With the national tour of Grease here at the Fox, a lot of people are remembering New Line Theatre's production in 2007. Judy Newmark did a great interview in the Post-Dispatch with the show's co-author Jim Jacobs, whose real high school life in Chicago was the primary material for the musical (including some actual friends' names!). To my great surprise and delight, Judy wrote in her piece that Jacobs:
Fuckin' A!, as Sonny would say...
would love to see a revival that returns the show to its raw, R-rated roots, pounding with hormones and nervy rock 'n' roll. (In fact, New Line Theatre staged a production along those lines here about three years ago. Jacobs says another may be in the works in Chicago.) It wasn't supposed to be refined, Jacobs said, and even if that has made him a very rich man, he still has a soft spot for the [original Chicago] Kingston Mills show, which won't be at the Fox, but which was 'the real McCoy,' he said. 'That's the way we were.'
Then today I got two messages from local reviewers telling me how bland the production at the Fox is and that it reminds them how much they liked our version. Nice, huh?
At the time, audience reaction for our version was very mixed back in 2007. We really put Grease back the way it was at the beginning, putting all the foul language back in, returning the show to its mean, nasty, raw, rowdy, vulgar roots. But there were a fair number of people in our audience who only knew the considerably kinder and gentler movie version. They wanted that much sweeter, cuter Grease, but that didn't interest me in the least. They were horrified at some of what we put on stage. Some nights you could hear an audible gasp when Sandy said the last line of the show before the finale: "Nah, fuck it!"
Up till now I always thought our Grease was a really cool, worthwhile experiment that only partly succeeded. But now I feel better about it. We were being true to Grease. We were trusting the material. We didn't try to impose anything on it; instead we did our best to understand the show fully (it's far more substantial than most people would ever guess) and then share that "original" Grease with our audiences. (Here's my analysis chapter if you're interested.) And apparently most of our audience appreciated and enjoyed our handiwork.
It reminds me of the first time we did Hair. We really didn't understand the show at all. But I found a national discussion group about the show that included members of the original cast. They all told me the same thing when I asked questions -- "Just trust it."
Words to live by.
I learned from Hair -- and it's reinforced with almost every show we do -- that my primary job is to trust and respect the material. If there's something in a show that doesn't seem to work, chances are it's my fault, not the material's fault. Instead of jumping to "fix" it (as too many directors do) with rewrites or physical schtick, I try to figure out what I don't understand yet. It's a lesson that has served me well for years.
So once again, the New Line Way is vindicated. We didn't do Grease the low-impact, "commercial" way; we did it the way the authors wrote it. And I'm so glad we did. I mean, what's the point of telling an audience what they already know, leaving them exactly where they began? People go to the theatre to understand themselves and the world around them (they're not always conscious of it, but that's why). It's why we tell stories in any form. And if we just reinforce what our audience already thinks, then we're not offering them anything of real value, are we? And our job is to offer them something of value. That's what I think, anyway...
Long Live the Musical!