Nah, Fuck It.

I'm sure the Muny's current production of Grease is well produced (the artistic quality at the Muny has increased tenfold lately), but I just can't go see it. I think it's a real shame that most people will never again see this smart, insightful, ballsy show in the raw, original version that ran 3,388 performances, from 1972 to 1980, the longest running Broadway show in history, until A Chorus Line beat it.

Not only does the version at the Muny continue to censor most of the obscenities in the show (I really doubt any of these kids would've called each other a "dipstick"), including the clumsily censored lyrics in "Greased Lightning." But it also includes (as most productions do now) the disco songs from the movie and the 70s country ballad ("Hopelessly Devoted to You"), while leaving out authentically period songs like the subtly over-sexed "Alone at a Drive-In Movie" (in the original stage show, Danny's as upset about not getting a handjob as he is about his broken heart), the hilariously truthful "It's Raining on Prom Night" (about the imagined high stakes of teenage love), the awesomely rude "Alma Mater Parody" (which sets up the central conflict of the show!), and the much more carnal, much more rock-and-roll, and decidedly more 1950s, original finale, "All Choked Up."

Even worse, they're using full orchestrations, brass, the works. That's not what this kind of rock and roll sounded like. And inexplicably they've changed Frenchie's Teen Angel into a woman, so the comically abusive seduction of "Beauty School Dropout" is lost. This just isn't Grease. In fact, it's so utterly unlike the original Broadway production, in almost every way, I think they should stop calling it Grease and start calling it Based on Grease.

Maybe the Muny audience doesn't want to hear Sandy say her REAL line before the finale, when Danny asks her if she’s still mad at him and she answers, “Nah, fuck it.” Maybe Muny audiences would be grossed out by the lyric to the "Alma Mater Parody":
I saw a dead skunk on the highway,
And I was goin' crazy from the smell,
Cause when the wind was blowin' my way,
It smelled just like the halls of old Rydell.

And if you've gotta use the toilet,
And later on you start to scratch like hell,
Take off your underwear and boil it,
Cause you've got memories of old Rydell.

I can't explain, Rydell, this pain, Rydell –
Is it ptomaine Rydell gave me?
Is it V.D., Rydell?
Could be, Rydell?
You oughta see the faculty!

But then maybe the Muny shouldn't do Grease.

Does that sound harsh? It shouldn't. First of all, I think the Muny is doing some of the best work they've done in decades under the stellar new leadership of Mike Isaacson. I've seen three shows so far at the Muny this summer and all three productions were outstanding. A few years ago, all three productions would have been bland and lacking in any artistry. The Muny is back in the business of making theatre, rather than just diversion.

But the Muny shouldn't produce Grease. They wouldn't produce the very adult, very R-rated bare or Bukowsical or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or even tamer adult shows like I Love My Wife or Passing Strange. They sure wouldn't produce Rocky Horror or Hair, so why are they producing Grease? True, this current version of the show is more a revival of the film than of the original stage musical, but even the somewhat sanitized movie version (listen to stage and screen choreographer Pat Birch talk about this on the DVD commentary) kept the original lyrics for "Greased Lightning," even if Hollywood was too squeamish for the many ass jokes in "Mooning." So if we're assuming Grease is popular now only because of the film, then haven't these kids already heard the boys sing pussy and tit in "Greased Lightning"?

Grease was a concept musical when it debuted, a show about an idea more than about story. Danny and Sandy didn't even exist when the show first opened in Chicago. Fifteen of the twenty songs in the original Broadway score have nothing to do with Danny and Sandy. But today, Grease has been turned into a romantic musical comedy. It's a fundamentally different show now. And the most obvious evidence of that is the singing. Listen to the original Broadway cast album – they did not have great singing voices, exactly like early rock and roll! Today, they all sing like they've been on American Idol. That robs the show of its substantial authenticity. It turns the kids into cardboard cutouts, instead of poor, ignored, working class kids just trying to get laid.

Grease is a show that looks very truthfully at how rock and roll, cars, and drive-in movies changed sex in America. It's not a show about how crazy those wacky kids in the 50s were, and by the way, isn't young love sweet? No, Grease is a social document. To quote from my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
The story of Grease is set during the 1958-59 school year, at a time when America was facing the preliminary rumblings of the Sexual Revolution that would arrive in the mid-1960s and blossom in the 70s, only to be ended by AIDS in the early 80s. And like The Rocky Horror Show did later, Grease shows us how America reacted to this tumultuous time though two of its main characters. Danny Zuko (along with Rizzo and Kenickie) represents that segment of American teens already sexually active in the 1940s and 50s, who ultimately frees the conforming Sandy to express her sexuality without fear or shame, leading her into a new life and a new decade of sexual freedom. This same theme is also at the heart, though far more cautiously, of the 1959 film A Summer Place, starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Sandy Dumbrowski (notice how ethnic all the character names are, to suggest that they are working class) represents mainstream America, reluctant to throw off the sexual repression of the conforming 1950s for the sexual adventuring of the 1960s.

That is the story of Grease – the story of mid-century America – the way sex was changing and the part rock and roll and cars and drive-ins played in that messy, mystical transformation. With twenty-twenty hindsight, Grease knows that the fifties were only a brief window of surface respite before the dark, dangerous times would return, with Vietnam, race riots, the anti-war movement, Watergate, and recession, and all that darkness is bubbling just under the surface of these teenage hijinks.

In the clumsy movie version of Grease, the central love story might have been the point, but on stage that romance is just a device for making a larger, more interesting point. And those who criticize Grease for its “immoral” ending don’t understand what this show is about – and they haven’t really paid attention to the lyric of the show’s finale, “All Choked Up.” Sandy is no victim here; she’s becoming a women’s libber.

You won't see any of that at the Muny, because at the Muny, the finale is "You're the One That I Want," which tells us nothing more than Danny and Sandy want to fuck. "All Choked Up" is a more interesting, more subtle finale that says more about the culture and less about these two kids – and notably, in "All Choked Up," Sandy tells Danny that she's not going to fuck him...!

You probably won't see any of that ever again on Broadway either. In fact, you won't see the real Grease anywhere, unless the folks producing it have the original script and don't mind risking the wrath of Samuel French by putting the show back the way it was written. That's what we did in 2007, and truthfully, some in our audience were horrified by that. They wanted Sandy blonde and they did not want to hear her say "Fuck it." But Sandy originally had brown hair and she did say, "Fuck it."

And doesn't that sound like a much more interesting musical than what you've seen in recent productions of this show? Grease is a descendant of Hair, not Bye Bye Birdie.

So, bottom line, what am I advocating? That no one ever produce Grease unless they can use the word fuck onstage and unless they use only the show's original score, no interpolations, no disco, no country. Seriously. Ever.

Grease has an unfortunate reputation for being silly, lightweight, nostalgia. But that's because no one ever really sees Grease anymore; instead they see a shallow rewrite that ignores almost everything interesting about this show. When I talk about Grease, I often feel like Don Quixote tilting at a windmill he can never defeat, but that doesn't mean I'll stop... Quixote never did...

Long Live the Musical!


swendle | August 2, 2014 at 2:50 PM

This is the 'Grease' I want to see!! The last production of Grease I saw was at The Fox and left at intermission because it was AWFUL!