Joseph Spanti on Breathing New Life into Danny Zuko

In the neon-bathed corridors of Rydell High, amidst the cacophony of teenage dreams and rebellious anthems, the leather-jacket-clad silhouette of Danny Zuko has been an enduring emblem of cool since ‘Grease’ first revved its engines on Broadway. The musical, a nostalgic nod to the 1950s, has been electrifying audiences with its jukebox jingles and slick choreography, becoming a cultural touchstone across generations. Now, as the stage lights rise on the latest production of ‘Grease’ in Melbourne, a new Danny Zuko takes the helm, ready to steer the classic into contemporary hearts with a fresh charisma and a knowing twinkle in his eye.

Joseph Spanti, an alumnus of the Victorian College of the Arts, steps into the role with a resume that spans the emotional spectrum—from the sun-drenched shores of ‘Dive Club’ to the angst-ridden halls of ‘Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical.’ His Danny Zuko is not just a character but a conversation with the past, a nuanced blend of homage and originality. Spanti channels the essence of the iconic greaser through a modern lens, bringing a depth that transcends the stereotype. In this production, he peels back the layers of the quintessential high school heartthrob, revealing vulnerabilities and veracities that promise to both honor the legacy of John Travolta’s legendary portrayal and carve a new path for the storied character.

When you think of ‘Grease,’ you think of slicked-back hair, high-waist jeans, and the too-cool-for-school Danny Zuko. But how does a contemporary actor like Joseph Spanti, known for his roles in Netflix’s ‘Dive Club’ and the parody ‘Friends! The Musical Parody,’ step into such iconic leather shoes? Joseph’s approach is disarmingly simple and refreshingly thoughtful.

“For me, not a lot changes,” Joseph admits, discussing his transition from the screen to the stage. “I start with what the character wants.” Joseph digs into the psychology of his roles, asking why Danny does what he does, loves who he loves. It’s about finding the truth in the character, a process that’s less about imitation and more about inhabitation. “I chose to only play him as Joe Spanti in the same circumstances as the play and try to remain truthful the whole way through,” he explains.

Joseph, transitioning from roles in contemporary pieces like ‘Dive Club’ to a classic like ‘Grease’ must involve some shifts in mindset and preparation. How do you approach playing a character like Danny Zuko, who is so iconic and well-known?

Good question. For me, not a lot changes. I always start with what the characters wants in the piece? Keep asking questions, why does he do this thing or why does he love this person. I find by doing so it slowly informs me and about what the character is thinking throughout the show. And as always, I go back to the other actor and just work off them and listen to what they are saying and ofcourse… Just breath. But yes, Danny Zuko is a pretty iconic character in pop culture, but I chose to only play him as Joe Spanti in the same circumstances as the play and try to remain truthful the whole way through.

The moment Joseph learned he’d be playing Danny Zuko was pivotal—not just for his career but personally, too. Having recently faced disappointment, the role was a cosmic consolation, a new path unfurling at his feet. “I realised very quickly that I was about to fulfil a long-lasting goal of leading a musical,” he shares, his voice tinged with the excitement of that moment.

Can you tell us about the moment you found out you would be playing Danny Zuko, and what this role means to you personally and professionally?

It was a pretty awesome moment, I was at work and I got the email from my agent. Personally, I had just missed out on another big role a week or two before that I was absolutely gutted about. So I guess the universe had other plans for me… And professionally, when I booked the role. I realised very quickly that I was about to fulfil a long lasting goal of leading a musical, but also opening in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre… which is where I saw my very first musical.

Playing heartthrobs isn’t new to Joseph, but he approaches these roles with a dedication to uncovering the genuine emotion beneath the stereotype. “It can be quite easy to fall into the melodrama,” he says. For Joseph, Danny is not just a T-Bird; he’s a lovesick teenager torn between his image and his heart’s desire. It’s a relatable struggle that echoes beyond the high school bleachers.

Your role as Cinderella’s Prince in ‘Into The Woods’ and now Danny Zuko in ‘Grease’ both have a romantic lead aspect. How do you approach these ‘heartthrob’ roles, and what do you think makes them resonate with audiences?

I find that I approach them the same way, which is why asking questions is so important in developing characters. Sometimes with “heartthrob” type characters it can be quite easy to fall into the melodrama of it all. But asking clear questions about the love they feel can further inform the actor to the characters truth thoughts and feelings.

Danny for example, is a love sick teenager who falls head of heels for the girl of his dreams but cant seem to merge his love for Sandy with his life as a TBird – He literally cry’s out in the song Sandy “Somehow, someway, our two world will be one”. Once I realised that, things just started to fall into place. But I also think the heartthrob resonates with audiences because everyone at some point in their life has had a moment for love at first sight and we can always remember that feeling of so seeing that girl/guy of our dreams and wanting them the to feel the same… and of course we root for them.

Adapting to the various demands of each production is a challenge Joseph relishes. Whether on-screen or onstage, he leans into the director’s vision, finding the balance that feels right. “It’s a lot of play and, to be honest, screwing it up and trying again,” he laughs.

With a resume that includes a range of theatre productions, how do you adapt your performance style to suit the different scales and settings of each production?

Yeah sometimes it can be a little tricky. I have had the privilege of working on screen, in parody, complete naturalism and now with Grease somewhere in between. I think it goes back to the director having a really clear vision of his world for Grease and pulling us all back and forth to find a world that feels right for all characters on stage. But it’s also a lot of play and to be honest, screwing it up and trying again…

For ‘Grease,’ Joseph is determined to bring his flavor to Danny while honoring the character’s legacy. “He still has all his bravado and charm, but I wanted to really demonstrate his sweetness and vulnerability,” Joseph explains. It’s a delicate dance between the tough greaser exterior and the tender-hearted youth.

As ‘Grease’ is a show that’s been beloved for generations, what fresh perspectives do you hope to bring to the production and to the character of Danny?

To be honest, I wanted to go in and just do my version of the character. However, that being said he still has all his bravado and charm, but i wanted to really demonstrate his sweetness and vulnerability when he is around Sandy, and that constant tug of navigating his new found love and being the leader of the T Birds.

The chemistry of the ‘Grease’ cast is not just a byproduct of talented individuals but a testament to their collective energy and enthusiasm. Joseph’s rapport with Keanu, who plays Kenickie, promises to bring a dynamic new dimension to the brotherly bond that we’ve come to cherish from the original film.

How has working with the current cast of ‘Grease’ influenced your portrayal of Danny Zuko? Is there a particular chemistry in rehearsals that you’re excited for audiences to see?

This cast is incredible… we are all just having a blast working with each other. Honestly, every single one of them. But I have really enjoyed working and getting to know Keanu who plays our Kenickie in the show. His Kenickie is full of fire & playfulness and it’s been a blast finding their brotherly love that audiences will remember from the film, but we get to really flesh it out whilst doing this show.

In Joseph Spanti, Danny Zuko gains a new voice, one that resonates with the timeless trials of adolescence and first love. With his heart on his sleeve and a bounce in his step, Joseph is ready to hand-jive his way into the hearts of a new generation of ‘Grease’ fans. And we’re all here for it.

Grease is currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne until March 16th before it heads to Sydney and then Perth.

To book tickets click HERE.

One thought on “Joseph Spanti on Breathing New Life into Danny Zuko

  • Hello from Sporthappy.


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