“Grease: Live,” which aired Sunday on Fox, raised the bar for live TV musicals. The energetic, youthful production of the classic Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey comedy felt more like the MTV Video Music Awards than any live musical we’ve seen on TV before.
The show was the first of its kind in recent memory to incorporate a live audience into its production, adding an extra jolt of excitement to the evening.
Broadway star Aaron Tveit (“Catch Me if You Can”) and “Dancing with the Stars” judge Julianne Hough led the principal cast of T-Birds, Pink Ladies and Rydell High students as lovebirds Danny and Sandy, effortlessly singing and dancing their way through iconic “Grease” songs like “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.”
In perhaps the most emotional moment of the evening, “High School Musical” alum Vanessa Hudgens, as the no-nonsense Pink Ladies-leader Rizzo, stunned with her captivating performance of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Hudgens' father had died from cancer just hours before the production.
“Tonight, I do the show in his honor,” Hudgens tweeted, while the broadcast’s end credits provided a dedication to the memory of her father.
Look to director Thomas Kail (of Broadway’s smash-hit “Hamilton”) as the reason “Grease: Live” worked on so many levels. With co-director Alex Rudzinski (“Dancing with the Stars”), Kail staged a live musical that managed to feel both nostalgic and new. The three-hour broadcast was like a party you never wanted to end.
The musical opened with a Steadicam shot of singer Jessie J performing the title song made famous by Frankie Valli, walking through the massive “Grease: Live” set and interacting with members of the cast, crew and 650-person audience.
It was as if this “Grease” was the first self-aware live musical, insisting: “We all know we’re putting on a play, and we’re having the best time doing it.”
Nowhere was that clearer than in the show’s final number, “We Go Together,” where the cast drove golf carts through the Warner Bros. backlot in Los Angeles, arriving at a spectacular carnival dance party. With the audience dancing alongside, this was a celebration for all.
Choreographer Zach Woodlee (“Glee”) also turned “Greased Lightin’” and “Born to Hand Jive” (below, with Sam Clark and Hudgens) into show-stopping numbers built for the digital age. Layered with so many tricks and intricate moves, “Grease: Live” will be reexamined in online video clips for years to come.
Part of what made the television event so successful was the many homages to the 1978 film made along the way. While the plot mostly followed the original 1972 stage production, songs from the film (“Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Sandy,” “Grease”), scenes from the film (the climactic drag race) and sets from the film (by “Hamilton” designer David Korins) were integrated into the story.
Even Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, who played Frenchy and Doody in the film, made cameos, Conn in the most full-circle role as Vi, the waitress who advises Frenchy (played here by “Call Me Maybe” singer Carly Rae Jepsen) when she’s at her lowest moment.
Jepsen sang “All I Need is An Angel,” one of two new songs for the broadcast written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Broadway’s “Next to Normal”). The song fit effortlessly into the story, recrafted by Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary, and helped introduce Grammy-winners Boyz II Men as a trio of Teen Angels harmonizing throughout “Beauty School Drop Out.”
“Scream Queens” star Keke Palmer (Marty) and Disney Channel’s Jordan Fisher (Doody) had star-making turns in the production, giving life to songs from the stage show (“Freddy My Love” and “Those Magic Changes”) that might otherwise have been snooze-inducing. Extra props to six-time Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, whose signature quick changes were on display in both numbers.
“Grease” has never been a show that had much of a message, but if Fox was out to say anything with this latest incarnation of the theater favorite, it was that the live TV musical is meant to be fun. Wah-oooh yeah!