Olivia Newton-John may have played Sandy Dumbrowski in the film version of "Grease," but it was singing actress (and children's TV star) Carole Demas who originated the role of the summer lovin' fifties gal for Broadway audiences in 1972.
With the imminent Broadway revival of Grease — directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall — as well as the reality TV show that is casting the leads of that production, it seemed a great time to check in with Demas, who also has the distinction of being the first actress to ever sing Stephen Schwartz's vocally demanding "Meadowlark" (in the Los Angeles premiere of The Baker's Wife), a song she often includes in her concert act.
I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Demas a few weeks ago, when "Grease: You're the One That I Want" was still touting Newton-John as the creator of the role of Sandy. Although the show has since rectified that misnomer, Demas said at the time that it did "ruffle my feathers a little . . . [but] you can't survive this business if you take everything personally. I mean, I have been the subject of some of the most infamous firings in the history of Broadway," she laughs.
"[Olivia] does a lovely job in the film," Demas adds. "I have a lot of respect for her and for her fans, and I don't blame NBC or the show for wanting to attract as large an audience as they can . . . [but] I feel like this little glitch is sort of indicative of the fact that Hollywood doesn't always give Broadway its due. The people who create Broadway shows are the original characters and bring themselves and their work to those performances that then become a part of Broadway history [and] are just as much a part of that as an actor in a film is . . . People bring themselves to roles and infuse them with things that maybe are not on the printed page but become part of that character forever."
A very different version of Grease than the one that eventually wound up on Broadway debuted in Chicago with a mostly different cast. "That Grease was very dark," says Demas. "I sat with Jim in my living room once, and he played me [an audio] tape of the Chicago production, [but] you'd have had to bleep every other word [for Broadway audiences in the 1970's]! . . . Jim and [Grease co-creator] Warren [Casey] had their work cut out for them in trying to be true to their inspiration but still make it palatable to a matinee audience. I can't really say enough about how they worked over that, how they slaved over that."
Demas remembers the early days of getting Grease ready for the Broadway stage. "I remember I took one look at Sandy on the page," Demas says, "and thought, 'You could disappear into the wallpaper!' But [I had] to be true to the innate sweetness of this girl [but] not walk around disappearing and being the biggest bore anyone's ever seen! I mean, to be an ingénue and to be a really good one isn't easy because you're dying for people to take you seriously, [but] that's not really what it's about.
"When I was working on Sandy, I thought, 'Okay, you gotta have something really special. Danny is king of the hill — that's what really matters to him — and he wants this girl. He can have any girl. Why would he risk his reputation for someone who isn’t terrific?' I felt she had to have a special glow — a light inside that would draw him and the audience to her — so he couldn't forget her, in spite of himself, and that's what I tried to give her."
Demas also says that that creators were "writing and rewriting Grease all the time. Ilene Kristen [who created the role of Patty Simcox] had a song called 'Yuck' that was really funny. It was a song she sang about Danny — when he passes her, she says, 'Yuck!' She did it wonderfully well, but for the sake of the show, they decided to cut it. . . . They also kept moving things around. There were times when things kept changing that it got to the point where we'd be offstage with things pasted on the walls. We had things written on our hands just trying to keep track of the changes!"
During this same period Demas — with lifelong friend Paula Janis — began starring in the TV kids show "The Magic Garden," which endeared her to a multitude of children and their parents during its 12-year run on WPIX-TV in the metropolitan New York City area. "By the time we were in previews [for Grease], 'The Magic Garden' was on, only once a week at that time," Demas relates. "And at the very end of [Grease], Sandy used a four-letter word to Danny. Somebody from WPIX was in the audience and [heard me] using this four-letter-word and was very distressed [and] went back to WPIX to [complain].
"I said, 'You've got many major television stars doing acts in Las Vegas that are ten times bluer than Grease will ever be. Some of them are in family-oriented shows. I don't understand why you're so upset about this.' But they were adamant, so I went [to the show's creators] . . . and they said, 'Okay, we'll change it.' I was stunned that they were willing because sometimes one word is terribly important for a writer, and I was very, very uncomfortable bringing it up."
Demas is thankful she was given the chance to star in a Broadway production, and especially "grateful to all of the people who cast and worked with us, but especially pleased that Louis St. Louis took a chance on me and decided that I had the vocal ability to sing Sandy since I was better known for doing [more soprano roles]. The Broadway musical was changing, and I knew I had to adapt. My voice teacher, a dear friend and mentor, Felix Knight, decided that he would help me find a high chest voice without destroying the line of my lyric-coloratura training. He taught me to sing high chest like a tenor, and it worked and has continued to work for me for a whole lot of years. He was a true gift in my life."
In addition to Grease, Demas was also seen on the New York stage in Morning Sun, Love's Labour's Lost, Coriolanus, How to Steal an Election, Rondelay and the original run of The Fantasticks, playing the role of Luisa for several years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. "That was a very important part of my life," says Demas, "and it was also another opportunity to do eight shows a week. I've been in the original cast of a number of Off-Broadway shows that didn't run very long, but to get into something that goes on and on [is wonderful]."
Demas — who is married to designer, audio engineer and producer Stuart Allyn — has fond memories of her New York stage work and the ups-and-downs of a theatre career. "I've always been told [that I have] an aura of vulnerability, [which] is part of what I bring to my work. It is difficult to project that and not really mean it, so you can never call me jaded. You can call me a lot of things, but you can never call me jaded," she laughs. Demas also laughs at the recollection of one particular theatre audition in front of playwright Neil Simon. "I once auditioned for something," she says, "and I had grabbed my vitamins off the kitchen counter on my way out the door. I didn't have time to take them, and I just figured, 'Somewhere along the line today, I will.' There was a water fountain backstage, and as one of the really big pills was going down, I realized it was my cat's! And, of course, wouldn't you know, they call me [to audition] immediately [after that]. When I first got out on the stage, I was kind of gagging and swallowing, and I had tears in my eyes because it had made me choke. And Neil Simon said to me, 'Are you alright?' I said, 'Yes, I'm fine. It's really stupid, but I just swallowed one of my cat's vitamins.' He thought it was hysterical and said, 'Don't be surprised if I use that line!'"
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