So, here I am — a millennial directing a cast of Gen Z in a show about the baby boomers that’s beloved by Gen X. And I’m left wondering: “What has caused the legacy of ‘Grease’ to be so enduring?” The nostalgia that its authors intended to elicit upon the show’s premiere in 1971 has, over time, been supplanted by nostalgia for the show itself — people aren’t coming to see “Grease” because they love the 1950s anymore, but simply because they love “Grease”. The original Broadway producers were equally surprised by this phenomenon. In their minds, they had presented a show custom-fit for the boomers, but it was actually the boomer’s kids that helped propel “Grease” to become the longest running show in Broadway history (albeit for a brief period, as it was quickly surpassed by “A Chorus Line” in 1983) and the highest grossing movie musical of all time. To answer the question of its enduring popularity, let’s take a look at its origins, which are as interesting as the show itself!
Authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey found inspiration for “Grease” while attending a cast party with friends in the early 1970s. As someone put on yet another record, they lamented that they’d grown weary of the long, esoteric rock of that era — meditations like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly with a runtime of 17 minutes and 5 seconds (certainly long enough for a DJ’s to push “play” and then head out for a smoke and a coke). Their show, or so they imagined, would harken back to the bygone days of their own mis-spent youth, when rock music was still in its infancy and was, if not simpler, at least shorter.
With the piece, they aspired to create a satirical glance at an era too fondly remembered for being “clean.” They modeled its characters after their own friends; in fact, Jim Jacobs can still point out the house in Chicago that was once inhabited by the “real Rizzo”. Further inspiration was then drawn from popular media of that era — in particular the teenage exploitation films (or B-Movies, often directed by Roger Corman) that were popular fodder for back seat bingo at the drive-in. Films that centered around the theme of juvenile delinquency like “Teenage Devil Dolls”, “Drag Strip Riot”, and “High School Hellcats” were more than rife for parody (frankly, they still are — just look them up on youtube). The show had not yet been completed when it went into rehearsals.
According to Jacobs, the first production of “Grease” was performed in a barn with its audience seated on newspapers (if that story is to be believed; “show people” do, after all, have a flair for embellishment). The production turned out to be a surprise smash hit and its run was extended multiple times. Two Broadway producers heard tale and ventured to Chicago to see what all the fuss was about. They instantly recognized its particular brand of magic, and after some brief negotiations — including the elimination of some of the script’s more colorful language to make the show more family friendly — an immediate transfer to New York was planned.
Even after its success in Chicago, no one knew how the show would be received in New York. There’s a common misnomer that New York audiences are more sophisticated, and that would mean the kiss of death for a show so deceptively simple. After all, “Grease” was never intended to be a critical darling. In his review of the original Broadway production for the New York Times, critic Clive Barnes concluded by saying, “If there is a place in New York for a modern 1950s rock parody musical from Chicago, then ‘Grease’ might well slide into it. If there is a place. The first-night audience seemed genuinely to enjoy it, so perhaps there is.” So, as expected, he didn’t much care for it – but he recognized that the audience did. Thanks to it’s overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth, a line formed at the box office that would last for 4 years. With the fervent support of its decidedly blue-collar crowd, “Grease” had officially joined the pantheon of shows declared as “critic-proof”, to which the modern era has added such titles as “Wicked” and “Mamma Mia!” They represent an egalitarian theatre for the people, not necessarily appreciated by the hoi polloi.
With the staggering amount of attention the show had garnered in Chicago and New York, it wasn’t long before Hollywood wanted its cut. Some changes were to be made. For starters, “Sandy Dumbrowski” – the formerly All-American girl at the center of the show – became Australian transplant “Sandy Olsen” after Olivia Newton John landed the role. John Travolta was cast as Danny, having previously performed in the national tour of “Grease” and still white-hot from his turn in “Saturday Night Fever” one year prior. The film adaptation became the highest grossing movie of 1978 and the highest grossing movie musical of all time, surpassing even “The Sound of Music” – a record it still holds to this day.
So, why is “Grease” still so popular? Well, the music is great. But also, no matter how far removed we get from the subjects at the show’s core (the 1959 graduating class of Rydell High would be 80 years old today), audiences of every era still seem to recognize themselves in those loud-mouthed teens demanding their rightful place in this world. The show represents an innocent rebellion — one that is infinitely relatable to anyone who has ever rolled their eyes at their own mother, whether intentionally or otherwise. These aren’t “bad” kids, per se – especially not by today’s standards. Irritating sometimes, offensive in others, sure – but the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys represent something truthful about an aggressively awkward adolescence. We’ve all been there.
Perhaps Edwin Wilson, then critic for the Wall Street Journal, put it best in his review of the original Broadway production:
The 1950s was a transitional period for growing up in this country. The time just after World War II was not too different from that just before: Values had been held in suspense during the war, and when it was over people wanted to reassert them and pick up where they had left off. In the 1950s, however, there was a stirring among young people, a restlessness of more than seasonal proportions. They were standing on a threshold, just before starting on the road which eventually led to hippies, the counterculture, and the new freedom.
No one knew that at the time, of course, especially the young themselves. They felt the desires, confusions, and frustrations all teenagers feel, not realizing they were poised so precipitously between the old and the new. It is this tension which has been caught so remarkable well in “Grease”.
It is straightforward and unsentimental. And it is all there: the vulgarity, the letting down the bars, the open rebellion, but still only as a glimmer in the eyes of the young, and under the watchful eye of the home-room teacher.
Producing Artistic Director, Jeremy Scott Blaustein