d have Woodstock and the Summer of Love. The 1950s have a sheen of America that is still very innocent.”
The music and story are very central to the popularity of Grease, but the dancing — especially that “Hand Jive” celebration — is also iconic and important to the show. The show demands a cast with acting, singing, and dancing chops.
Helping Stover with the latter is choreographer Brad Willcuts, a guest artist who Stover said is an assistant professor of musical theater at Michigan State University and a professional choreographer who has worked on Broadway and extensively in professional regional theatre.
The songs also allow for a slightly different sound than some of the more classic Broadway musicals.
“We really needed our students to do a pop sound for the show,” Stover said. “We really needed to teach how to get that pop sound so that it’s clear and pure.”
Stover said that with a cast well acquainted with the show before becoming part of this production, he hopes audiences will enjoy this high-energy, well-loved musical.
“We know many people are coming in expecting the musical that they grew up with,” Stover said. “This may be a different version, but we’ve tried to create a show that gives the audience an opportunity to enjoy the show in a new way, and it’s been neat to reinvent the show for audiences who see it.”
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