When the revival of 1972's Grease! opened on Broadway last year, the critics raged. ''Gracelessly staged,'' declared The New York Times. ''Garbage,'' sniped Newsday. Grade: D, said ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. Guess what? Nobody listened. Now starring Jon Secada as Danny (John Travolta in the 1978 movie), Grease! has become Broadway's most unlikely hit, and not because it was restaged or musically ameliorated (trust me I've seen it three times). Instead, its success is due to a series of unlikely TV and film stars who have generated ticket sales by stumbling and dancing (often both, simultaneously) through Grease!'s revolving stage door.
The show opened with the vocally challenged Rosie O'Donnell as Rizzo, Rydell High's bad girl. ''Rosie was very hot,'' says Fran Weissler, who produced the show with her husband, Barry. ''I thought, If she sells tickets it will be very exciting.'' With O'Donnell's face smirking out of the ads, this art-be-hanged casting approach generated $2 million in ticket sales before the show even opened.
The producers quickly found that headliners who could sing and dance weren't necessary. Enter Brooke Shields as Rizzo, following an interim stint by The Brady Bunch's Maureen ''Marcia'' McCormick. Crowds kept coming, cheering Brooke on as if she were their marginally talented sister on a high school stage. She was replaced by Ellen's Joely Fisher.
With Secada in the show through the end of the year, Grease! now has an audience of teenyboppers paying up to $65 for seats and a box office advance hovering at $1.7 million. Best of all, Grease! at last has a star who can sing and the result is a marked improvement. In fact, I'll even raise the grade to a B, at least until he leaves on Dec. 31 and Joe Piscopo comes in as DJ Vince Fontaine in January.
What's next? Paula Abdul and Amy Grant have been asked to star. ''We're also looking for Teen Angels,'' says Weissler. ''We were turned down by Aretha Franklin.''