When did you realize Grease: Live was killing it? Was it the start of “Freddy My Love,” when the camera swooned eye-to-eye with Keke Palmer at the precise moment she became a star? Was it “Born to Hand Jive,” when you watched a whole high school of swirling dancers and realized you actually cared about all these people, even Patty, even freaking Doody? Was it Vanessa Hudgens singing “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” the usually kinetic camera slowly moving into an intimate close-up while the light shifted to a noirish red around her? Was it when Carly Rae Jepsen’s hair changed color for the third or fourth time, or any frozen moment from Haneefah Wood’s performance as Blanche, a GIF-for-all-occasions sustained exercise in brilliant pantomime? Or was it that part of the opening number, when Wendell Pierce played a few toots on his trombone in what has to be as the world’s best (and first) homage to Treme?
Live events are the thing now, they say. But there’s a big gap between “something happening right now” and “something that’s happening.” For me, Grease: Live started happening right away, when the oddly Lubezkian camera followed Jessie J behind the scenes and into the dressing rooms. There were the Pink Ladies: Vanessa Hudgens, Palmer, Jepsen, You’re the Worst’s Kether Donohue. Hudgens held up a smartphone — and they posed for a selfie. The camera moved on, restless, out into the rain. El Niño couldn’t stop this beat. The dancers carried umbrellas; hey, it worked for Gene Kelly.
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I’m a human being, so I have fond memories of the 1978 big-screen Grease, starring peak Travolta and a movie-stealing Stockard Channing and a songbook that’s practically Great American for a world that only remembers the ’70s version of the ’50s. I knew that Grease: Live would incorporate elements of the movie and the original stage production. But director Thomas Kail transformed this small-screen Grease into a new kind of livestreaming celebration, at once smarter and grander than the film version and more intimate, raw, desperate. Cheese and trash and camp and nostalgia-baked vanilla pop: Grease is all that, with a story that one might reasonably declare “Vanderpump Rules-esque.” (Everyone’s always overreacting; barely anything happens.)
But Kail and his thrill-drunk collaborators energized the material at every turn. It helps, I think, that Grease: Live clearly understands that this platonic saga of basically good badasses and basically nice mean girls is an ensemble piece. Danny Zuko and Sandy Young are sweet bores. As Danny, Aaron Tveit couldn’t touch Travolta’s goofy-sexy grace. As Sandy, Julianne Hough was the opposite of expressive — an inheritor of Olivia Newton-John’s energetic blandness. But no one questions Hough’s abilities as a dancer, and her numbers with Tveit radiated fun and true physical charisma.
More urgently, they provided a nice foundation from which the supporting cast could rocket off. Former Nick kid Carlos PenaVega and current Disney kid Jordan Fisher had standout moments as T-Birds. But enough of the guys: Tell me more about the Pink Ladies! Donohue, Jepsen, Hudgens, and, most of all, Palmer all seemed to be starring in their own character-centric version of Grease: screaming farce, candy-colored soap, preening melodrama, and arena-rock stadium tour, respectively. Together, they were like a superteam: The Avengers, with better clothes.
And that’s not to mention Ana Gasteyer as the beleaguered Principal. Or Didi Conn — the film version’s Frenchy! — as a rueful-giddy waitress. Or Elle McLemore, energetically playing maybe the show’s most impossible character: Patty, the cheerleader nerd class-president virgin. (Grease’s vision of high school is so abstract, it makes High School Musical look like social anthropology.) Under Kail’s democratic vision, everyone got a star moment. Some worked better than others. They added in a new Frenchy number just to give Jepsen something to do, but “All I Need Is an Angel” was a well-intentioned snooze.
A better idea would’ve been just letting Jepsen sing any track off her latest album. Why not? Although Grease: Live paid lovely homage to all its source materials, it was also playfully self-aware. How else to explain casting Mario Lopez as a very Lopez-esque TV host — and then also letting the actor play a kind of meta-Lopez, an offscreen alter ego who leers overs teenagers and preens about his makeup? (At one point, a potential conquest declares Lopez’s character “so old,” and the look on the former Slater’s face was positively poignant.) When Boyz II Men showed up as a tripartite Teen Angel, the moment worked doubly well: As nostalgia spectacle, and as genuine whoa-they-can-still-sing thrill.
The sound dropped out, and the car chase looked goofy, and the ending will always be a mess of mishmashed social intentions. (It’s up for debate whether the point of Grease is “be yourself” or “don’t be yourself.”) Whatever. Grease: Live reconfirms all the possibilities of the live musical event as a genuine transcendent pop experience: Clever, funny, rapturously huge in a way showbiz used to only want to be.
There was a scene set at a drive-in theater. The movie playing onscreen was The Monster of Piedras Blancas, a budget ripoff of Creature From the Black Lagoon. It was an impeccable detail — Monster came out in spring 1959, during the time period of Grease — and it felt like a wink from the producers. Yes, we’re not the first to do this stuff; yes, we’re working with enough constraints that “Driving a Golf Cart” counts as as a major stunt effect.
But Grease: Live defied modesty, transcended nostalgia, served up cheese as a ten-course gourmet meal. Coming so soon after the triumph of The Wiz Live!, it banished once and for all any easy notions of hatewatching and trainwreckitude. It was an old-fashioned show and a newfangled playful meta-show: Marvel at how the cafeteria was the gym and the carnival, how the “National Bandstand” sequence was both a loving homage to long-ago talent shows and a this-is-how-it’s-done improvement on our modern reality competitions. In this moment overrun with must-see TV events, Grease wasn’t just live. It was alive.