What's That Playing on the Radio...?

The score to Grease is such a loving and knowing tribute to the artists and music of the 50s, getting the sound of early rock and roll so exactly right in every song. (Which is why no one should ever put those songs from the movie into the stage show. Are you listening, NBC?) Just listen to that original 1972 cast album and you can hear what I'm talking about. So just for fun, I thought I’d throw out some actual 50s songs which may have been the inspiration for the songs in the show. My purpose is not to suggest a lack of originality in the score, but exactly the opposite – to demonstrate how authentically the show's authors have reproduced (and at the same time, commented upon) that very special sound.

Grease begins with an authentically bland and properly pious “Alma Mater,” the sound of the adult world, of authority, complete with archaic language (like foretell, hovel, and thou shalt) which then is ripped apart, deconstructed, unexpectedly exploding into (a close facsimile of) that famous Chuck Berry electric guitar riff, invoking “Johnny B. Goode,” as well as that audacious rejection of adult culture, “Roll Over Beethoven.”

We move into the second scene and “Summer Nights,” the introduction of the two leads and their central plotline, inspired by real rock songs like Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It?”, a song released in 1958 as these kids were starting their senior year.

Now that the characters and plot are established, Grease brings in “Those Magic Changes” to reveal the importance and centrality of music in this story, and also in the show’s social commentary. Closely based on Paul Anka’s “Diana” (you can actually sing “Magic Changes” to “Diana”), those “changes” are both chord changes and the changes of puberty.

The next song, “Freddy My Love” is very closely based on “Eddie My Love” by The Tea Queens, while also slyly parodying Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” The Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday,” and maybe Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby,” reinforcing old female stereotypes while also undermining and rejecting them. The driving triplet accompaniment here was a common beat in early rock and roll (and in Grease), invented by Fats Domino for “Every Night About This Time.”

“Greased Lightning” combines two of those three major cultural forces in the 50s, cars and rock and roll. Possibly inspired by The Cadillacs’ “Speedo,” or Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” this is a companion piece to “Freddy My Love.”

The song “Mooning” may have been inspired by The Mello-Kings’ “Tonight, Tonight” or The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” -- a classic 6/8 rock and roll love ballad.

“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is a classic, brilliantly imitative 1950s novelty song, with a meter and an introduction lovingly ripped off from David Seville’s “The Chipmunk Song,” the surprise hit of the 1958 Christmas season. But the laughs get even darker when you realize that every male movie star mentioned in the lyric was a closeted gay man.

The act ends with “We Go Together,” an archetypal Happy Teenager song, very closely modeled on The Kodaks’ “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh” and Lewis Lyman’s “I’m So Happy,” maybe with a little dash of Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti.” (You can actually sing “We Go Together” to both “I’m So Happy” and “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh.”) This is a song celebrating the nonsense syllables of early rock and roll, songs like “Gee” (The Crows), “Bip Bam” (The Drifters), “Oop Shoop,” (The Queens), “Sh-Boom” and “Zippity Zum” (both by The Chords). Little Richard’s famous phrase that “We Go Together” celebrates actually started off as “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop, a good goddamn!”, followed by “Tutti Fruiti, good booty…” It was later cleaned up.

Act II picks up where Act I left off, with “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” a loving tribute to Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy,” as well as many other legendary songs, like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (Big Joe Turner, Elvis, and others), “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “High School Confidential” (Jerry Lee Lewis), and “At the Hop” (Danny and the Juniors). The song’s introduction comes from Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” In fact, “High School Confidential” actually contains the lyric, “Shakin’ at the high school hop…” There’s also be a touch of Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash,” a song which references other early rock and roll songs, just as “High School Hop” catalogues the dances of the time, including The Chicken, The Stroll, The Shimmy, The Cha-Cha, The Walk, The Hully-Gully, The Hand Jive, The Stomp, The Calypso, The Slop, and The Bop. It also names several songs of the period, including “Alley Oop” and “Mr. Lee,” among others.

“It’s Raining on Prom Night” is a Connie Francis number, combining attributes from several of her “weeper” songs, including “Frankie” (with a spoken section), “Valentino,” “Carolina Moon,” and “Happy Days and Lonely Nights,” among others. The Latin beat recalls her fondness for recording Italian language ballads like the hit “Mama,” and “Frankie” even contains the idea of hiding tears, that later shows up in “Worse Things I Could Do.” It also has echoes of The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” with its Latin beat and one spoken verse.

“Born to Hand Jive” is very closely based on Bo Diddley’s self-titled R&B song, “Bo Diddley,” with its famous beat (the “hambone”) that would accompany so many of Diddley’s songs. The beat is relentless, dangerous, wild abandon, the beat of sex. Once again, rock and roll is sex. Also, Johnny Casino and the Gamblers are an example of the thousands of garage bands that appeared in the 50s. The lyric of “Hand Jive” clearly tells us that anyone can be a rock star if they’ve got the Beat in them, and the fact that everyone knows how to Hand Jive means everyone has the Beat.

“Beauty School Dropout” may have been inspired by The Penguins’ classic “Earth Angel” and other 6/8 ballads.

Danny’s big character song, sadly cut from the film, “Alone at a Drive-In Movie,” is a delicious tribute to and parody of the teen laments of early rock and roll, including The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” (you can sing “Drive-In Movie” to the original recording of “Earth Angel”), The Platters’ “The Great Pretender,” “The Flamingos’ “Would I Be Cryin’?”, and Johnny Ray’s “Cry.” (The replacement song in the film, “Sandy,” isn’t a bad song, but it doesn’t achieve half of what “Alone at a Drive-In Move” does.)

“Rock and Roll Party Queen” is another song (like “Magic Changes” and “Hand Jive”) that reminds us that Grease isn’t primarily about Danny and Sandy; it’s about rock and roll and how it impacted American sex. This is a tribute to the Everly Brothers and their perfect-thirds harmonies, modeled on “Wake Up, Little Susie” (a song about having sex at the drive-in) and other Everly Brothers hits, as well as songs like the Dell-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me.”

Rizzo’s big Eleven O’Clock Number (the big character revealing song just before the finale) is the now classic “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” quite possibly inspired by The Tune Weavers’ “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby,” a similar 50s song with a similar beat and “broken heart” theme. It’s only when Sandy calls Rizzo on her “mask” that Rizzo sings “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” a song entirely about authenticity – which leads to Sandy’s “Sandra Dee” reprise, also a song about finding authenticity within.

The rowdy “All Choked Up” is clearly inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and perhaps also by Little Willie John’s “Fever” (later recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958), not only paying tribute to the music but also to the content of “Great Balls of Fire,” with the idea of love causing sickness.

If only more people producing Grease would take the time to really understand the musical roots of these songs, hear the intensity of emotion, the lack of musical training, the raw authenticity, the incredible energy in those original recordings, audiences would see a very different Grease. And that would be a good thing. Because so many people won't take Grease seriously, that means they also don't take its music seriously. And that's a real shame. We aim to fix that, dammit...

For more info about the Grease score, visit the New Line website.

Long Live the Musical!