PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Grease — Lightnin' Strikes Thrice

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Grease — Lightnin' Strikes Thrice The Broadway equivalent of "You Asked for It" — that old Art Baker TV show which spanned nine years of the '50s — kinda occurred Aug. 19 when the granddaddy of high school musicals, Grease, slid into the Brooks Atkinson for its third Main Stem coming.

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The Broadway equivalent of "You Asked for It" — that old Art Baker TV show which spanned nine years of the '50s — kinda occurred Aug. 19 when the granddaddy of high school musicals, Grease, slid into the Brooks Atkinson for its third Main Stem coming.

As promised (if not indefatigably ballyhooed), this new edition is populated with People Choices in the leads of black-leathered "Danny Zuko" and his Miss White Bread, "Sandy Dumbrowski" — Max Crumm and Laura Osnes — cast in the most public manner possible, in front of all America on NBC's reality show, "Grease: You're the One That I Want."

Granted the public has always had the final say on who's a star and who isn't, but Crumm and Osnes come with personal baggage — like an audience that comes with them, one that has been through the arduous star-making process with them and wants to see them make the grade.

Crumm, for one, looked like he had just crossed the finish-line when he arrived at Roseland for the opening-night party. "It's a hard way to get here," he said of his public preamble to stardom. "We were judged by millions of people, and we had to audition every single week from January to March — it was insane — then get critiqued immediately after we'd done our song." By comparison, actually doing the play was a piece of cake. Regardless of what it took out of him, he was happy to be where he was at this point in time. "It feels extremely special. It also feels like I'm dreaming. Everything happened so fast. Broadway is such a loving community. The people here are the best people to work with — it's all the best — the best of the best are here, and I'm glad to be a part of it, man."

Osnes was also in the throes of having a dream come true and dealing with the reality of that reality. "Doing the auditions," she recalled, "I felt I had to prove myself week after week after week, but America believed in me enough to get me here. It's so rewarding to stand on that stage every night. At the end, people leap to their feet and roar."

Sandy is no stranger to her. "I played her once in a dinner theatre in Minneapolis," she said. Plus: "I've seen it at least two or three other times on stage, seen the movie I don't even know how many times, and I've had the CD of the show since I was young."

But she credits her director-choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, with really getting her into the role. "Kathleen has been a dream to work with. I feel I've learned so much from her. I learned a lot about Sandy, about myself and my capabilities. She has stretched me, challenged me to be the best I can be, and she has been so encouraging in the process."

Director Marshall, who is a Tony-winning choreographer as well (Wonderful Town), is an expert at drawing excellent work from Broadway-new performers, as Harry Connick Jr.'s Tony-nominated turn in The Pajama Game readily bears out, and she insisted her two new stars didn't require T.L.C. coddling.

"Not at all," she said, "no more than you would with the leads in any other productions. We have 14 people here making their Broadway debuts so it's not like they're getting any kind of special treatment from me."

The instant commercial take-off of her Grease does not surprise Marshall. "Our first few weeks have been really terrific. I think it's a combination of the phenomenal popularity of Grease and the fact that this production stars two people that people know. People want to come to see people they know on stage. They know Max and Laura. They're rooting for them. They voted for them. Both get entrance applause every night, and, after the show — you should see — there are 200-300 people out there at the stage door waiting for their autographs.

"Y'know, it's unbelievable. The power of television is an incredible thing. I think we're nurturing both a new generation of performers and a new audience for Broadway shows. I keep getting stopped at the back of the theatre by families telling me they've taken their family vacation to come to New York and see this particular Broadway show, and, for a lot of them, it's their first Broadway show. I think it's fantastic."

Of course, there has been some industry backlash to the you-decide-America casting process employed by this Grease, but Marshall shrugged this off. "All I can say is that whoever is boycotting the show doesn't seem to be hurting us. That's why there are so many different shows on Broadway. That's why Baskin-Robbins has 31 different flavors. Not everybody likes the same thing, and that's fine. It would depend on the show if I would do this again. Obviously, this experiment works with Grease because it's such a popular show and because it's young people. I mean, you wouldn't want to cast Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett this way, but there are shows this would work for. Absolutely."

The first-nighters included Grease alums from all levels of entry. From the original production: Carole Demas ("Sandy"), Marilu Henner ("Marty"), Irene Kristen ("Patty"); from London: Deborah Gibson ("Sandy"); from the 1994 revival: Jo Anne Worley (Miss Lynch); from the movie: Didi Conn ("Frenchy"), Barry Pearl ("Doody") and Annette Cardona ("Cha-Cha") — plus a whole posse of "Grease: The Ones That I Didn't Want" exuding good will for Crumm and Osnes and not a hint of lynching them: Jason Celaya, Ashley Anderson, Ashley Spencer (a second-place "Sandy," now a first-class Amber in Broadway's Hairspray), Matt Nolan, Kevin Greene, Kathleen Monteleone, Chad Doreck, Juliana Hansen and Allie Schultz.

A stalwart "American Idol" star who has flicked effectively on Broadway and off and now numbers among "The Bold and Beautiful," Constantine Maroulis weighed in on the occasion, you can be sure. "I'm here to celebrate The Great American Musical and support the young talent. Opportunities come in many different ways, whether it's a television show or an open call. We all have dreams."

Rob Marshall, director of the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2002 ("Chicago"), had a special reason for being in that number on opening night. "Something called my sister's work," he didn't have to explain — but did. Let the record show he has made all of her opening nights.

He promised to pry himself loose from Hollywood and resume directing and choreographing for Broadway again — but first he must do the belated (like "Chicago") movie version of Nine. "It's a gorgeous score, and we're reworking it for film so it's really a new book. I've been working on it since the beginning of the year. We'll probably be shooting next March and, hopefully, come out with it in December '08."

Right now he's knee-deep in casting the thing. "We've seen probably every feature-film actress in Hollywood for the women. We're casting in New York, in Los Angeles, in London, in Paris and in Rome, so it's been a huge undertaking — and we're still doing it.

"Sometimes, there are real surprises. It's just like casting 'Chicago' because we don't know what film actors can sing. Sometimes there will be a surprise, and sometimes they'll be a disappointment for someone you really love as an actor and they just can't sing it."

Fresh (very fresh) from the "Hairspray" flick and bouncing with energy, Nikki Blonsky said her pilgrimage to Grease was because she had spent the past year of her life with the movie's Danny Zuko. "He's [John Travolta] my mom," she smiled sweetly.

Also attending: TV's Stephen Colbert with daughter Madeline, Spring Awakening's Tony-nominated Jonathan Groff and Tony-winning John Gallagher Jr. (both duly noting a different brand of teenage angst), producer James Nederlander Jr., Curtains' Edward Hibbert, Crista Moore, Anthony Fedorov with girlfriend Lisa Rodriguez, Hairspray's Beaver Clea — er, Jerry Mathers, New Kid on the Block John Knight and a tie-less Nederlander-er, Nick Scandalios.

Erin Dilly, grounded by motherhood since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, was present for her hubby, Stephen R. Buntrock, a "Teen Angel" if ever there was one. "I've been making commercials, but this spring I'm working on a new show that's coming to Broadway next year called The Gershwins' American in Paris." The script the late Wendy Wasserstein was working on won't be used. "There's a new script by Ken [Moon Over Buffalo, Lend Me a Tenor] Ludwig, and it's really sensational — very, very funny."

Buntrock makes his angelic appearance to "Beauty School Dropout" Frenchy (Kirsten Wyatt) out of a gigantic ice cream cone resting atop an "American Graffiti"-like diner. "I love looking up and seeing Stephen Buntrock just come out of the cone every night," his wife admitted. "It's my favorite part of the show. It makes me so happy."

Although he followed Patrick Wilson into Oklahoma! without any trepidation, Buntrock knows only too well who his "Teen Angel" predecessors are: "Well, first of all, it ain't no Billy Porter. He did an incredible job, and I'm as white as can be, and I ain't going to do that. This is Tab Hunter Meets the Ice Cream Cone. Coming out of an ice cream cone every single night is the kick of it all. They load me into the cone, and I have to wait [in] there about ten minutes, then I come down and do a three-and-a-half minute number. I get to go back up, and I get to go off-stage and then I go home and have a beer."

The true kick, he contended, lies in the young company he's keeping: "I'm watching 14 kids make their Broadway debuts. I'm saying kids because I seem to be the grandpa of this production. I seem to be transferring over into the 'old.' I can see how hard they work. They're doing a fantastic job. They really are. And they know that's what they have to do."

Another "senior" player feeling his age is Jeb Brown, who plays the lecherous deejay "Vince Fontaine." "On the first day of rehearsal, the question was asked of the whole company, 'Who here saw the original production?' I was the only person. At 12 years old, I'd seen the original so it is always, to me, a stage property. I saw the movie in 1978, and it's iconic, but Grease was built for the stage, and it's just great to be on stage in it."

Seconding that was the show's "Betty Rizzo," Jenny Powers: "It is such a wonderful Auditorium — theatre — for this piece because it's so intimate. It's like you really get to meet these characters. You really get to almost sit down with us at the lunch table at the beginning and share our pudding." "Rizzo," whose false pregnancy hangs heavily over a portion of the show, is all brass and sass and threatening "knuckle sandwiches," but the actress insisted, "I'm not really a bitch, I swear. I've done this character before, in high school, so I'm used to playing the bitch, the vamp, the woman who's not afraid to be a man's equal. This role, for me, was really comfortable. What's really hard for me to play is what I played a couple of years ago on Broadway — 'Meg' in Little Women, the ingenue — the opposite end of that spectrum. When I played Meg, all my sorority sisters came from Northwestern to see show, and they were, like, 'Who is that on stage?'"

Grease was presented first on Broadway (1972-1980) by The Waissmans (Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox) and again for four years (1994-1998) by The Weisslers (Barry and Fran) and now by Paul Nicholas, David Ian, Terry Allen Kramer and the Nederlander Presentations Inc., all by special arrangement with the movie's producer, Robert Stigwood.

If the music sounds more vivid than what Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey originally turned in, that's because the score has been sweetened with songs written for the movie ("You're the One I Want" and the Oscar-nominated "Hopelessly Devoted to You" by Olivia Newton John's personal writer-in-residence, John Farrar, also of "Xanadu"; Barry Gibbs' title tune, and "Sandy" by Scott Simon and Louis St. Louis).

Waissman spent the evening grinning ear to ear like the proud parent of a 37-year-old wunderkind, which indeed he is. And he's a single parent now. "Maxine remarried years ago and hasn't been involved in the business. She lives in Virginia, a lady of leisure."

He was there for the Grease genesis and made it happen. "It started, really, when my roommate from college called me from Chicago. He described Grease as a pint-sized gem of a show that I had to come see, about the kids that used to hang out behind our high-school — the greasers [because of the overly lubed locks of hair and ducktails].

"Well, I flew out to see it. We sat on a cement floor, on newspapers, and we watched these kids in this community theatre — and, suddenly, I saw my high school. By the time it was over, I had envisioned this pint-sized show as a Broadway-sized musical."

Not all the songs were in place then, but "a lot of them were. 'Beauty School Dropout' was not only in the original Chicago community theatre production that I went to see, it was the first song they wrote. They sang it at a party as a spoof, and some friends at the party said, 'Jim and Warren, why don't you write this idea into a musical?' A lot of new songs were written because Jim and Warren moved to New York once we agreed to go forward and started developing it more as a full Broadway musical. The Danny and Sandy characters were not as concrete as they became and we worked on making that stronger."

Waissman is currently developing a musical about Josephine Baker. It takes place from 1939 to 1945, when she's in the French Underground, having a secret liaison with Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden and being courted by the conductor who eventually became her husband. "It's an exciting time. Steve Dorff is doing the music, and John Bettis is doing the lyrics. They're basically from the pop world. They did 'One Moment in Time.'"

Jacobs is on a high cloud. "I feel like the guy who invented the Energizer Battery — it just keeps going and going," he said. "Years ago, I ask Betty Lee [Hunt, his publicist] if 'there's a chance a chance we'd ever pass Fiddler on the Roof. She said, 'Naw, I don't think so, but I think we'll have a good run.' Then, of course came the day in '79 when we passed Fiddler and became the longest-running show in Broadway history, then in a couple of years A Chorus Line passed us. We had run 3,388 performances. The second time Grease was on Broadway it set the longest-record for a Broadway revival at that time — 1,505 performances. And this thing looks like it's going to run a while. It's got a great box-office advance — as they do in London, I might add.

"My lawyer said, 'Resign yourself to the fact that Grease is going to outlive you.'"

From Top: Barry Pearl, Marilu Henner, Kenneth Waissman and Annette Cardona; "You're the One that I Want" finalists; The company of <i>Grease</i> takes its opening night bows.
From Top: Barry Pearl, Marilu Henner, Kenneth Waissman and Annette Cardona; "You're the One that I Want" finalists; The company of Grease takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben