Well, that sucked less than NBC’s abysmal version of Peter Pan two Christmases back. As in I didn’t shut it off in 40 minutes and refuse to ever go back and finish it. But that’s really all I can say for it.
It was clear that a lot of money and effort went into building complicated sets across a studio lot, into coordinating all the moves across sets and in choreographing hundreds of extras (indeed you couldn’t miss it as Fox made sure to show you at every commercial break how it was being done, lest you fail to be properly impressed) and yet the whole thing remained rather flat and soulless throughout.
One issue was that they couldn’t decided whether they were performing Grease: The Musical or Grease: The Movie. While they did go to something closer to the original book for the script and songs, the costumes, hairdressing and sets slavishly recreated those from the film. This really hurt the production by causing you to constantly compare Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, and they couldn’t help but come up short. It would have served the cast far better had they been allowed to develop their own takes on these characters rather than being forced into molds they could never really fit. The only person who occasionally shone was Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo who, while she never compared to Stockard Channing in the snark department, has quite a set of pipes on her, and really seemed to be channeling the real-life pain of her father’s death on the day of the broadcast into her rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do.
I was also a bit surprised that Fox was so coy about the mildly risqué lyrics to Greased Lightning, which I don’t believe I’ve heard edited for television in a good 15 or 20 years (and as I have to stop and watch Grease every single time it turns up when I’m flipping through channels, I know whereof I speak). I don’t object to the changes per sé, they aren’t plot significant, but I do wonder how in the heck Fox thinks they are going to pull off The Rocky Horror Show: Live! later this year if they chickened out on the use of the term “pussy wagon” here. Given Amnesty International’s really excellent live European simulcast of the West End version earlier this year (broadcast, I believe, on BBC America), featuring a hilariously rude turn by Stephen Fry as the narrator and no punches pulled in the sexual shenanigans department, I can’t see how Fox will manage to compete on prime time American TV, even if they are able to keep Tim Curry involved.
Comparing it to the far superior live broadcast of The Wiz that NBC did in December, the approach was completely different. With The Wiz, NBC made the decision (with the notable exception of makeup and costuming) to go minimalist, everything was done on a single stage, the sets were simplified, making use of large LED screens in place of scrims to allow for rapid scene changes. They also chose to keep a narrow focus on the main characters, casting folks who were known for their acting and vocal abilities and letting them mold the characters to their personalities, rather than the reverse. Most importantly, they avoided anything that would draw comparison to the previously filmed version. It worked beautifully and gave us a performance that stood proudly in its own right, rather than Grease‘s forgettable imitation of something it was not.
Grease: Live! was not unwatchable, but had I not had kids who were interested in seeing the whole thing, I’d have probably switched over to Downton an hour in with no regrets. Now I think I’d better watch the movie again to get the taste of ersatz Newton-John out of my head.
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