Join us this season as we pull back the curtain and invite you to take a peek at the process of creating a show. This issue of “Creative Conversations” is a message from our Producing Artistic Director, Jeremy Scott Blaustein.
“We’re facing a world of deep socio-political change and ethical responsibility… so, why in the world are you doing GREASE?”
As both the show’s producer and director, this is a question I have asked myself many times. With theatres across the country finally on the brink of reopening, we find ourselves dealing with two simultaneous crises – the lingering effects of a devastating pandemic, and gross racial inequality. But is the show’s popularity reason enough to explore how it might function in modern times?
To begin, this title was selected for a number of reasons beyond mere popularity, chief among them was a strict set criteria set by current COVID protocol — limited cast with no ensemble comprised entirely of current or our recently graduated student body that features limited or no adult roles with a modest production budget pulling as many elements as possible from existing stock. As you may surmise, our choices for this year were somewhat limited.
Through our modern lens, some social elements of the show can feel repellent (misogyny, sexual aggression, and humor derived at the expense of others). But what continues to attract me to the show is its central theme — a group of “rebellious” teens influenced by a changing culture that’s given them a voice with which to challenge the status quo. That still sounds pretty relevant to me. What feels at times uncomfortable, however, is the way in which that message is delivered. I have to keep reminding myself – this is a period piece and must be viewed with proper historical context. This show represents a piece of our nation’s history – a time that is often too fondly remembered by hyper-idealistic sitcoms of its era (I’m looking at you, “Leave it to Beaver”). Grease is a satire that was intended to throw mud in the face of the likes of Donna Reed. It serves as definitive proof that the 1950’s weren’t all bubble gum and chocolate malts – there was also racial segregation, the Korean War, the Polio epidemic, and the rise of censorship through McCarthyism. “Gee, whiz,” indeed…Grease is merely one among the many titles in the theatrical canon that can be considered problematic by today’s standards — there’s also Carousel, The Pajama Game, Thoroughly Modern Millie among countless others. So, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, what can be done to keep this show relevant for a modern audience — all without compromising the author’s original intent? Quite a bit, as it so happens.
The conversation regarding the show’s potentially reductive politics has been at the forefront of all creative meetings. We have sought and hired as racially diverse a cast as was possible from this year’s pool, we have not cast any role based on body type, we have lowered the age of the character Vince Fontaine so that his advances on Marty are no longer predatory. Any questionable dialogue, while not entirely redacted due to contractual obligations, will be an ongoing discussion with both our cast and our audiences (as previously mentioned, this a period piece and must be viewed as such with proper context). And, importantly — Sandy’s journey is one of discovering self-confidence and embracing her sexuality, ultimately finding freedom by rebelling against who she’s always been forced to be (it was, in fact, the author’s intent for Sandy’s “transformation” to foreshadow the sexual revolution of the decade to come). But she’s not just going to change to get her man, because… blech.
Because of our company’s roots in the educational experience, we believe these conversations remain essential – not just with our audiences, but also with our young artists. We have a responsibility to dig below the surface and not accept this (or any) show merely at face value. That exploration is how we learn as a theatre and as a community.
But is this enough? Frankly, we don’t know yet. This is, as all theatre tends to be, an experiment. We cannot determine if said experiment will succeed or fail until an audience either claps or boos. But it remains my hope that the finished product will address any preliminary concerns and not prove antithetical to positive change, but instead will spark dialogue by encouraging our company and its audiences to dig a little deeper than what they had presumed. Is Grease still relevant? There’s only one way to know for sure: come and see! And please feel free to seek me out in the lobby afterwards so that this important conversation may continue.