"Well, Grease came to me. I didn't come to it," admits executive producer Marc Platt. "When Paramount and Fox came and said, 'Would you want to do this?,' I thought, 'Well, that would be fun because I love Grease,' but it also feels really well-suited [for 2016]. It has this elasticity to it — drawing from a film and a stage production — so you have more than one source to draw from. You can play with it a little bit — not to betray the integrity of it — but you could stretch it a little bit. You could have fun with it because it is all about fun. So you could go outside, you could break the fourth wall… I thought that would be fun to try and explore because the material allows for it."
The company behind Fox's Grease: Live, which will hit television screens across the country Jan. 31, have explored all of those creative aspects for the newly updated and diversely cast version of the classic musical. Musical numbers will be staged live outside (come rain or shine!), an audience will be incorporated into the set (and the action), and the Greasers of 2016 will hand jive their way into the hearts of teens across the country.
Unlike NBC's annual live musical event, which has proved to be a success year after year by bringing the theatre into millions of homes, Fox is taking a slightly different approach. This television event will be more of a hybrid between film and stage. The cast is shooting on multiple locations on the Warner Bros. Studio lots in California with sets that resemble those seen on TV and in movies ("It's going to be like you're watching a live movie," says star Aaron Tveit. "I think that's the best way to describe this."), and an audience will surround them.
How does one get to be in the room where it happens? "That's the $64,000 question," says director Thomas Kail, acclaimed for his direction of the Broadway megahit Hamilton. (Hamilton set designer David Korins is also on board as production designer with Tony winner William Ivey Long as costume designer.)
"It's going to be through a couple ways," he explains. "We're going to do contests for people that want to be there who love Grease or are in productions of Grease, so there's a lot of outreach that Fox is doing. And then there are also more traditional ways of getting audiences here. People who are doing our audience do 'The Voice' and a lot of those shows that have experience [with having] 1,000 people twice a day — figuring out how to move them and keep them engaged — so it's going to be a little bit of both.
"It's probably going to be 700 people total, and they're in various places. Outside of Rydell, we have 150 or so, and they're in bleachers, and they'll stay there and watch the show… They're [also] part of the world. When we go to the pep rally, you hand them a, 'Go Rydell Rangers' [sign], and all of a sudden we have a full pep rally. So it really depends on the place… There's some opportunities for some of the people to start in one place and move to another, but mostly once you're in a spot, you stay there, but you're always able to watch."
Since there are various set locations (the gym, the garage where the T-Birds sing "Greased Lightnin'," the bedroom where the girls have a slumber party, the high school and a few others), audience members are everywhere. When a scene is not going on in the location they are seated, they'll be able to catch the action on a monitor.
At-home audiences will also be able to see all of the behind-the-scenes action. Fox is planning for a second-screen to stream simultaneously during the production.
"Part of the thrill of making something live — and the reason why we like peeking backstage — is to witness [it happening before your eyes]," Kail continues. "So when Julianne [Hough] has to leave our dance — the dance at the gym — and then go to that next moment, all of a sudden something happens as soon as she walks off. She gets in this [golf] cart, she drives [over to the next set], someone gets her there, the costume change has to… It's happening while she's on the cart. I feel like you want to watch that in the moment, but if immediately after that, there's a place you can go online and experience what she did — whether that's a camera that's in the golf cart with her watching her do this — I think that's going to enhance the experience."
Hough, who's starring as Grease's Sandy, has one of the most challenging quick changes (location and costume) before going into her big musical moment, "Hopelessly Devoted."
"I only have two minutes to get on a golf cart, book it over there, breathe — because I just danced my booty off — and then belt out 'Hopelessly Devoted,'" she explains. "I'm like, 'What's going to happen?' Throat Coat tea and just try to like…breathe! Yeah, it's going to be pretty insane. There's people who thrive off of it, and there are people who are just scared to death, and I thrive off of it. I think that that's what I live for — that adrenaline that something could go wrong. If it does, I'm going to find my way out of it."
Another factor that could possibly "go wrong" on Jan. 31 is if it rains. The musical event is timed perfectly for all of its outdoor scenes, so that when it begins (4 PM on the West Coast, meaning East Coast audiences will tune in beginning at 7 PM) it will be light out as the teens arrive at Rydell. Towards the end of the show, it will be dark when the students hit the outdoor carnival.
A tarp covers the scenes set on the steps in front of Rydell, but the outdoor carnival is completely open… and the show will go on no matter what.
While checking out the set in California, press was given an exclusive preview of how the scene would go. And, although too many beans can't be spilled, let's say that there are a lot of moving parts — or golf carts — to get the cast from the gymnasium to the carnival grounds.
Another new element in this version of Grease, which creatives have billed as a hybrid of the stage property and the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, is the music, overseen here by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt.
"There is a new song," Kitt explains, referring to "All I Need Is an Angel," written specifically for Carly Rae Jepsen, the show's Frenchy. "Brian Yorkey and I have written a couple songs, and really, I look at this kind of in the same way I look at American Idiot. Grease is a classic, iconic work that does not need me to come in and do anything that's going to take away from what it is. Everything that I'm doing is just trying to serve the story and the beauty that's already there, so a lot of the musical touches were we found some reprise moments to take some themes and thread that into the story and some other places."
"I found out the first day walking onto set that they had written Frenchy a song, and I was really honored and excited and nervous to hear it," Jepsen shares. "Tom showed it to me just on piano at first, and it felt like a really beautiful moment for Frenchy to kind of explain her side of this insecurity of not knowing what she was going to do with her life and not knowing where to turn. She's just dropped out of high school; she's just failed at beauty school, and she's just a little bit lost. This is a moment to sort of peer into her soul and [see] that she's longing for some guidance. After her song the Boyz II Men arrive and make her dreams come true."
In the musical, Jepsen's character was the only Pink Lady who did not have a song of her own (she is only serenaded by Teen Angel in "Beauty School Dropout," whereas the other girls belt out classics such as "Freddy, My Love," "Mooning" and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"). Boyz II Men have been enlisted to take on Teen Angel.
Platt says that members of Grease's star-studded cast were jumping at the chance to join the team from the very beginning. The challenge became that there were "a great many choices to pick" from.
Additionally, Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, who played Frenchy and Doody, respectively, in the 1978 film, will cameo. Conn will play Vi, the waitress, originated by Joan Blondell in the original film.
"I was really flattered when Didi came to set and got to listen, and she actually cried the first time she heard [the new song] and said she felt like it was natural for the character to be singing it, and it felt really right," Jepsen continues.
During the press set visit in Los Angeles, Conn was seen showing off a picture of herself and Jepsen — the two bonded instantaneously.
"We're a little obsessed with each other," says Jepsen. "She's calling me Baby Frenchy, and I'm into it! I mean, no one can be Didi; she's got this iconic voice, and she created Frenchy from the get-go, and I think it was intimidating for me to meet somebody and be acting in front of somebody playing their character. It's almost like covering a song in front of the actual original writer. If anything, [she] kind of celebrated [it] as a refreshing take, and I think I gained my confidence from private conversations with her."
As for the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, the cast claims to be "obsessed" with one another. "We were family four hours into the first day," says Jordan Fisher, who plays Doody.
"We have nicknamed ourselves 'The Pink Ladies meets Sex and the City Bunch,'" says Jepsen, "because we're very obsessed with each other in a healthy way. I think it was clear that we all liked each other, and by the end of a couple parties together and the occasional night socializing, lunch breaks and stuff, we realized we were all going to be great friends beyond Grease."
"The T-Birds [are] a bunch of goofballs," says Andrew Call, who plays Sonny. "We are a bunch of jackasses. Literally a bunch of jackasses on and off camera. All we do is goof and play around. We have that dynamic built in already, Tommy Kail did a good job casting this thing because he's an absolute genius… He pats us on the back and just goes, 'You're welcome for introducing you guys. You're welcome.'"
Besides the bond, the cast is happy to be representing one of the most diverse group of Greasers yet.
"I hate to say this is a huge deal, but I believe I'm the first African-American [person] to be a part of this musical," says Keke Palmer, who plays Marty. "What I love about that [is] my little brother and sister get to watch this show, and they get to actually see the world that's around them. They’re going to be introduced to Grease in a way that their world is today."
For those wanting to get in with the Grease gang, Palmer says, "You can check my Snapchat for that, honey! Snapchat has all the details on what we're doing — all things Grease. How can I explain the camaraderie between us? … I think what makes theatre theatre is that you get to spend time with people who think exactly like you. I told you I didn't really go to high school so this feels like I'm doing my high school drama club."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)