Highs and Lows of Grease: Live from a TV Geek and Musical Freak

This foray into live TV musicals has been an interesting journey thus far. NBC’s been the only one taking it on (so much so, that  many on Twitter last night thought they were watching NBC), and they’ve been improving, as far as it goes. Sound of Music was a cardboard production. Peter Pan was confusing. They finally started to get their act together with The Wiz! But I think Fox has upped the ante with Grease: Live.

I was SUPER stoked, as a huge fan of Grease and live musical events. And I was really eager to see how Fox was going to pull it off. Here are some thoughts:

The High Notes:

The production quality. The sets. The costumes. The camera work. All of it was just stunning. Greased Lightning and Freddy My Love were real standouts, technically speaking.

Vanessa Hudgens. Damn, girl. I’m not the biggest fan of “Worst Things…” but she knocked it out of the park. And under such emotional duress. I don’t think I’d have the strength. Well done.

The energy. Keeping up the dance-y vibe of Grease is a tremendous undertaking, particularly during the dialogue-heavy spots. On stage, and to an extent on film, the lurid language keeps up some of the spunk, but, as expected,  much of that was cut in favor of a family-friendly presentation. And yet, the energy was still there, in part thanks to Patty and Eugene, serving as highly-caffeinated transitions.

Doody. Jordan Fisher. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. And what a great way to incorporate “Magic Changes.” He was truly the stand-out T-Bird.

The women, in general. I know some thought there was over-acting, but … that’s how it’s supposed to be. All the Pink Ladies, Patty, Principal McGee and Blanche, Mrs. Murdock – the shop mechanic (an appropriate path for Jan Brady, btw) and the adorable Didi Conn — brilliant.

The Average Range:

The live audience. I’ve been BEGGING for a live audience. It feels like the biggest missing element in NBC’s shows. But due to the staging of Grease: Live, this was one production that didn’t seem to NEED it. Between the soundstage traveling and the fancy camera movement, there was a constant and energized flow. Not to mention that the cast seemed well stocked with extras, so if we ever had a moment that needed some audience noise, surely they could have provided it. It was just the wrong venue for a live audience. Some mentioned the live audience used as background extras was distracting, but I didn’t get that.

Frenchy’s new song. Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t at fault, though. The song itself felt out of place, completely lacking any doo-wop, era-specific strokes.

Sandy and Danny. Oh, they were great when they were singing and dancing. But speaking…. not so much. Aaron Tveit has a great voice and looked swell in short shorts. But when it came to just speaking… let’s just say, it really made me miss Travolta. John made Danny a quirky cool, an oddball character with deliberate delivery. And Julianne Hough was… fine. Great dancer. Meh.

The Clunkers:

Kenickie. Kenickie is supposed to be the real cool one. The bad ass. I mean, come on, it’s why he and Rizzo work so well, and it’s why the Kenickie/Danny bro-ship is so good – Kenickie makes Danny cooler, challenges him. Danny, in turn, softens Kenickie, cools him down when he gets out of hand. Carlos PenaVega was way forgettable. Which for me, ruined the BFF drag racing scene a bit.

The golf carts. Some liked them. I did not. And I love backstage stuff. But this felt like too much backstage stuff during the show. I kind of wish it was a secret, revealed in a “making of” at the end. But it’s relatable to anyone whose done live theatre. I was in a Shakespeare play in college, where I had to exit upstage right, run up 2 flights of stairs, down a hallway, through the dressing room and costume closet, down one flight of stairs, through the lobby, through the pitch-black shop to make my downstage left entrance mere lines later. Blind, by the way. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and didn’t have contacts. But that’s theatre, folks. Save the backstage secrets for after the show, not during.

Mario Lopez. Why was he hosting? At that point, they should have courted Ryan Seacrest. Would have been funnier, anyway.

Apparently, during the actual LIVE broadcast, there were some tech issues. By the time it got to me, they had cleaned it up, so I can’t make any real comment there.

The Coda?

I really liked it. No, it didn’t replace the film. But boy, was it fun. This is exactly why I’m not freaking out about the upcoming RHPS remake, just sayin’.

NBC’s next musical is Hairspray, which is strikingly similar in energy to Grease, with even more of a social agenda. Hopefully, they’ll take some cues from Fox’s success.

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Singin’ in the Rain: Some Things Never Change

Since the Oscar nominations were announced, I’ve been reading a few of the trillions of lists put together by various entertainment outlets. 24 of the Most Unforgivable Oscar Snubs, 10 Oscars That Were Whiter Than White. 33 Reasons The Lego Movie Is This Year’s Best Picture. Et cetera. But one list that was truly fascinating was EW’s 51 Performances Oscar Never Recogonized.

Typically, any list over 25 is questionable. But, I gave it a look anyway. First of all, it was greatly aided by having a video clip of each performance — no easy feat, and extraordinarily helpful in a list like this. Now, when watching awards shows, my dad is known for spouting tidbits and facts like a living, breathing, iMDb. So I’m kinda used to hearing things like, “You know, he was nominated for this film, but won for a different film eight years later,” or “This film lost to that film in 1976.” But seeing a cohesive list of performances that didn’t just lose an Oscar, but were never even considered is kind of startling.

They listed some incredible performances, many of which weren’t appreciated when released, or seem to have held up better over time, or were simply overshadowed. One of those many performances was Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain.

And that, of course, got me thinking about Singin’ in the Rain. This was a film I discovered “later in life,” maybe when I was 17 or 18, but I fell for it immediately. I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise, really. It’s a musical and a movie about making movies. That’s pretty much gold for me.

What strikes me about Singin’ in the Rain is how the general representation of celebrity, stardom, and Hollywood, is still ALL true. The movie was made in 1952 about 1929, yet here we are in 2015, and nearly everything is still exactly the same.

My case:

– The Red Carpet Interview

In the film’s opening scene, we’re brought into a red carpet premiere of the new Lockwood-Lamont picture. A crowd is anxiously awaiting each celebrity arrival, screaming names and begging for autographs. This scene is narrated by Dora Bailey (played by Madge Blake), who is essentially Ryan Seacrest. She oohs and aahhs to her radio listeners as different celebrities exit their vehicles and prance down the carpet….. speaking of…

– The Celebs

You may not know the actors being caricatured  in this opening scene, but it almost doesn’t matter. The It girl, the attention seeking drama queen, the perfect Hollywood couple. We can fill in our current celebrities to match the labels.

– The Actor’s Interview

When Don finally arrives, he gladly conducts his red carpet interview. When asked about his beginnings, he weaves an elaborate tale, full of fancy schooling, serious roles and heaps of luck, while we see the truth — his low-class upbringing, his less-than-high-brow work in vaudeville,  his desperation trying to make it in LA. It’s  a tale celebrities still spin today, if not quite to that extreme. Oh sure, today it’s a lot easier to dig up old yearbook photos and embarrassing commercials, but we still have to do the digging. We always take what celebrities say with a grain of salt, knowing they rarely ever tell the whole truth.

– Studios Scrambling Over the Next Big Thing

The real challenge in Singin’ in the Rain is when this new technology arrives allowing movies to record audio, bringing in the Talkie Era. Shown at the premiere after-party, almost everyone believes it’s a fad. But when studios start buying into it, it doesn’t take long for Colossal Pictures to jump on board. The studio head halts production so the new technology could be installed.

Studios are so insane about being on top of the “the next big thing.” The same thing happened with Technicolor, HD, 3D — you get it. Nobody wants to be the last one, so when they rush into the new technology, there are always…. let’s call them growing pains. And they’re hilarious.

Probably my favorite scene in the entire film is when they start filming with the microphone and eventually screen an early version with sound. Anyone who has ever tried seriously filming a movie on your own will understand that scene. It feels all too real.

Ultimately, I think my argument here is trying to prove that we tend to dismiss “old” movies (be they made earlier than the year we were born, a musical, or –gasp– black & white), yet most of them are still completely relevant and totally entertaining. They may not be filled with lightning-speed editing or quick-and-punchy dialogue. Yes, Singin’ in the Rain has some cheesy moments. (Between you and me, I always skip the final dance sequence.) But overall, it’s a phenomenal film that holds up so well.

Give it a chance, people.

#LearnfromtheClassics