I was in junior high when the movie version of Grease was released. I remember that a high school kid in the neighborhood took a bunch of us to see it in his Trams Am! I saw it four times in the theatre. I already loved musicals, but this eclipsed everything else. Thinking back now, it was a hugely pivotal moment for me. And maybe it explains why I've directed Grease three times.
I remember vividly the way the movie started with "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" in the background and then it busts into that driving, high energy title song. Today, I prefer the parallel opening songs in the stage version (the "Alma Mater" and the "Alma Mater Parody," both of which also turn up in the film), but seeing the movie back then for the first time, that transition thrilled me. This was not The Sound of Music.
I was already the musical theatre freak I am today. I already knew by heart entire "Golden Age" theatre scores -- My Fair Lady, Camelot, Carousel, Hello, Dolly!, West Side Story, Brigadoon, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, and I had even memorized the "Trouble" speech from The Music Man when I was nine. Just because.
And here I was watching a musical that used rock and roll and four-letter words, and it was entirely about sex! I knew I had found home when I heard Danny sing, "You know that ain't no shit, I'll be gettin' lots of tit in Greased Lightning," and in the next verse, "You know that I ain't braggin', she's a real pussy wagon!" Are you kidding me? In a musical? This was a universe away from Laurie singing, "Don't sigh and gaze at me. Your sighs are so like mine. Your eyes mustn't glow like mine. People will say we're in love!" Ack!
To this day, I do not understand why high schools produce Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.
The emotions weren't simplistic in Grease like they were in Oklahoma! Rizzo's eleven o'clock number, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is full of subtext and irony and social context and moral gray area, and complicated, unconscious character revelation. Even though the song is in the first person, the whole lyric is about Sandy, at least as Rizzo sees her -- a tease, a virgin, a judge, and a thief. To Rizzo, Sandy represents the oppression of mainstream morality and conformity (and its seduction of Danny), which Rizzo's probably been fighting against for years. So she dismantles the myth of Sandy's morality, piece by piece. It's such a strong theatre song, and it's also authentic period rock and roll.
There's nothing that rich in Oklahoma! When New Line produced Grease in 2007, I did a ton of research and discovered not only that the score is a brilliant evocation of authentic, early rock and roll, but also that the script is chock full of social and emotional authenticity. And even though I wasn't conscious of all that back in 1978, still I knew that Grease was something very different and very exciting. Not just dirty (although I loved that!), but also Real. I knew those kids. They talked like we talked. Their social pressures were my social pressures.
I didn't know Dolly Levi or Harold Hill.
The companion moment to that experience came my freshman year in high school (1979), after opening night of our spring show, Anything Goes (which has been one of my favorites ever since). A bunch of the cast drove down to University City to see the midnight show of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Varsity (now Vintage Vinyl). And I was thrilled again. In Rocky I saw everything that I had loved about Grease but here even more fearless, more aggressive, more raw, more unapologetically sexual. And it thrilled me like nothing ever had before. Yes, this soft-porn fable was a musical. I'll never forget the first time seeing Frank flirt with the nearly naked Rocky as Frank sings "The Charles Atlas Song," and later seeing Janet sing "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me" while Rocky enthusiastically massages her tits. And the song actually ended with Janet's orgasm! And then those scenes where Frank seduces both Janet and Brad! And then there was the floor show...!
Holy fucking shit!
I became totally obsessed, like many before me had. I listened to the Rocky movie soundtrack constantly. But while most of the other fans were drawn more to the message of individuality and sexual freedom, I was drawn to the artistic adventurousness, the kind of creative wildness that came out of the experimental theatre movement in New York and London in the 1960s and early 70s. I had grown up with the Sexual Revolution and here was my beloved art form finally exploring what all that meant. (I hadn't yet discovered Hair, but that was coming about a year later.) In 2002, when New Line produced Rocky, I discovered that, as weird and subversive as the film may be, the stage show is even less conventional than the movie.
Like Grease, there is something undeniably honest and authentic at the core of Rocky Horror, and I recognized that even as a high school freshman. I'm not sure I could have put it into words back then, but I felt that these two musicals were about real life in a way that Hello, Dolly! and Brigadoon just weren't. These shows had guts, substance, politics. (If you doubt me, take a look at my essays about them.)
But both those movies -- and later on, even more so their stage versions -- really shaped the way I think about theatre. It taught me the second most important lesson of my professional life: never be afraid of your audience (a lesson many theatre artists have not learned). If you worry about whether your audience will be offended or whether they'll "get it," you've already lost the battle. If you're wondering what's the first most important lesson I've learned, it came in a letter from actor Larry Luckinbill in 1985. He wrote, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." Fucking A, dude!
This was six years before I started New Line, but it became our company's fundamental philosophy and, along with a few other experiences, it has shaped everything I've done in the theatre since then.
I'm just starting to recognize the power of my early influences -- note the title of my newest book, which was released last week, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
The Sexual Revolution coincided exactly with my childhood and people during that time talked about sex a lot more freely (Love American Style was also a favorite of mine), and the films of Grease and Rocky Horror came along just after I hit puberty, as I was beginning to navigate my teenage years. I think these two musicals really shaped who I am today. It was an amazing, pivotal time in American culture and I've been trying to figure it all out ever since through a lot of the shows I've directed. It's a rare New Line show that doesn't include both sexual content and plenty of four-letter words.
Luckily for New Line, most companies that produce musicals are still afraid of sex (like much of America) and uncomfortable honesty. Even when they produce Grease or Rocky Horror, they tame them down and back away from the awesome bite both these shows have when they're done as their creators intended. That's fine with us. Leave the crazy, vulgar, scary, authentic stuff to us and we'll continue to thrive for years to come...
Long Live the Musical!