Los Angeles Times
During a recent rehearsal for Fox’s live broadcast of the musical Grease, Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough waited for their musical cue to jump in the fray and gambol alongside a troupe of frenetic dancers.
The number was We Go Together, and during the rehearsal, the Broadway heartthrob and Dancing With the Stars alum tried their best to lock down those seemingly impossible shoo bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom movements as choreographer Zach Woodlee (Glee, Annie) hollered commands.
The couple were dressed in comfy, casual workout clothing, but come Sunday they’ll be doing these same moves during the live broadcast wearing black, body-hugging ensembles similar to those made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the 1978 film rendition of the musical.
“I used to steal the VHS tape from my parents’ bedroom because I wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies,” Hough said during a break from rehearsal. “I used to go down to the basement and mimic all the dances and sing the songs. And now look at me.”
Three years after NBC returned to TV musical waters with live renditions of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and recent The Wiz, Fox is diving in with Grease: Live at 7 p.m. Sunday.
As networks contend with shifting audience habits that increasingly favor time-delayed viewing, networks are scrambling to create events spectacular enough to battle the power of the DVR. Fox, perhaps of all the legacy networks, is a natural fit because it’s been the home base for musical powerhouses Empire, Glee and American Idol.
“Any time that you can send a message to a broad audience that there is something special happening, like live sporting events, where people are flying without a net and bringing a level of showmanship that you can’t have with a drama that’s been highly edited, is a good thing,” said Fox Television Group Co-Chairman Dana Walden, who noted her two daughters have done Grease at school.
The revamped-for-live-TV event features well-known names among the millennial set.
In addition to Hough and Tveit as leads Sandy and Danny, others donning leather jackets and poodle skirts include Vanessa Hudgens (Disney’s High School Musical, Broadway’s Gigi) as tough girl Rizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, Keke Palmer as Marty, Kether Donohue as Jan, Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie, David Del Rio as Putzie, and more.
The elaborate NBC productions rotated scenes on one New York soundstage; the Fox affair is even more ambitious, unfolding over two soundstages housing a number of sets. Production will also take place on a backlot for exterior scenes of Rydell High and the carnival grounds (during rehearsals, however, the lot was still the town of Rosewood seen in Pretty Little Liars).
“Ask me after it’s all over if I think the multiple soundstages was a good idea,” joked stage director Thomas Kail, known most recently for his stage work with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the smash Hamilton.
“I wanted it to feel vibrant and vital the way the film did,” he said. “I wanted locations that felt like real places that could ground us so when we lift off and go to the fantasy of Greased Lightnin’ or the Teen Angel arrives, you have something to depart from.”
The musical delves into the lives of working-class teenagers during the early 1950s rock ’n’ roll era. Originally a 1971 theater production in Chicago, the musical became a cultural touchstone when it was adapted for the big screen in 1978.
“When we first got together to do the photo shoot, I remember thinking, ‘Are we actually doing this?’ ” Hudgens said. “It’s sort of surreal to be a part of introducing this iconic musical to a new generation.”
Playwrights-screenwriters Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins were charged with writing the three-hour production, using the familiar film as a starting point. But they also worked in elements from the stage show — particularly since the film’s run time is 1 hour, 50 minutes.
“We had to figure out how to expand the show without it feeling drawn out and padded,” Tolins said. “And, of course, the other job was coming up with where to put 11 commercial breaks.”
Two songs from the original stage show — Freddy My Love and Those Magic Changes — made their way into the Fox production. Cary and Tolins found ways to play up Hough’s background by having Sandy dance more than she usually does.
The show also will feature an original song, All I Need Is an Angel, written for Jepsen’s Frenchy by If/Then duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. And given the show’s 7 p.m. start time, adjustments were made to some of the more suggestive lyrics in the soundtrack.
“I think we’re very much doing our own slant on it,” said the show’s live director, Alex Rudzinski, who has directed more than 500 hours of Dancing With the Stars. “It would be fickle to try to do a copycat live broadcast. This is a live TV production. If you get too close then all people will do all night is just compare take for take and you open yourself up for problems.”
The NBC productions were big ratings draws, but they also proved fodder for plenty of snark of social media. And if “grease” is the word, Grease: Live will surely be a conversation on Twitter. Good or bad, the cast say they’re ready for it.
“Sing along and enjoy it and maybe introduce it to someone new,” Hough said. “It’s inevitable that people are going to say stupid [expletive]. But I’ve had the best experience of my life doing this, and I don’t give a crap.”
Helping to make the production as seamless as possible is a crew of about 400 people and about 20 cameras. There will also be a second-screen element in which viewers can get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action during commercial breaks.
“Of course there’s going to be [problems] or people tripping up,” Rudzinski said. “But you try and step back from that and you try to be reactive to the problems we’re going to have.”
Since the live broadcast will be filmed partly outdoors, a 40-foot-tall, tent-like shield was erected to cover the exterior of Rydell High.
The show will also have a live audience that will play a role in the production at various moments (in bleachers during gym scenes, etc.).
In a passing of the Grease baton, Barry Pearl and Didi Conn (who played Doody and Frenchy, respectively, in the film) will make cameos.
As the new generation of Pink Ladies and T-Birds rehearsed the scene in which Danny and Sandy’s date at the Frosty Palace gets crashed by friends, Conn was off to the side observing with an ear-to-ear grin.
She’ll be playing Viola, the waitress at the diner. But as rehearsal wound down and Jepsen was the only one left at a table, she turned to Conn with her eyes beaming: “It’s so nice to meet you!” Jepsen said to her Frenchy forebear.
Conn, who still revels in her Grease days by hosting singalongs of the film, said being on set was almost like traveling back in time.
“The little Didi wants to come out and play Frenchy. But I’m a big Didi now,” Conn said. “It’s just so exciting. They really captured the DNA of the show — the friendship, the love. It touches the kid in everybody. I hope people just get up and dance along.”