Fox’s first live musical featured a vibrant, fun-filled production…but might have been a questionable choice of subject matter to begin with.
Fox’s Sunday, January 31st broadcast of Grease: Live! was a huge hit according to Nielsen, who found that an average of 12.2 million viewers tuned in to the live television event. Grease: Live! was Fox’s first attempt at broadcasting a live television event after NBC had already been successfully airing live productions of classic stage shows such as The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz since 2013.
Fox really upped the ante with this truly massive production, requiring 600 people in both the cast and crew and utilizing 14 location sets built on a 20 acre studio lot. The sets and costume designs were a perfect representation of the sets and costumes from the original film Grease, which premiered in 1978. For this updated televised version, there was a large push by advertisers for the show’s producers to “tone down some of its racier lyrics” in order to “make the show more palatable for the broadcast audience;” and it is evident that several words were changed from the original script. During the performance of the song “Greased Lightning,” the lyric “the chicks will cream” was changed to “the chicks will scream.” Later in the song, Kenickie calls the car “a real dragon wagon” in lieu of the original line from the film, “a real pussy wagon.” Many of the conversations between the T-Birds began or ended with references to the female anatomy. Though the language was toned down and the subject matter most likely did over the heads of younger viewers, to anyone who knows what references to “pomp poms,” “jugs,” or “in her drawers” mean, the production was still just as racy as the original. In spite of the advertisers’ good-faith efforts to have the most offensive language removed, one problem remained: the fact that the original source material itself is an antiquated message to teenagers about sex and consent.
Grease is an upbeat depiction of 1950s-era high school teenagers and their infatuation with being perceived as cool, popular, or rebellious. Along with these angst-filled teenage motivations, they are also obsessed with sex. The leather jacket-wearing greaser guys, known as the T-Birds, and the pink polyester-wearing girl gang, known as the Pink Ladies, are constantly teasing each other about their sexual experience and they use sexual innuendo to describe sexual acts. As a result, the sponsor-mandated changes to the lyrics did spare family audiences from the most graphic and obvious language; but the very fact that Fox chose Grease as its first live production — instead of family-friendly source material like The Sound of Music or Peter Pan – meant that as family fare, the production still fell just short of the mark.
Another problem was the decision to keep many of the film’s original lyrics. In the song “Summer Nights,” the producers kept the original line, “Did she put up a fight?” when Kenickie asks Danny about the girl he met over the summer. The choice to keep this line was defended by Aaron Tveit, the actor who played Danny Zuko, in an interview before the live broadcast. But an even more blatant demonstration of aggressive sexual intent was in the scene where Danny and Sandy are shown on a date at the drive-in theater. Danny unrelentingly attempts to get Sandy to have sex with him while they are watching the movie and sitting in the front seat of his car. Sandy repeatedly tells him “no,” until she feels the need to get out of the car and leave the drive-in. This scene plays out very much like it did in the original film, which is surprising in 2016, because the scene obviously is meant to label Sandy as a prude.
To tell teenagers that sexual consent is based on whether or not a boy can coerce a girl into having sex, even after she tells him “no,” is irresponsible and wrong. This scene, as well as some other moments, could have been updated and used as an opportunity to critique those outdated 1950s sensibilities and shine a light on the social inequality that was commonplace in that era. Instead, the producers chose to update the show with a more ethnically diverse cast, adding a reference about a 12” television being too big to watch, and how great it would be to be able to watch movies at home whenever you want instead of going into the drive-in.
The issue here isn’t that Grease: Live! was intentionally made with an adult theme; it’s that the actors are portraying high-school teenagers who are infatuated with sex, and that the producers of the show insisted that the show would be toned down so families could watch it together. The minor changes of lyrics was Fox’s lackluster attempt to make the story more accessible to a broader audience.
Despite its contextual flaws, the production was a marvelous display of talent and coordination. In fact, most of the actors will probably gain more popularity and even be encouraged to participate in more musical productions. The actress who played Rizzo, Vanessa Hudgens, was especially brilliant in her performance as the leader of the Pink Ladies. Grease: Live! was appropriately rated TV-14 DSLV, due to the sexual dialogue, sexual gestures, and mild language. This production is not recommended for anyone under the age of 14. However, if you’re an adult who is nostalgic for elaborate dance choreography and the unforgettable music, then you will probably enjoy the modernized interpretation of the classic film.