It is hard to believe that were they real people, the characters of Grease would be in their mid-seventies! (As of 2016.) Imagining Sandy, Danny, Rizzo, Kenickie, Frenchy, and the rest of their gang as septuagenarians (or in reverse – imagining septuagenarians of today as rambunctious and sexy teenagers) rather puts life into perspective!
That aside, Grease has always been a 1970s nostalgic re-interpretation of the late 1950s. The film version from 1978 is nearly 40 years old itself! While it has been popular for decades, it was high time for a new adaptation. Grease Live! was a worthy successor and a fun show in its own right.
As one could deduce from the title, this version was filmed and performed live on multiple soundstages in much the same manner as the stage musical. It was much more theatrical than the film. Many of the smaller sideplots that were cut from the 1978 film were presented in this version. Like the stage-show, this was an ensemble piece: Danny and Sandy were the main couple for storytelling purposes, but the rest of the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies are given focus and their own songs. (Rather, they are given their songs back, as most of them have always been a part of the stage musical.) As a result, the lead couple did not exude the same charisma as they did in the film, but they did not need to. They were simply one pair amid an octet of charming, annoying, and interesting teenage characters. Also, the show allowed itself to be more comical and self-aware than the film. The ridiculousness of some of the plots, sight-gags, and dialogue exchanges was presented honestly and in good fun.
However, unlike the stage-show, the producers could use their variety of established sets to move the plot forward in a manner more akin to a film, thus enhancing the storytelling and even the believability of some storylines. A good example is showing Danny attempt to try out for sports in a “montage” during an otherwise cutesy pop song number that didn’t move the plot forward otherwise.
The music of Grease is for the most part fun, upbeat, and easy to get stuck in one’s head. Even the more dramatic songs are singable and sound like they came out of a 1950s jukebox (or a 1970s one trying to imitate a 1950s jukebox, in some cases). The one jarring exception is my favourite song, Rizzo’s second-act solo “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” – it is more akin to a traditional musical ballad, and hence it is memorable and dramatic compared to the rest of the numbers. Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo nailed her performance of the song in this version. After two hours of feeling lighthearted from all the dancy pop numbers, her son is raw and honest. For a moment, we are pulled out of the artificial teen fantasy to connect with a character who is no longer living in that fantasy.
In my opinion, while all of the characters go through some character grown throughout the story, it is Rizzo who goes through the most dramatic arc. Danny and Sandy eventually figure out how to be true to themselves and then true to each other – one hopes that they could keep that going for the next 55 years. Kenickie and Frenchy grow up psychologically and seem ready to face consequences for the first times in their respective lives. The other characters also mature to varying degrees, as would be expected in their last year of high school anyhow. But Rizzo starts off the story as a snarky, cynical, distant “bad girl” who is desperate to prove something, although it isn’t clear what. (Or if she even knows what.) It doesn’t seem that she has a very good home life and she seems to lack love from family. She has a hard crush on Danny, but it is obviously unreciprocated. Her relationship with Kenickie is more opportunistic than anything else. She cannot bring herself to accept that he might actually care for her, let alone love her, even as she is desperate to be loved. She is independent to the point of having built emotional walls around herself. By the end of the story, she has realised this and is more willing to accept love and emotional compromise. She is willing to accept defeat (letting Sandy have Danny) and show kindness rather than constantly projecting a tough demeanour. Her song is when she confronts who she really is and what her core values are. She is done playing games and ready to face the adult world – hopefully not alone, but alone if necessary.
Finally, Grease is an enduring teen “rock & roll fantasy” (rather than at all being an accurate depiction of high school) because of its music and universal themes, but it is not as lighthearted as it seems. Underlying all of the rock & roll – both the musical style and in the euphemistic sense – is the fact that these are disaffected young adults who have varying degrees of messed up home lives. They are primarily working-class and not all that academically-inclined, rather staying in school to fulfill requirements more so than for any desire to learn. These characters have few dreams beyond sex, cars, and high school. When they say that they will always be together at the end of the story, they likely mean it: they won’t stray too far from their homes and they do not aspire to much beyond graduation. Where they ended up after the credits roll would be anyone’s guess.
Yet we are left with the feeling that they are going to make the best of it. They will hopefully lead fulfilling adult lives – or rather, they hopefully did, and are now satisfied septuagenarians with no regrets, dancing in the sunset.