Grease: Live brings down the house
Before yesterday at oh, 5PM, I barely remembered Grease: Live was going to be on TV. When I did, I was looking forward to some snark. Remember, I called Grease a shouted play with some songs in it.
I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
Last night wasn’t just fun, it was breathtaking. Not just a flowery word - I frequently held my breath, because I could not believe what I was seeing was happening on live television. It was ballet on a massive scale. You’re maybe thinking you don’t care about technical stuff, just get to talking about Vanessa Hudgens and Julianne Hough. And I will - but this was special. Revolutionary.
You’ve seen live TV, right? Sporting events, awards shows – probably the Super Bowl is the biggest live event there is. This…dwarfs that, in a different way. There were camera guys literally hanging from the ceiling. (This cost SO MUCH MONEY.) There were dozens of angles, and every last one of them was perfect. You can see all of our people in every single shot, all living their own stories. Which made all the difference.
Look, I’m not apologizing for what I said about Grease fundamentally. It’s a boring musical. Some of the jokes that didn’t land, despite Ana Gasteyer being awesome, are so old and hoary (‘athletic supporter’) your grandmother wouldn’t bat an eye.
So instead, they made a SHOW. Director Thomas Kail is from Hamilton (even if you didn’t know or care about Hamilton, you couldn’t miss Lin-Manuel Miranda’s all-caps liveblogging – his retweets were in the thousands), and they made this a THING. Marty performs at the USO? OKAY. The high school dance we’ve all watched a hundred times at a hundred sleepovers? Let’s make it a visual marvel that switches aspect ratios, takes us ‘into’ the TV, and never, ever stops. The CARNIVAL…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The other thing this show did was to get real performances. Actual, layered, real-people performances make you take the show seriously even if the content is, you know, Grease.
Like most of you, I know the show back-to-front, even though I’ve never been in a production of it (that I recall. But then why do I know all the harmonies…?). Often the performances are just a retread of the movie, and this production is based on the rights to that movie. But no. Kail wanted more for us…
I’ve been stumping for Keke Palmer for years on this site, and did I lie? Marty Maraschino is a real person, not just a one-note golddigger, finally, not least because Keke Palmer is always IN IT. Watch her in the group scenes – Marty’s story is consistent even when Keke’s not sure she’s on camera.
She’s not the only one. I was less enamored by Kether Donohue’s Jan than some but that’s because there were so many other people to watch. Jordan Fisher was a revelation as Doody. You cared about Magic Changes for the first time ever. Carly Rae Jepsen was legitimately great as Frenchy as written, the fact that they gave her that DOG of a song before Beauty School Dropout notwithstanding—or that Boyz II Men as Teen Angel were such a non-moment. Sob.
And I am not the only one who was cajoled into tolerating, liking, then against-all-odds rooting for Julianne Hough as Sandy (‘of Stars Hollow’). I hate Sandy, think she’s boring and presumptuous (“Riz”?), and I think she could have better taste in dudes, but she was talented – and super watchable. Part of that is due to real-ish chemistry with Aaron Tveit, who was charming and totally in it and has that thing that makes you remember Danny could be anyone, in a different school with a different cool group. He’s dynamic. He’s Zack Morris. But I only notice him in the guys-only numbers. I can’t look at him in any of the group scenes, because, like any right-minded person, I am staring at Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo.
Did you know this? None of us knew this. Okay, some of you did, of course, and probably have been yelling into the wind that she’s talented and great. She’s been doing things we care about, but we’ve been looking in the other direction. Selena Gomez was the story out of Spring Breakers, and Vanessa Hudgens on Broadway in Gigi was lost in a sea of Fun Home and Hamilton. She seemed like an also-ran.
How wrong we were. I had no idea.
Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo is so amused at how much of a bitch she herself is. For the first forty minutes of the show, she delivers every line with snark, condescension, and most importantly, real-life IDGAF that’s usually missing from Rizzo…even while she still pays attention to what’s going on at Rydell. It’s a balance that’s really hard to find – dare I say Hudgens manages it better than Stockard Channing did? I’m really sorry, but I think I do. She was note-perfect. She cracked her gum in perfect time. If you didn’t see the show and think people gave her great reviews because she had a personal tragedy, nothing could be further from the truth.
And as you’re reeling from Worse Things, and how great she is, we careen right into possibly the greatest live-TV finale of all time: a f*cking functional carnival in the middle of the Paramount lot and giving actual live energy to a live show, in a way they said couldn’t be done.
Before I watched, I was all set to say that it wasn’t as good as NBC’s The Wiz, and that anyway it isn’t fair to watch someone figure out how to do something three times and THEN do your own version of it.
You know what? The truth is it isn’t fair, per se – but who cares? They didn’t just make a ‘better’ live musical, Grease: Live changed the genre altogether. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, ‘Gauntlet thrown’. This is so over-and-above anything we’ve ever seen, it’s on par with some of the best TV directing overall, not just ‘live, musical TV’. Somewhere, Glee just curled up and cried.
I was wrong about the show, and Vanessa Hudgens in particular, and I’m so glad about it I’m almost proud.