You're the One That I'll Grudgingly Accept...

My friends and fellow New Liners Todd and Brian have this ritual after seeing a piece of theatre. They call it "Roses and Thorns." The rule is you have to say what you liked about the show (the roses) first, and only after that can you say what you didn't like (the thorns).

So consider this my "Roses and Thorns" for Grease: Live! on Fox. Keep in mind, I love Grease deeply. I love the film, but I love the show – the original show as it first opened on Broadway – so much more. I've done the show three times, in 1981, 1986, and in 2007 for New Line. Our 2007 production put all the obscenities back. And then I wrote a long chapter about it in my last book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.

So I have strong feelings about Grease. It will always be one of my all-time favorite musicals. So with that in mind...


First, I gotta give props to Fox for doing Grease instead of something lame like Peter Pan (am I the only one who hates that damn show?).

Second, the whole thing was much better than I expected, though I wish they had adapted the show instead of remaking the movie. The cast was great, except for the creepy older uncle playing Danny Zuko and the mindless automaton playing Sandy. Sandy is not bland!

The energy was insane and the camera work was the best I've ever seen in a filmed musical. The use of a choreographed, almost-never-still stedicam (which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movie musicals, Absolute Beginners) gave the whole thing an energy like I've never seen before. And the choices both to have a live audience on so many of the big sets and not to try to hide them, also really amped up the energy. "Born to Hand Jive" was beyond thrilling, in the performances, the choreography, and the camera work.

I also loved the convention of cutting to Mario Lopez backstage before commercials, seeing the actors run past, hearing the live audience cheering, and the lengthy stage curtain call at the end! Very cool, very high energy, and I can't help but think how magical that "staginess" in particular must be for all those drama kids out there...

I'm also very happy they put "Freddie My Love" and "Magic Changes" back, though I'll always miss "Alone at the Drive-In" and "All Choked Up," both so superior to their replacements.


Now, there was one thing about it that's kind of a personal "rose" but an artistic "thorn." What was up with the end of "Those Magic Changes," the song about puberty and rock and roll, when Danny and Doody meet in the middle of the gym, singing to each other, gazing into each other's eyes, singing about falling in love to rock and roll – "My heart arranges those magic changes...!" – and then Danny places his hand tenderly on Doody's shoulder. And I'm thinking, hell yeah, I could fall in love with Aaron Tveit in those gym shorts too, but really, folks, neither Danny nor Doody are gay...! WTF?


Given that I gave some props to Fox for doing Grease in the first place, I also have to ask: why do people keep trying to make Grease family-friendly? The Muny does it too. Grease is a story about how cars and rock & roll changed sex in America. No matter how you censor it, it's not family friendly. It will always be about a bunch of high school kids trying to get laid. It doesn't matter what individual words you take out of "Greased Lightning" (and what the fuck is a "real draggin' wagon"?) – it's still about getting laid.

And BTW, who was the genius censor who decided "flog your log" was okay, but not "fongool" or "lacy lingerie"...? They also left in “Did she put up a fight?” in "Summer Nights." Think about that one, Fox...

My biggest thorn was the two leads. Maybe Aaron Tveit could have played Danny's father, but he just looked too much older than any of the other "kids." It felt creepy. And Sandy was just bland and empty. Why on earth would Danny want her for more than a quick tumble? That's not how Sandy was originally written. In the show Sandy starts a fist fight with Rizzo in the park. At the end of the show, Danny wonders if Sandy's still mad at him and if she still wants his ring, and she replies with, "Nah, fuck it." That's an interesting Sandy. This one on TV was not, whether that's the fault of the writers, the actor, or the director I won't speculate.

Also, if you're actually going to name the chords you're playing in the lyric to the song, as in "Those Magic Changes," you should not lower the key so you can hit the high notes. They moved the song down a third to A major. (I guess singing "A-A-A, A-A-A, F-sharp-F-sharp-F-sharp, F-sharp-minor" just doesn't scan very well...) And sure, shows transpose songs for actors all the time, right? Yes, but in this case, changing the singer from a tenor to a baritone short-circuits the joke at the center of the song – "those magic changes" are both the four chords that underpin so much early rock and roll, and also the physical changes of puberty. By lowering the song, they fucked that up.

And then there was the New Song, "All I Need is an Angel," by the usually genius team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then). But I have to ask, what the fuck?

First, it's a great pop song, but it's not a musical theatre song; it delivers zero information about story, character, or the show's central themes. And the music's not even close to period (then again, neither are "Hopelessly Devoted" or "You're the One That I Want"). The story does not need or want this song. I have to quote this oddly generic lyric:
So what now? Am I through?
Oh, won't someone tell me what to do?
Where to go? Who to be?
How to find the right way back to me?
Sunny day, won't you finally come my way?
If I stay so brave til then?
Will I find my way again?

Cause all I need is an angel
I'll take a friend or a stranger
Yeah, all I need is an angel here tonight
Who will say it's all alright

So what now? Now I see
I may not be the girl I dreamed I'd be
Who will help fight this fear?
Who will show me where to go from here?
I will mind, I will find the life I find
If I only have my guide
And together we will ride

Cause all I need is an angel
I'll take a friend or a stranger
Yeah, all I need is an angel here today
Who will help me find my way
One angel, please
With a sense of fashion
One angel, please
With a bit of passion
One angel who will guide me through

All I need is an angel
I'll take a friend or a stranger
All I need is an angel here with me
Come on, let me see my angel
To help me through all the changes

All I need is an angel
I'll be fine who an angel who's all mine
Won't you send me down a sign?
And an angel who's all mine

I'll say it again, what the fuck? In Grease? Are you kidding me? Does this sound like any other song in the show? Or even in the film? In addition to the fact that it gives Frenchy, who's already a very cool character, way too much self-awareness and confidence. She's a working class, relatively uneducated teenager, not a Disney princess. Ack.

I hate that both the movie and this adaptation don't understand something really basic about Grease – the Greasers aren't actually cool and they're not a real gang. On stage, they're not the T-Birds, just the Burger Palace Boys, i.e., the guys who hang out at the Burger Palace. They're dorks, misfits, outcasts.

Also, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" and the reprise of "Sandra Dee" are companion pieces. They are meant to go together. Sandy learns something from Rizzo's song about authenticity, and that leads her to her decision in the "Sandra Dee" reprise, which leads to the final scene. You destroy that really interesting and surprising connection between these women when you put a drag race in between those songs.

Now I also have to say, despite my thorns, it was a very good production of a very good show, one that most young people will probably love. Yes, it was emasculated, but if that means more people loving rock musicals, and good ratings (over 12 million viewers) which will mean more live musicals on national television, then I'll grudgingly accept it.

Maybe I need to think about this Grease the way I think about High School Musical. I was surprised at how good HSM was in many respects, and I recognized that it really wasn't made for me. For its intended audience it was pretty great. And in fact, when I was a gay high school drama kid, I probably would have loved it. (And I would have fallen in love with Ryan.)

This wasn't really a Grease for me. This wasn't the Grease that held the long-run record for so many years. As far as I'm concerned Greased Lightning is a pussy wagon, not a draggin' wagon. But this was an acceptable Grease for what it was, and I really did enjoy some of it immensely.

I guess, if I rate it in terms of what Grease was originally meant to be, I'd give it 7 out of 10. It was sanitized, and I wish it used more of the stage songs, but it was also very good in so many ways. If I rate it in terms of a remake of the movie, I'd give it a 9. (I would have given it a 10 if not for that bizarre new song.) If I rate it in terms of being a translation of Grease into a family-friendly broadcast for millions of people, I'll give it a 10.

There's just so much right about it, that I can't dismiss it over the things I didn't like...

And hopefully its success will mean more live musicals on TV.

To my great surprise, after I watched it, I checked my email, and I had a message from a reporter at the Washington Post website, wanting to interview me about what I thought of Grease Live. So I talked to him around midnight, and he wrote a very cool article about the show...

Long Live the Musical!