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It hurts me when people disparage Grease. Party because I love it dearly (and have done it three times!), and partly because almost everyone -- including people who love it -- underestimate both the show's authenticity and the writing craft.

It's so much better and darker and smarter and subtler than you think.

Many people scoff, but it's true -- the score of Grease is remarkable in its craft and authenticity, even referencing actual songs of the period. Many of the actual period songs that influenced the Grease score were not chart toppers, because the Grease kids didn’t always listen to the most popular music; they were more musically and culturally adventurous than that. They listened to songs you could only hear late night on Alan Freed’s radio show, “race songs,” dirty songs, songs that scared adults.

But it’s important to note that the songs of Grease differ from real rock and roll songs in one significant way. The lyrics to real 50s rock and roll songs were the least important element of the song, often just dummy lyrics used as a vehicle for the artists’ personal vocal stylings, or for sophisticated harmonies or melodic ornaments. As in rhythm and blues, one of rock and roll’s parents, a song didn’t have to convey information, just style and emotion, most of which was delivered through the abstract language of music. But theatre songs have to convey a lot of information or the show won’t work (which is why it was such a mistake to put a real 50s song into the 1994 revival). Because sung lyrics take more time than spoken dialogue, musicals have to do a lot of storytelling in fewer words than a play.

So in Grease, “Summer Nights” lays out the central backstory, as well as characterizing most of the two gangs through their pointed questions. “Magic Changes” and “Rock and Roll Party Queen” lay out and explore the show’s central themes: Sex; Drive-ins and Sex; and Rock and Roll and Sex; Most of the girls’ songs provide psychological character details – Marty and Rizzo’s cynical view of love in “Freddy My Love” and “Worse Things;” the friction between Rizzo and Sandy in “Sandra Dee” – but we also find commentary on 50s sexuality in “Greased Lightning,” “Mooning,” “Drive-In Movie,” and of course “Worse Things.”

Every lyric contributes to the agenda of this deceptively sophisticated concept musical.

Grease opens with an authentically and properly bland “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, invoking “Johnny B. Goode,” as well as that audacious rejection of adult culture, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Like Berry’s “School Day,” the raunchy parody “Alma Mater” is an assault, a declaration of culture war, a defiant fuck-you to the adult world, as the Greasers literally steal away the adults’ anthem, give it a driving beat, and twist it to suit their own purposes.

And so Grease is off and running. This will not be a nice show, a tame show, a traditional show, the music tells us. This will be aggressive, even obnoxious. This will be rock and roll theatre.

We move into the second scene and “Summer Nights,” the introduction of two of the 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 the Rydell kids were starting their senior year. “Summer Nights” introduces the ten main characters, allowing each of them to ask questions that reveal their characters. Marty wants to know if this guy has a car, while Frenchy only wants to know if Sandy’s in love. Kenickie wants to know if the sex was rough, while Sonny only wants to know if the girl could fix him up with a friend. We see here and in the scene leading up to the song who each of the ten leads are – Kenickie and Rizzo, both damaged, beaten down, angry young adults; Roger, the clown; Jan, the cynic; Doody and Frenchy, the innocents; Sonny, the “dangerous” one; and Marty, the Material Girl.

And the song also establishes the central conflict of Grease and of the 1950s, that Danny is comfortable with sexuality while Sandy is lost – trapped? – in the fantasy of Perfect Love, thanks to the likes of Sandra Dee, Dee's handlers, and the movie studios (which were losing all their previous power, due in part to the burgeoning teen market).

Some sources report that Rizzo’s dismissal of Sandy’s tale, “Cause he sounds like a drag,” was originally written, “Cause he sounds like a fag.” It’s certainly plausible, since Sandy describes a boy who barely touches her all summer, and in Rizzo’s world, that might well mean the boy is gay (or at least it would be a solid, cynical put-down of Sandy’s romantic story). After "Summer Nights," Rizzo suggests Sandy’s summer lover may be “a fairy.”

Now that the characters are established and the story is underway, Grease takes a moment with “Those Magic Changes” to explore the show’s central themes, to underline the importance and centrality of music in this story and also in the show’s social commentary. Closely based on Paul Anka’s “Diana” and its distinctive bass line (you can actually sing “Magic Changes” to “Diana”), it also includes those distinctive falsettos vocal ornaments that pay homage to songs like The Diamonds’ comic doo-wop hit, “Lil Darlin’.” Doody starts off solo, then the girls join in, then the boys join in, then two of the boys take off on those falsetto riffs, giving the whole song the tang of improvisation, as if these kids are just fooling around between classes. This is part of what gives Grease -- in its original incarnation -- such a unique feel as a musical.

"Magic Changes" is a song that connects love – but also sex in the form of the “magic changes” of puberty – to rock and roll. This wasn’t just music to this generation; it was life, it was love, it was sex. They charted their lives to the songs on the radio, the song they fell in love to, the song they first had sex to. And as “Magic Changes” reminds us, every 50s song is every other 50s song, since so many of them used those exact same chord changes, a chord progression seemingly invented just for them (though really coming from rhythm and blues). At that early moment in rock's evolution, it seems that all of rock and roll is “those magic changes” that Doody dreams of returning to him every night.

The idea that all you need is a guitar to be a rock and roll star (perhaps in tribute to Bobby Bare’s satirical 1958 Elvis song, “All-American Boy,” (which was also referenced in Bye Bye Birdie) was a deeply ingrained part of teen culture.

The next song in Grease, “Freddy My Love” is the show’s female doo-wop number, with a lead melody and rich harmonic back-up, closely based on “Eddie My Love” by The Tea Queens, while also slyly parodying The Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” and Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby,” reinforcing old female stereotypes while also undermining and revising them. The driving triplet accompaniment here was a common beat in early rock and roll, introduced by Fats Domino for “Every Night About This Time.” They’re living in the 1950s, but these are women of the 60s. The idea of the other girls becoming back up singers for Marty shows us how much they love the girl doo-wop groups, a new phenomenon at that moment, which would become huge in the 60s. The Ronettes were the first “slutty” girl group to make it big singing rock and roll. They were what these girls wanted to be (to get the guys) and what the guys dreamed about getting. “Freddy, My Love” is a song about early feminism, about women being sexual and aggressive. But it’s also about the materialism of the 1950s, a mindset in which money is as good as (better than?) sex, and gifts are the only true measure of love. The idea of Marty singing to a guy stationed in Korea references the fact that Elvis was still in the Army overseas at this point, a sad fact for many teenagers.

“Greased Lightning” combines two of the three major cultural forces of the 50s, cars and rock and roll. Possibly inspired by The Cadillacs’ cocky “Speedo,” or Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” this is a companion piece to “Freddy My Love.” This is the guys’ perspective in the language of doo-wop: it’s all about sex, cars, and sex in cars. An article on Answers.com describes the provocative, lusty Chuck Berry, duckwalking through “You Can't Catch Me,” in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock: “…his guitar as phallic looking a stage prop as anything seen on the screen this side of the bananas in a Carmen Miranda production number. Had a Black man ever before been permitted such a degree of sexual expression (and you can see the delightful, proud smugness on Berry's face, knowing what audience the movie was aimed at) in a movie intended for white audiences?”

This is the unfettered sexuality that terrifies the 1950s adult world, and it does the same to Sandy.

“Greased Lightning” is about America’s love affair with cars and teenagers’ love of speed. According to Rolling Stones’ excellent history Rock of Ages, “American automakers were asserting their products’ virtues of speed and power, turning the 1957 models into rocketship fantasies with nose cones, chrome grills, and razor sharp fins.” This song is not just a catalog of car accessories, but instead a real insight into the dreams of these guys. After all, this is not a real car Kenickie’s singing about, but an unreachable fantasy car (which is why it may be better if we don’t actually see the dream car onstage), the ultimate, luxury, high-performance, drag racing car, with high-priced accessories for speed and performance (lifters, fins, fuel injection), and also for automotive sex appeal (palomino dashboard, purple frenched tail lights, twin tail pipes). And it’s clear from the details that this will be a car intended for drag racing, the gladiator sport of 1950s teenagers, an extreme and dangerous sport pitting one man against one man, in what was sometimes a battle to actual death. (Kenickie acknowledges this danger, and even knows how to diminish it with a fuel-injection cut-off, which stops the flow of gasoline in the event of a crash, in order to lower the danger of an explosion.) Drag racing was illegal, sometimes deadly… and really sexy! Skill and success in drag racing could always get a guy laid, as Kenickie well knows (or at least imagines).

But the song also tells us that Kenickie doesn’t really know much about drag racing or about customizing cars. A true drag racing enthusiast knows that the accessories Kenickie dreams of don’t all make sense together. For example, the “four-barrel quads” refers to a carburetor, but a car with fuel injection (as in his “fuel injection cut-off”) doesn’t have a carburetor – those two things would not be on the same car. And no one would chrome-plate connecting rods; chrome-plating was just for show and nobody can see connecting rods on a car. And though palomino leather was popular for car interiors, no one would put palomino leather on a dashboard. Finally, a kid in 1959 would either make his car look good or go fast; no kid had the money to do both (although you could argue that this is just a fantasy). In fact, a drag car that looked too good was the sure sign of a driver who wasn’t really serious about racing.

It’s safe to assume that Kenickie probably knows very little about cars or drag racing, which gives this lyric far more complexity, humor, and character detail than it seems.

The last scene of Act I is set in a park late on a Friday night, where the kids have gathered to hang out, drink, smoke, and neck. Because the scene is one of the longest in the show, it’s also a prime example of the supreme, nearly invisible craft in the writing of the show’s dialogue. The script of Grease isn’t just a catalog of period references and influences; it’s also a carefully constructed ensemble character piece, revealing so much about all the main characters, usually subtextually.

As an example, when Roger calls Jan “Petunia Pig,” she shoots back with “Oh yeah? Right here, Lardass!” This seemingly trivial throwaway line tells us so much about Jan: that she’s always been overweight (or at least for much of her life), that she’s regularly picked on, that she’s sensitive about her weight, and most importantly, that over time she has learned to defend herself, to give as good as she gets. A girl who is never mocked about her weight would not be that fierce in her comeback. All this is confirmed later in the scene when Roger asks Jan to the dance and she responds, “You kiddin’, Rog?” Her suspicious reply tells us that either guys never ask her out or maybe guys have asked her out in the past only as a cruel joke of some kind. She has to be reassured by Roger that he really wants to go out with her before she agrees.

There’s lots going on with her under the surface, and the same is true of every one of the main characters.

Roger and Jan’s song “Mooning” may have been inspired by The Mello-Kings’ “Tonight, Tonight” or The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” and though the other songs in Grease proclaim a new worldview of sex and love, this one also trashes the old worldview, reducing the tepid moon-spoon-June romance of the 30s and 40s to silly anachronism. It contrasts love today (1959) with love yesterday (their parents’), the physical versus the romantic, the play between the old definition of mooning as an over-sentimentalizing of young love, and the new definition of mooning as the act of baring one’s ass. Like “Summer Nights,” this is a song about the difference between chaste love and carnal love, the love Sandra Dee falls into versus the more physical love of naked, sweaty bodies. But this song goes further, into wickedly funny social satire; “Summer Nights” is about two kids, but “Mooning” is about the whole generation. And for Jan, this is safe sexuality, vaguely explicit, but also safely not serious.

As a companion piece to “Mooning,” Rizzo makes the comparison more personal with “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” an assault on Sandy’s false role models, a shot across the bow, making certain that Sandy knows that Rizzo knows that it’s all bullshit. The music 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, forced to live a lie by his studio. This is a song about sexual repression, false lives, and false role models, and it’s proof that Rizzo knows more than we thought, that she has genuine insight into the world around her. And this peek into her mind allows her to carry the weighty “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” later in Act II.

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.)

But the lyric of "We Go Together" succeeds as more than just send-up; it is also an articulation and celebration of this created family that nurtures and protects these kids, an artificial but also very real family that has through necessity replaced their dysfunctional, possibly abusive birth families. It is this family at the heart of the show’s plot which must survive the difficulties and obstacles of teenage life, and also which must be sustained even as its leader attempts to create a relationship outside the family for the first time. This lyric tells us – and these kids are telling each other – that these Ties That Bind are indeed strong enough to withstand the current conflicts, and the song’s reprise at the end of the show reminds us of the importance of that strength for these kids. Perhaps it was also telling audiences in 1972 that those ties will also get them through the cultural chaos of the 1970s, a theme picked up in the 1977 musical I Love My Wife.

And that's just Act I.

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, then 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 introductory chords come from Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” And “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.” "Prom Night" also has echoes of The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” with its Latin beat and one spoken verse.

According to some sources, this was the first Grease song Jacobs and Casey wrote, even before they had conceived the show, satirically putting the trivial and mundane at the center of a big, emotional lament. Far more than any other song in the score, this is parody more than tribute or invocation. And its sly reference to Maidenform bras recalls that brand’s long-standing ad campaigns that associated their bras with various female fantasy situations, like a romance novel in a magazine ad. Surely for the singer (or listener) of this song, the prom was a romantic fantasy as potent as any other.

The Prom Scene is the centerpiece of Act II and, not surprisingly, almost the entire scene is accompanied by dance music. This is a scene that’s entirely about the rock and roll. And the centerpiece of the scene is “Born to Hand Jive,” with its now universally famous choreography. The Hand Jive was invented for the Johnny Otis song, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which hit the charts in 1958 and stayed in the Top Ten for sixteen weeks. This “Hand Jive” also takes inspiration (and its bass line) from Bo Diddley’s self-titled 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.

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. This was the beginning of the democratization of pop music that would continue into the 60s.

Grace Palladino writes in her book, Teenagers: An American History, “If unremarkable kids like Dion Di Mucci and his group, the Belmonts, who hailed from the Bronx, could make it on American Bandstand, [teenagers] reasoned, then anyone with talent and determination had the same chance to succeed.”

“Beauty School Dropout,” Frenchy’s wacky nightmare of the misogynist mainstream “real world,” was inspired (musically) by songs like The Penguins’ classic “Earth Angel.” But this scene also references the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor, with Debbie Reynolds. Just before “Beauty School Dropout” starts, Frenchy wishes for a guardian angel “like in that Debbie Reynolds movie.” In the film, Aunt Renie (Mildred Natwick) plays the role of Tammy's (merely metaphorical) fairy godmother, who transforms her into a captivating Southern belle, looking just like the portrait of an ancestor of this elite Southern family. She even gives Tammy the ancestor’s dress to wear, so she can win the heart of her love. This is the fantasy Frenchy wants. And of course, it’s what will eventually happen to Sandy, being taken under the wing of other women, given new clothes, and taught new manners, though all in a hard-core, rock-and-roll kinda way…

And it’s also a smart parody of those psychological dream sequences in old-fashioned musical dramas like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Lady in the Dark, and others, in which the leading lady works through her dilemma in the form of a dream. The joke here is that Frenchy doesn’t get the answer she wants from her dream, because Grease isn’t an old-fashioned musical.

Danny’s big character song (sadly replaced in 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.” It is a classic male doo-wop song, with its independent bass line and falsetto tenor floating up above the lead melody.

The song works both as a musical theatre “I Want” character song, and also as an authentic 50s rock lament. This moment couldn’t be clearer: Sandy may want acceptance, (self-)love, self-knowledge, but Danny just wants sex. These two worlds have to find an accommodation, and they will in the show’s finale. (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, textually, thematically, or musically, and it’s far too introspective for a kid like Danny Zuko.) But this song also works on a second level, as a cultural commentary on the power of drive-in movies in teen culture in the 50s. Cars had been changing sex since the 1920s, but by the 50s, more teenagers had more access to more cars than ever before, giving them the privacy they craved on a regular basis. Drive-in movies had been created as family entertainment, and between 1943 and 1953, more than 2,900 drive-in theatres opened in America, the total reaching nearly 5,000 by 1958. But once television stole the family audience, drive-in owners targeted their marketing exclusively at teens, while small, low-budget studios started cranking out material specifically for this new niche market, creating “teen exploitation” films that drastically changed and radicalized teenagers’ perception of themselves and each other. Drive-ins became a place to cruise for girls, hang with the “wrong crowd,” get drunk and get laid, awkwardly, in the back seat. These films opened teenaged eyes to sex, violence, and other various vices like never before, inadvertently creating a new, more sophisticated, more cynical teen market.

The fake movie dialogue in the scene leading up to “Alone at the Drive-In Movie” lampoons the two most prevalent genres of drive-in films: horror movies (a comic mix of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and those paranoid 1950s “science run amok” flicks, like 1954’s Them!), crossed with drag racing movies. Strangely enough, television had also come close to killing radio, in ratings and advertising revenue, until radio did what the drive-ins did by targeting teenagers.

“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.” The lyric says more than it seems, describing a party girl that all the kids “know” (in the Biblical sense?), that they talk about, who stays out late with boys, and who will soon be seventeen (the age of sexual consent, which of course means she’s currently under the age of consent), etc. The Party Queen is the fully sexual girl that Rizzo is and Sandy may become. Here, in this scene, the song both comments on Rizzo’s fears of pregnancy and foreshadows Sandy’s realization that she’s too repressed sexually.

I told you there was more going on in Grease than you thought.

This scene also shows us another aspect of 50s teen culture, the Basement Party. Grace Palladino writes, “If their parents could afford it, they followed the experts’ advice to fix up party rooms to keep young teenagers safe at home . . . complete with a television set, soft drink bar, and plenty of room for dancing.” Jan hosts this party and Marty hosts the pajama party in Act I – their parents clearly know this philosophy. But the scene is important dramatically because it’s the first time we see both Rizzo and Kenickie grapple with real, serious emotions, revealing a vulnerability that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both of them.

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,” possibly inspired by The Tune Weavers’ “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby,” a 50s song with a similar “broken heart” theme and beat. Rizzo is (spiritually if not actually) one of the Beats (commonly – and derisively – called Beatniks by the mainstream to suggest that they were Communists), a group most famously represented by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who in the 1950s rejected mainstream values, morality, and art, trying to break through the fa├žade of polite society to a more honest, more authentic way of living. “Worse Things” contains the entirety of 1950s youth (and Beat) morality in its lyric.

Like everything else in Grease, Rizzo represents that transition from the 50s to the 60s. She’d like us to think she’s as authentic as they come, but she hides Kenickie’s paternity from him and she hides her hurt from her friends. It’s only when Sandy calls Rizzo on her “mask” that Rizzo sings “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” beginning a two-song arc of revelation for Sandy.  In a weird way, Rizzo becomes a Wise Wizard figure to Sandy...

Structurally,"Worst Things" links these two women. In each of the three verses, Rizzo attacks Sandy for her perceived sins – being a tease (leading Danny on but not delivering), being self-pitying (most notably in “Raining on Prom Night”), and being judgmental (in the scene leading up to the song). And as often happens in real life, the sins Rizzo sees in Sandy are also Rizzo’s sins as well.

This is a song built on very real, raw emotions, a song that finally reveals the character of Rizzo late in Act II as vulnerable, insecure, easily hurt. The audience may not see this coming but it fills out and explains everything Rizzo has done over the course of the story. Almost at the end of the show, we see that she probably was in love with Zuko (only to see him taken away) and is now clearly in love with Kenickie (who she has just cut off from her). She sees no Happily Ever After for herself. All she thinks she can do is put up a brave front and hide her insecurity. But that also walls her off from any real emotional connection to anyone. If she won't allow herself to cry in front of anyone, how can she ever get close? And the payoff of the last line is the most telling: none of the normal “crimes” of dating are the worst crime; the worst crime is showing vulnerability.

That's really good writing and a really good character song. It's so sad and it says so much in such seemingly simple language, without ever being simplistic.

“Worse Things” segues directly to its companion piece, Sandy's parallel self-evaluation, the reprise of "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," in which Sandy finally sees and accepts the truth in Rizzo’s metaphor, finally recognizing that she must reject artificial values imposed by others, so she can find her own way. But Sandy only comes to this realization because “Worse Things” opened her up to the idea of authenticity as a fundamental value; now she can act on that newfound wisdom in her reprise (just like in all the ancient hero myths).

Tim Riley argues in his book Fever that early rock and roll delivered a powerful message to its listeners: “The challenge of building an original identity, rather than accepting a received identity predicated on the values of their parents, became a necessary life passage.” Like all the best theatre songs, Sandy makes a decision in the “Sandra Dee” reprise, and the plot takes a turn toward its final destination. Sandy must decide who she is herself and what she values; she must embrace all of who she is, including her sexuality. She now realizes that only when she is true to herself can she be happy with Danny, and this final revelation will lead us to the show’s rowdy, playful finale “All Choked Up” (sadly replaced in the film by the less carnal disco number “You're the One That I Want”).

And again, we can see Jacobs and Casey’s lyric writing craft here in their most conventional theatre song, as they effortlessly spin out multiple internal rhymes without ever disrupting a line or thought:
Look at me,
There has to be
Something more than what they see.
Wholesome and pure,
Also scared and unsure,
A poor man’s Sandra Dee.

Poor even rhymes (unnoticed) with pure and unsure... The bridge is loaded with long e and long i sounds, with a close interior rhyme at the end, in has and last:
When they criticize
And make fun of me,
Can’t they see the tears in my smile?
Don’t they realize
There’s just one of me,
And it has to last me a while?

And the rhyming accelerates in the last verse, giving the song real momentum as Sandy marches toward triumph (very similar to the end of "On the Steps of the Palace"):
Sandy, you
Must start anew.
Don’t you know what you
Must do?
Hold your head high,
Take a deep breath and sigh,
To Sandra Dee.

Here again, some usually unnoticed treasure, in the powerful alliteration of Hold your head high, as each successive line climbs musically higher and higher to the climax.

But this song isn’t just about Sandy saying goodbye to her false idols; it’s also about America saying goodbye to the false idols of the 1950s, saying goodbye to the turning of its collective blind eye away from the hidden horrors of the decade: rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, teen pregnancy and abortion, prescription drug abuse in the suburbs, and so much more. Sandy has to face herself and find her own authenticity, but so too does America.

The rowdy “All Choked Up,” the show’s finale, 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. Here Grease shows us the turmoil ahead in the 1960s, as sexual roles are reversed. Now that Sandy is a sexual being, she can finally sing real rock and roll. Now Sandy is the aggressor, a lesson she learned from rock and roll, a social trend that would soon push boundaries further and further, from Tina Turner’s “A Fool in Love” well into the 1970s. This is the beginning of feminism. Now American women could be sexual too. Many of those who still object to the show’s ending miss the point of the show and may be unconsciously still caught up in gender stereotypes from the 50s that remain pervasive today.

If a boy is sexually aggressive (as in “Greased Lightning”) he’s just a guy. If a girl is sexually aggressive, she’s a slut. Have we really come all that far since 1959?

But notice that in the lyric, Sandy tells Danny (and us) that she is still not ready to sleep with him. Sandy may have changed the way she looks, she may now celebrate the curves of her body rather than hiding them behind poodle skirts, and she may now have a more progressive philosophy of sexuality, but no matter how dramatically Danny pleads, she’s still not “going all the way” just yet; that part of her has not changed fundamentally.

She has not become a slut.

But perhaps even more significant than Sandy’s new sexualized rock and roll persona in “All Choked Up” is her line after the song: Danny asks her if she’s still mad at him and she answers, “Nah, fuck it.” That this is the first time we’ve heard Sandy talk like that is certainly important, but even more so is what her answer means.

The phrase is not just obscene; it’s also a universally recognized idiom with two related meanings. First, it says to the world that the speaker just doesn’t care anymore. Sandy’s not just cussing here; she’s publicly rejecting all the values of her past life, in particular the idea that sex is “dirty,” or that Danny is a "bad boy." She’s transitioning from the 50s to the 60s. The other, parallel meaning  of "fuck it" is that regardless of the consequences, the speaker is charging ahead, and that’s part of this moment as well.

But it goes even deeper than that. Fuck is the granddaddy of all cuss words, the word that draws a line in the moral sand. Especially in 1959 – but even still today – fuck is a word that separates the “nice” (i.e., conforming) people from the “bad” (i.e., less repressed) people. Here at the end of our story, Sandy has picked sides in one of America’s great Culture Wars, and so her journey moves out of the personal and into the political, as she utters this infamous word that will stand at the very center of the counterculture of the 1960s, a word Lenny Bruce will go to jail for.

It’s a great way to end this story, and it’s also why a cleaned-up, sanitized Grease is worse than no Grease at all…

All of this is why I love Grease so much, why I connect to the songs and the characters so powerfully. The whole thing has always struck me as extraordinarily truthful and honest. And so, it's always bummed me out when people dismiss the show as shallow crap.

It's not.

As I just proved.

Long Live the Musical

This essay is a revised version of part of one chapter from my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.

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