Grease – Through the ages

Before it hits our stages again, AussieTheatre’s Ben Neutze takes a closer look at 40 years of the history of a show that changed history – Grease

I sometimes wonder how many people of my generation would be able to recite the iconic film version of Grease from beginning to end. How many videotapes have been destroyed by kids of the 80s and 90s who drove their parents mad with repeat viewings of the film? How many times has Channel 7 dominated Saturday night ratings by just airing the film just months after the previous broadcast?

Sure, Grease is first and foremost a stage musical, but popularity of the film is what defines the Grease phenomenon and allows producers to bank on a new production every few years. From its early beginnings as a gritty, independent musical that premiered in a tiny theatre in Chicago through to its multi-million dollar, box office smashing arena spectaculars, Grease is truly a phenomenon. (Yes, there was even a Grease on Ice!)

With a new production just around the corner that’s already smashing it at the box office, we take a look back at the history of a musical that has had audiences doing the hand jive for over 40 years.

Humble beginnings

Poster for the original 1971 Chicago production of Grease
Poster for the original 1971 Chicago production of Grease

Like many iconic musicals, Grease started life as a small, experimental project that captured the hearts and minds of everyone who saw it. At a cast party for another show in Chicago in 1970, after a few drinks, Jim Jacobs started playing and singing along to old 1950s records for a laugh. Suddenly, inspiration struck and Jacobs formed the idea for a musical with a score made up of the pop and R&B sounds of the 50s, rather than the legit Broadway sound. He eventually settled on a story about the kids he went to school with in the 50s and pitched the idea to his co-creator, Warren Casey.

The first production of Grease opened on February 5 1971 in a former trolley barn – Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theatre. With a budget of $171 and 18 amateur actors, Grease sold out the 120-seat theatre for the original scheduled run of four performances and was extended over and over. The initial production was a far grittier version than what appeared on the silver screen in coming years. In fact it was even grittier than the initial Broadway production. With no recording of that production, the first incarnation of Grease only lives in the memories of those lucky enough to have witnessed it, but for some insight into the birth of the show, check out this video interview with Jim Jacobs about a recent production of the ‘Original Grease’ in Chicago that restored some of the original ‘R-rated’ production.

Broadway glory

Carole Demas and Barry Bostwick in the original Broadway production of Grease
Carole Demas and Barry Bostwick in the original Broadway production of Grease

In February 1972, a new production directed by Tom Moore and choreographed by Patricia Birch opened Off Broadway at the Eden Theatre. Just a few months later, on June 7, it moved to Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre and then in November to the Royale Theatre, where it continued to play for another eight years, making it the longest running Broadway musical at the time.

The Broadway production gave several actors their first big breaks, including Barry Bostwick who starred as Danny, before going onto the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Spin City.

By 1973, Grease was taking over the world with a US tour, a West End production and an Australian production choreographed by Ross Coleman, featuring David Atkins, Tina Bursill John Diedrich and Denise Drysdale. The West End production featured Richard Gere in his first starring role as Danny and eventually Elaine Paige as Sandy.

Video footage of the original production is almost impossible to find, but here’s a video of original Danny, Barry Bostwick and original Sandy, Carole Demas reprising their roles for a 1984 PBS special.

On the silver screen

The iconic 1978 film version of Grease
The iconic 1978 film version of Grease

It was the movie that made John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John worldwide household names, but it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride to the big screen. The 1978 film was sanitised for the masses and featured several new songs written specifically for the film, including ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’.

According to Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey and himself were perturbed at the way they were treated by the filmmakers who made drastic changes to ensure the film appealed to a wider audience. And it certainly did, breaking the record for the number of concessions sold for any film. But the changes started to cause problems for Broadway production that was running, because people who had seen the film assumed the onstage version would be appropriate for children.

The film was such a success that over the following years, stage versions began to resemble the film and the hits penned for the onscreen version were brought onstage. Grease is the highest grossing movie-musical of all time and from a $6 million budget has now made almost $400 million. Of course there was also the 1982 sequel Grease 2, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and directed by the original Broadway and film choreographer Patricia Birch. Despite its solid cult following, it’s a film that might be better forgotten.

You can relive any of your favourite moments from the film with a simple Google search, but if like me you’ve seen the film more times than you care to admit, here are some deleted scenes you might not have seen before.

A 90s love affair

Brooke Shields as Rizzo on an unforgettable album cover.
Brooke Shields as Rizzo on an unforgettable album cover.

The 1990s saw renewed interest in the musical with massive productions popping up across the world. The 1994 Broadway revival opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre and drew big crowds, running for over 1,500 performances. There were two cast recordings of this production, featuring both Brooke Shields and Rosie O’Donnell as Rizzo. If you haven’t heard Rosie’s recording of the showstopper There Are Worse Things I Could Do, it’s definitely worth seeking out on YouTube, but for all the wrong reasons. A young Megan Mullally also starred as Marty, long before she was Karen on Will & Grace.

A 1993 West End production featured Australia’s Craig McLachlan as Danny and Debbie Gibson as Sandy.

Here’s the Broadway revival cast rocking ‘We Go Together’ at the 1994 Tony Awards

A new arena

Anthony Warlow as Teen Angel in the 1998 Grease Arena Spectacular
Anthony Warlow as Teen Angel in the 1998 Grease Arena Spectacular

With several successful professional traditional stage productions under Australia’s belt, 1998 saw John Frost, along with SEL produce the first Grease – the Arena Spectacular. Giving credence to the saying that ‘bigger is better’, this version featured a massive cast in arenas holding up to 20,000 people. Starring Craig McLachlan as Danny, Jane Scali as Sandy and Dannii Minogue as Rizzo, the production toured around Australia and New Zealand, taking over $19 million in bookings before the show even opened. The show played 68 performances after the opening in Melbourne was dogged by technical problems. Anthony Warlow featured as the Teen Angel and flew down from the rafters resplendent in white with gigantic feathered wings. He was also given an extra song, the classic My Prayer.

This interview clip with Dannii Minogue features some very brief and very rare footage of the production at the 3:30 mark.

Craig McLachlan and Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Danny and Sandy in the 2005 Arena Spectacular
Craig McLachlan and Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Danny and Sandy in the 2005 Arena Spectacular

In 2005, Frosty decided to take a new Arena Spectacular production on the road again featuring Craig McLachlan (who was playing a high school student fast closing in on 40 years old) and then Neighbours star Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Sandy. Stepping into the Teen Angel’s shoes was ‘The Voice’ John Farnham. The company also featured Toby Allen as Kenickie, Rob Mills as Johnny Casino, Magda Szubanski as Miss Lynch and Tamsin Carroll as Rizzo.

Reality bites

After Andrew Lloyd Webber solved his Maria problem in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? in 2007, dual reality TV shows launched in the US and the UK with the purpose of finding unknown actors to play Danny and Sandy in new Broadway and West End productions of Grease. The US show, Grease: You’re the One that I want! uncovered Max Crumm and Laura Osnes who has since had success on Broadway with leading roles in South Pacific, Anything Goes and currently Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. The production played at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for 554 performances. See Laura Osnes giving Olivia Newton-John a run for her money alongside fellow competitor Ashley Spencer in ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’.

The UK TV show Grease Is the Word found Danny Bayne and Susan McFadden. The West End production ran for over 1,300 performances and then went on the road with a UK tour. It is this production that the upcoming Australian tour is based upon.

A fresh face

Gretel Scarlett and Rob Mills  in Grease. Image by Jeff Busby
Gretel Scarlett and Rob Mills in Grease. Image by Jeff Busby

Although the last Arena Spectacular version of the show appeared only eight years ago, it’s now been 22 years since Grease has had a professional Australian production in proscenium arch theatres. The upcoming production is due to play Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre from 20 August, where it’s already been raking it in at the box office, and then onto Sydney, then Melbourne.

The cast features a mix of new faces, up and coming stars and well known names, with Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett starring as Danny and Sandy, Lucy Maunder as Rizzo, Stephen Mahy as Kenickie, Bert Newton as Vince Fontaine, Todd McKenney as Teen Angel and Anthony Callea as Johnny Casino. The Brisbane premiere was initially scheduled for 27 August, but then pushed to a week earlier due to unprecedented demand. They’ve also just announced an extra Sunday show, taking them up to nine shows a week! It seems Grease is ready to take over Australia again, with a glorious new chapter in the history of a show that’s changed the face of musical theatre.

One thought on “Grease – Through the ages

  • I’m trying to find the band members from the 1973 Melbourne production, can you help?


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