Grease Live: With An Emphasis on the Live

For as much as live theatre is about the quality of specific performers or the strength of the material involved, it’s also about energy. There is an energy to song-and-dance performed onstage, and it’s an energy that has always been a central struggle for the recent revival of the live television staging of musical theatre.

Over the course of this recent trend, begun by NBC with The Sound of Music and now picked up by Fox with Grease Live, the various productions have been searching for how to tap into this energy when the conductive force of the audience is absent. The experience of seeing live theatre is in large part the experience of viewing it with other people, and not just in terms of being able to whisper reactions to the people around you. It’s about energy, a feeling in a room that you’re seeing a spectacle unfold before you or you’re being transported by an emotional ballad.

Social media can theoretically serve to bring the individual households tuned into one of these broadcasts together, but there isn’t the same type of energy, manifesting more as commentary than a natural emotional response. And while NBC’s musicals have evolved since The Sound of Music, this is one particular problem they’ve never quite solved: they have, by-and-large, been staging live theatre devoid of the energy that fuels it, hoping that what’s happening on the other side of the TV screens will cooperate without doing much to specifically address the issue. When Peter Pan build to its all-important audience participation moment, they accepted that the call would lead to no response in many cases.

And so when they announced that Grease Live would include a live audience, it seemed—on paper, at least—to be an effort to replicate this energy more directly. But whereas I imagined this as having an audience reacting to the production as one would at an actual theatrical production, it wasn’t like that at all. The vast majority of scenes went by without any audience reaction at all, with the audience only making appearances in selected large crowd scenes.

It was a decision I found confounding at first, but over time I started to realize that it was a byproduct of a central decision made by the production—led by director Thomas Kail—when it came to what they were making. Rather than a live staging of a theatrical production, Grease Live is the first real “television musical” to emerge from this era, designed from top-to-bottom to embrace the energy of watching live television.

And in the process, they managed to capture some of the energy of live theatre for good measure.

Grease Live’s biggest problem is crowd control. The presence of a live audience in certain scenes makes sense, and it was great—for example—in scenes like the pep rally or the school dance where there would naturally be a crowd of cheering teenagers (sorry, “teenagers”) present. In those moments, the crowd was a huge help in selling the scale of these events, and in capturing the energy of public occasions. But when you have cases like the cheerleading auditions that are somewhat strangely public, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the crowd to be cheering wildly for Sandy like they’re in the audience for Dancing with the Stars. And it’s even weirder when they’re heard during “Greased Lightnin’,” cheering each time the dancers break into a large move.

It’s the cheering that’s a problem for me. See, Grease Live didn’t have a live audience: they had a cheering section, who would scream at the end of numbers like they were at the Teen Choice Awards. They were like every live television audience, conditioned to respond positively to what is happening in front of them in ways that serve the goals of the producers involved. They were never allowed to react in ways that felt natural: there were a few muffled laughs every now and then in the Garage set that suggests there was a section of audience close to that area getting picked up by different microphones, but by and large they were there to cheer. And it bugged the hell out of me for a long time, especially given the way the cheers felt more for the actors—famous people—than it did for the characters. They weren’t cheering for Sandy or Danny, they were cheering for Julianne or Aaron, and that takes me out of the story.

However, over the course of the—admittedly long—production, my view on this started to turn. It should have been clear from the opening, which broke the fourth wall immediately after the green screen flashback to Sandy and Danny’s time at the beach. Jessie J’s trip through the production reinforces that this is, above all else, intended to be enjoyed as a production, staged for television and featuring the actors who have been tweeting and Snapchatting and Instagramming their rehearsal experience on Twitter; Hudgens even recorded a section of the opening live on air, posting it to her Twitter account in the opening minutes of the production. We are not being transported into the world of Rydell, so much as we are being transported into the experience of putting on a show.

It was distracting at first to see how committed the production was to acknowledging it was a production. The opening number—shot using a steadicam, working its way through one of the soundstages and toward the other—had spectacle on its side, but the throws to commercial featuring Mario Lopez went too far in violating the world being created. I felt the same about the “behind-the-scenes” bumpers that they used to go into other commercial breaks—as much as it was interesting to see how they pulled off Marty’s costume change, it seemed like a violation of the immersion that that very sequence had accomplished so effectively.

But as the production wore on, I realized that all of this—the over-excited crowd, the behind-the-scenes clips—tapped into the fact that the real “energy” of live television comes from its uncertainty and spontaneity. Rather than relying on the actual narrative of Sandy and Danny and their love affair to serve as a driving force for the narrative, Grease Live made “Grease, Live” the story of Grease Live.

And Grease Live was a rather astonishing television achievement. Not content to stage and film a theatrical production, which is tough enough in its own right, Grease Live feels designed to be seen on television, both in its scale and in the intricacy of its camera movements and production design. Thomas Kail’s direction can only do so much with the more talky parts of the musical, but it makes the big setpieces—the dance, the drag race, the finale, and the musical numbers in general—into showpieces of what happens when you take a step back and think about how to maximize the impact of these moments for the screen.

The National Bandstand sequence is especially impressive, both in terms of the sheer scale of the choreography—by Glee’s Zach Woodlee, who deserves recognition here as well—and in terms of how that scale was emphasized by the production elements. It was where the production’s self-aware performance of the technical elements began to settle in for me: the wide shots of the gymnasium are undoubtedly screaming “Look at what we’re pulling off,” but they also felt incredibly immersive, impressive in part because of how we couldn’t see any of the steadicam operators undoubtedly somewhere in that space. Similarly, the aesthetics of the National Bandstand broadcast—in scratchy black and white and 4:3 aspect ratio—manages to serve both as part of the diegesis and as a signal of the production’s commitment to the aesthetics of the production for the home audience. It was where I began to “get” the production’s specific energy—derived as much by the hustle of its crew as by its actors.

Once I was on this wavelength, Grease Live was on a roll. The Thunder Road sequence used a great combination of light and camerawork to provide an effective road race that never tries too hard to be “realistic” but lands anyway. And then you have “You’re The One That I Want,” filmed almost entirely in one shot with a steadicam, and you go back to see the same energy in “Freddy My Love” (the highlight of the first act over a pretty sleepy “Summer Nights”).

And once that wavelength is established, I wasn’t as annoyed when the crowd cheered for Vanessa Hudgens’ “What’s The Worst Thing I Could Do” like they’re at a High School Musical reunion, because the energy of the production is closer to that of a live concert than a film or TV show, culminating in another fourth-wall breaking bookend with “We Go Together.” And while we’re invited into the number through dashboard cameras on golf carts, it’s the curtain call that brings the energy full circle, the one moment in a theatrical production where the type of cheering present throughout Grease Live is completely natural and, given the impressive scale of this accomplishment, more than warranted.

This is not a perfect production—the first half needed to create more of its own energy, I do think the crowd could have been more controlled in the early going, and the new number added for Carly Rae Jepsen did nothing for her, her character, or the production as a whole. But the level of ambition in the production was consistently impressive, and its big swings landed so well that it was hard to deny its energy by the time it reached its conclusion. And I realized afterwards that this perhaps captures the energy of live theatre better than I had even realized: you sit in the crowd, and you may like some elements less than others, but at the end it’s hard not to admire the effort of the cast and crew involved in putting on a live production.

And this was, above all else, a technical achievement that sets a high bar for wherever the television musical goes next.

Cultural Observations

  • While far from the showiest of musical numbers, I thought “Those Magic Changes” did some nice narrative work, turning into a montage of Danny’s attempts to change for Sandy and proving a nice showcase for Jordan Fisher, who I know as “Seacat” in Teen Beach Movie because that name is ridiculous and I’ll never forget it.
  • While the rainy weather in Los Angeles moved elements of the production inside that might not have originally intended to be staged inside—I wonder about “Summer Nights,” for example, and I imagine “You’re The One That I Want” was originally supposed to be in the Carnival set outside—I thought overall it didn’t look like a production hampered by weather. A few more umbrellas, but nothing significant.
  • Outside of an audio cutout during the National Bandstand sequence that righted itself, the one technical snafu came with some static from microphones during “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” but my mother saw my tweet about mic issues and still didn’t notice it while DVRing, so it couldn’t have been too bad.
  • If I were NBC right now, I’d be taking a long and hard look at the plans to do Hairspray next—beyond also being set in a high school, it’s also a musical that has a well-known film adaptation that has expanded expectations of its scale that a more theatrical production won’t be able to match. And so it’s hard not to look at this as the logical template for that production (through the streets of a backlot for “Good Morning Baltimore,” etc.), and yet I have to think this was operating on a completely different scale budget-wise to the NBC musicals, and I don’t know if they’ll be as willing to shell out for this type of scale. And they’re gonna pale by comparison if they don’t.

 

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