When NBC first announced their plans to bring a live musical television event to the small screen three years ago, it seemed an ingenious plan to bring the American musical into the homes of those who cannot afford theater tickets or a trip to New York. Three shows later, the productions have mostly presented themselves as opportunities to "hate-watch," rather than as effervescent celebrations of this unique theatrical form. They have combined questionable casting choices with uninspired filming and staging.
With 1999's "Annie" and 2003's "The Music Man," ABC/Disney took a stab at the musical genre on television, with made-for-TV movies using Broadway stalwarts like Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, Matthew Broderick, and Kristin Chenoweth. While they were not live events, these projects at least presented the musical in a distinctly televisual format.
With "Grease: Live," Fox and the production team have managed to combine the best aspects of both of these experiences. It was the first of these live musical events that made use of the medium. NBC's productions have felt exceedingly staged, as if a camera has been placed in front of the proscenium arch to capture the proceedings. They are televised stage performances, rather than specifically television. This is further emphasized by the lack of a studio audience, which makes performances feel strained and lifeless, as actors re-enact the process of a stage performance without the natural give-and-take of audience response.
"Grease: Live!" turned that on its head with inspired staging and extensive use of the Warner Bros. back lot. Beginning with Jessie J's opening strut through the lot, the production used sets, locations, and blocking that allowed for a new range of dimension and scale unique to television . This allowed for spaces to feel more real and cinematic. Extras mingled with audience members, as the entire production engaged in a constant blurring of behind-the-scenes and performance moment. When we go outside to the final carnival, there are honest-to-goodness rides, including the flashing lights of a ferris wheel—a spectacle that would be impossible onstage, but a choice that imbues the proceedings with an overwhelming sense of light-hearted joy. The real carnival atmosphere amplifies the sense of camaraderie and fun that bursts forth in the show's final song "We Go Together."
This was all infused with the energy and high stakes that comes with a live performance. As performers raced between sets executing rapid costume and location changes, we felt their energy and the crowds of audience members in nearby bleachers fed this. This also came with some of the perils of a live performance—sound issues, umbrellas in the opening number–but this unpredictability factor is part of the joy of live theater. To think that this mammoth feat was actually accomplished as seamlessly as it was is astounding. It replicates the sense of awe you feel sitting in a theater when what unfolds before you can seem almost magical.
When movie musicals first took off in the 1930s and 40s, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire revolutionized dance onscreen, choreographing numbers specifically for the camera. The camera was no longer a static object, but a partner in the dance. "Grease: Live" is the first live televised musical to make use of this technique, using camera angles and cinematic framing to inject electrifying energy into many of the dance numbers, particularly the inspired "Greased Lightning" and ambitious "Born to Hand Jive" sequence. Zach Woodlee is no stranger to television as "Glee's" resident choreographer, and his experience with the medium helps to bring the television audience into the dance numbers. NBC's broadcasts often hold you at arm's length, as if you are seated in a dark theater, but Woodlee's choreography invites you to get up off the couch and be a willing participant in the action.
There have been some minor quibbles that though "Grease: Live!" was infectious fun, it privileged spectacle over storytelling. There is a sense that the character arcs of Sandy, Danny, and the gang were lost in the glitz and television magic of rip-away gowns and shiny, chrome cars. This is a fair point, excluding the fact that "Grease" has always been beloved for spectacle—it hangs Rock'n'Roll music, flashy set pieces, and high-octane production numbers on a flimsy, sexist plot. "Grease" is beloved not for its examination of the human condition, but for its candy-colored nostalgic take on the 1950s and its sexy, bubble-gum version of high school romance.
It is not as if they were attempting "A Little Night Music" live and somehow missed the subtext and character development inherent to Stephen Sondheim's work. "Grease" is a pop confection created to deliver a rousing, good time, and that's exactly what Fox delivered.
With this production, Fox and Paramount infused new life into this trend and proved that there is purpose and possibility for live musicals on television beyond gimmicky casting and snarky live tweets. Also refreshing in this production were the veritable Broadway chops of heartthrob Aaron Tveit, the mix of Julianne Hough's superb dance abilities and fresh-faced innocence, the vulnerability Vanessa Hudgens breathes into the catty Rizzo, and the all-around skill and talent of the entire cast and crew. For the first time in this new format, "Grease: Live" takes the techniques and tools of the most dominant form of entertainment in American lives and puts it to use. It merges two mediums, privileging aspects of both forms to create a unique product.
"Grease: Live" could only have happened on television, and that is what makes it so refreshing. It belongs on the small screen because it was conceived, designed, and executed for a TV audience, not a stage. Going forward, perhaps other producers will learn, when it comes to executing a live television musical, "Grease" is the word — it's got groove, it's got meaning.