The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Grease

June 13, 1978,   Paramount   110 minutes

The High School experience wasn't explored much in the arts until the 1950s, when post-war "troubled youth" became a valid dramatic subject. Once opened, this Pandora's box became a genre that endures to this day. Whether comic or serious, its essential ingredient is the Outsider, usually the tougher, leather-jacketed kid; the Rebel with or without cause. West Side Story made poetry out it. Grease made parody. The idea of a high school musical is so obvious it was only a matter of time for someone to write one. Chicago theater pals, Warren Casey & Jim Jacobs, who between day jobs and other assignments initially wrote a play with music based on their h.s. experiences during the early years of rock 'n' roll. Tyro NY producers Kenneth Waissman & Maxine Fox saw the show and encouraged the authors to go all out with the tunes. Under their tutelage the musical was presented Off Bway in Feb. '72, smartly under Bway contracts, qualifying for Tony Award status, and motivating a move to the Big Street by June. It didn't win any of its 7 nominations, including Best Musical, but that hardly mattered for the show found its intended audience; first as nostalgia for the Boomer adults who grew up in the late '50s & early '60s, then their kids who reveled in the show's raucous energy, proving that aside from fads and fashions, high school never changes. Therein lies the musical's strength; the key to its endless success. But did it really deserve to run longer than every Bway show that came before it?--a distinction previousy earned only by giants such as R&H, Lerner & Loewe, Jerry Herman and Bock & Harnick. Not to disparage it, but Grease is very lightweight entertainment. It's an accepted "classic" now but it isn't in the same league as Golden Age masterworks that evolved and defined the Bway idiom. The show was among the first wave of post-Golden Age musicals, which were aimed at (and written by) a younger generation. Bway's cultural footprint had shrunk considerably; it needed to stave off further decline or go the way of vaudeville. In a way, Grease was the first jukebox musical, with songs that sounded like they were culled from early rock singles--rather than narrative theater music. That the songs were original didn't make them seem any less flimsy--sometimes even cheap. But then the play they enliven doesn't require anything more sophisticated; and might even suffer from anything more challenging.

Another Chicagoan, Allan Carr was a theater geek who rose thru marketing & event planning up to managing a stable of major entertainment figures. British multi-media producer Robert Stigwood--who used Carr to promote Tommy among other films--was so grateful to Carr for turning Saturday Night Fever into a blockbuster, he gave him the whole bundle of Grease to package, produce & promote. From a commercial standpoint this was couldn't have turned out better. Carr's instincts were right on the money, from the obvious: the red-hot Travolta, to the unexpected: his own client, Olivia Newton-John (whose Australian roots were evident, but so what? They wrote it into the script and no one cared.) Carr treated Grease (and rightly so) like Hlwd in the studio era treated most Bway shows, keeping just the milieu, the storyline and a few songs--adding the inevitable interpolations, which used to come from studio songwriters, now pop freelancers. Carr adapted the show for the screen himself before handing off scripting chores to Bronte Woodward, an Alabama native (presumably a social acquaintance of Carr's) who wrote one novel and after Grease, Carr's massive misfire, Can't Stop the Music (the gayest tuner ever splooged on screen--
and one that skirts any mention of queerness even as it starred The Village People--Show but not Tell. Woodward died shortly after at age 39, reportedly from liver failure not embarrassment. He was posthumously awarded the very first Razzie for Worst Screenplay, for what was crowned Worst Film of 1980.) Equally obscure was Randal Kleiser, Carr's choice for director; a TV journeyman with a resume of little interest (episodes of Starsky & Hutch, Marcus Welby, Family), brought into features by sheer luck to do Carr's bidding. Grease continues a tradition of 20-something actors playing high schoolers. The youngest was 19 year old Dinah Manoff (Lee Grant's daughter) as Marty. Travolta was 23, Jeff Conaway (as Kenickie) 27, Olivia 29; and almost ridiculously, Stockard Channing was a 33 year-old Rizzo! No wonder she felt so off to me. Frankie Avalon, brought in to cameo on "Beauty School Dropout," as part of the nostalgia backup team: culled, as Kleiser tells it, from '50s TV: Eve Arden (graduating from teacher Our Miss Brooks, to principal) Sid Caesar, Alice Ghostley, Joan Blondell, Dody Goodman, and one I didn't even know, Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip--where he played a bit role as a parking lot attendant) as Bandstand host, Vince Fontaine. Caesar and Blondell are sadly wasted, but Arden and especially Goodman get some good mileage in their brief roles. Such casting (of adults that weren't in the Bway show) is but another strategy to broaden the film's appeal.
And Grease is a marvel of marketing choices. The two disc soundtrack was given more care than the film itself; the tracks arranged for maxiumum effect over their playing order in the movie--all the singles on the first of four sides. Shrewdly released two months in advance of the movie, the record charted 77 weeks, with 12 of them at #1--a true feat for a Bway musical in that day & age. Four new songs were written and released as singles (a bit of a slight to Casey & Jacobs who only got one song pushed--"Summer Nights"). Olivia's hit songwriter, John Farrar penned her ballad, "Hopelessly Devoted to You," which she took all the way to the Oscars--tho the song did not win. Farrar also wrote the climactic duet, "You're the One That I Want," which took the place of Bway's "All Choked Up," and was the top U.S. single the week the movie opened. "Sandy," written by Louis St. Louis & Scott Simon replaced "Alone at the Drive-In Movie" to no benefit. But most inconcruous was a new title song written by Barry Gibb, that despite a vocal by throwback Frankie Valli (long before his resuscitation in Jersey Boys) didn't remotely recall the period or sound anything like the rest of the movie. What it sounded like was a song left off the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which was about as savvy a way of leading a late '70s audience into the movie as possible. Almost half the Bway score was cut, tho much of it was recorded for the soundtrack, and some retained instrumentally in the pic. There's no great loss in dropping "Mooning," or "Freddy, My Love" but you'd think "It's Raining on Prom Night" would've been retained for Olivia. The Oldies cover band, Sha Na Na (they're even in the lyrics of "We Belong Together") were hired to play the prom entertainment; and along with them we get a handful of rock standards, including Elvis's "Hound Dog" and a doo-wop version of "Blue Moon" the Rodgers & Hart perennial (which, if pressed makes as good a claim in my heart for favorite song as any), making quite a stew of soundtrack ingredients. The Bee-Gees-beat "Grease" returns for the end credits sending the kids out into their present world, the lyrics chanting, "Grease is the word," as blatant--and literal--a bid for word of mouth as possible. And apparently quite effective. The movie sold itself. I was sold. I ran to it that first Saturday night at SF's Alexandria Theater. From the opening frame I hated it. My disappointment was such that I never saw the movie again until now.

I'd seen the show on Bway and enjoyed the OCR to some extent. Its screen potential was obvious. The musical was more cartoon than usual, and would lend itself to an exaggerated palette and style--a hyper '50s, or so I thought. Instead, Alan Carr wanted a more realistic direction; less jokey or campy sketch scenes, more teen movie cliches: homeroom antics, the rival school gang, the climactic drag race. Yet crucial scenes are far too skeletal, as when Danny & Sandy meet again after summer, and within four lines she goes from giddy excitement to heartbreak on the basis of Danny's cool--so obviously put on for the benefit of his peers. Unlike George Lucas's similar American Graffiti, none of the characters in Grease demonstrate promising intelligence, and tho Sandy seems at first to be most likely to succeed, she brings herself down to the level of the others by the end--a sort of redemption for the unwashed masses. There's one cute moment when Travolta and Conaway (as Kenicke) hug it out after a spat, only to catch themselves liking it a bit too much. I suppose they thought it was clever not to put quotation marks on the '50s look--when the show is nothing but quotation marks--resulting in a certain visual dullness. Initially taken from the authors' suburban Chicago 'hood, the movie wants to be a California girl--if only out of laziness and convenience. Not that it mattered (this wasn't switching Vienna for Sweden), and wasn't America in great part defined by California?--if only because of the movies. But the clothes are cliché without any fun, and the hairstyles are all wrong for the period. 
What's with Jan's horse-hair pigtails? Marty & Frenchy look like housewives, and Rizzo sports the Lollobrigida--which suits a woman in her 30s. The only one who looks like a real teenager is Sandy, and the entire arc of the movie is to change that. Her finale makeover perm is so unflattering, it certainly justifies Frenchy being a "Beauty School Dropout"--tho I hardly think that was the intention. 
On the commentary track of the CD, director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch reveal shocking ignorance of film style or history. Birch keeps talking about a "Paramount" as if the studio had a signature musical style. Kleiser gave her virtually all musical numbers to direct, tho she blames Carr for those "Paramount" scenes, by which she means  the studio-set sequences, "Beauty School Dropout" and "Greased Lightnin'" which are visually cheap and unimaginative, tho she is as much to blame.  Birch describes her struggles to make something interesting out of "Sandy," which finds Travolta on a swing set under the drive-in screen, while a silly animated ad playing in the b.g. serves as visual distraction. It doesn't serve the song or the moment at all. Imagine what could have been done instead with "Alone at a Drive-In Movie," Danny moping, while all around him are coupled or grouped, having fun or making out? 


Or instead of an absurd staircase of hairdryers and silver-curlered girls parading like showgirls, why not show why Frenchy is a beauty school dropout (beyond dying her hair pink). My two favorite songs from the musical are also poorly featured. "Those Magic Changes" (which purports to be about guitar chords but seems more about puberty) is given to Sha Na Na as part of their set--a throwaway. The show's wonderful ballad, Rizzo's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," is flattened by Stockard Channing's limited voice, where it cries for a Connie Francis belt. (On Bway, Rizzo was played by a voluptuous Adrienne Barbeau--who jumped into TV as  Maude's daughter.)  It feels wrong, too, 
staged in broad daylight (it's a midnight kind of tune) with schoolgirl Rizzo clutching her textbooks while sulking down a columned walkway. Birch touts her background action--boys playing catch --as somehow resonant with the song. It only reinforces the emptiness of her concept. Naturally Birch's best moments are in the Dance at the Gym, or as it's known here: the Rydell High Prom (which is chosen for broadcast on "National Bandstand"). On Bway, Cha Cha di Gregorio was the fat girl who wins the dance contest with Danny (could this be what led John Waters to Tracy Turnblad?) Plus-size dancers cutting a rug are fun to watch, so it's doubly sad and insulting that the pic's Cha Cha is made over into a svelte Latina spitfire. I still don't get why Danny's friend would pull Sandy away from him while they're engaged in a pas de deux, just so the story can throw in the wrench of Danny and Cha Cha winning the contest. "Born to Hand Jive" (which Birch thinks is code for masturbating) fulfills its function as the movie's centerpiece. Sandy's retreat would've been a good moment to plug in "It's Raining on Prom Night" as she walks home in a downpour. There are far too many moments that are easily better imagined. But at least "Summer Nights" gets it mostly right, with its crosscutting contrasts and a few nice crane shots. And after a pleasant music-video vibe to "You're the One That I Want," Birch tops it with "We Go Together" let loose in a carny fairground--with all the sunshine and high spirits that animated Pajama Game's "Once a Year Day." 
Then when the film is set to end on a triumphant note they had to go do something as stupid as sending Danny & Sandy soaring into the skies in a pimped-out Greased Lightin' (which wasn't Danny's car--or even his song on Bway) sending Carr's reach for realism into the toilet. I first saw Travolta as part of the ensemble in Over Here, The 1974 Andrews Sisters tuner written by the Sherman Bros. on leave from Disney. (Produced by Grease's Waisman & Fox). Travolta had what I thought the best tune in the score, "Dream Drummin'" but no Star Is Born thoughts crossed my mind. His looks are too horsey for my taste, so I never swooned over him the way so many did. Yet there was something thrillingly visceral watching him rise from the chorus to a TV sitcom regular (as the dimwitted student in Welcome Back, Kotter), catapulting past a bit part in Carrie into full-fledged stardom. All within four years.
My own tragectory was going in the opposite direction. Having returned to San Francisco that spring of '78 for what was to be my springboard to a professional theater career, I was quickly brought down to earth. Saint Subber was too busy designing his Telegraph Hill penthouse to start up his new office, and also considering other options when I arrived on his doorstep soon after hitting California. As before with Saint, I had to plead with him to reconsider and find some way to employ me. He reluctantly agreed, and I was to wait a few weeks on pins & needles. Meanwhile. I was back living with my parents in their new 2-story, 4 bedroom (for them alone) San Jose tract house--both stories encased in enuf barely-decorative iron bars to invite the name Casa Alcatraz. Outside my mother's suffocating need to infantilize me, they were both irritated by my return. They regarded me like some parasite that had invaded their hermetically-sealed environment. The gravity of my move and all that I had abandoned in NY was utterly lost on them. They didn't care to know, I didn't care to tell. In their eyes I was a total failure, a college dropout, a bum, and now their unwanted burden. After my father nearly had another coronary upon finding I hadn't locked a door between two securely locked spaces, I decided to wait in LA with my old college bud (and brief NY comrade--in-arms), Ken--with whom I'd visited the previous summer--and reconnoiter with my NY pal, Al Austin (a brilliant but prickly pothead, with aesthete sensibilities--who would find LA beyond his rational comprehension)  Tho I didn't know it then, it was a final hurrah for both friendships. Ken was going into a Buddhist monastery, then later to the Saskatchewan--to teach and start a family. Al back to retreat in Brooklyn. After a couple of nervous, if pleasant weeks I returned north and anxiously hiked up Montgomery St., to Saint's now completed apartment--not far below Vera Simpson's mansion in Pal Joey (also known as Coit Tower). The view, of course, was spectacular; east toward the Bay Bridge and south to the towers of downtown. The meeting was brief. There was to be no office, no producing plays. He was toying with teaching a course at some college--but that came to naught as well. Having landed in Oz, he lost his remaining ambition and spent his final years playing. Not that I blame him. Later he told me his mind was blown taking LSD and listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall. Well, bravo! Only thing was, I'd hitched my wagon to his star. And his star wasn't going to shine no more, no more. Yet, could I truly blame him, given how fervently I persuaded him to let me follow? Something compelled me to give up everything in NY--even what usually moves mountains: love & marriage. Broke, homeless, and staying with my alien parents in San Jose, I had little choice other than getting a job and staying in SF. Once the shock wore off (somewhere deep inside I think I already knew) I put my past-foot forward, and hit the downtown bookstores Doubleday, Rizzoli, B. Dalton's; and then on Powell St, right along the cable car line, was Tro Harper/Books Inc.--my alma mater from Palo Alto, the launching pad to my success in finding work in NY, first in Times Square then at Brentano's. With those credentials and a call to my old manager (and mother of a friend), I walked out of the store a hired man. In short order I packed my meager things and found a room in an actual boarding-house on Jones St. a block down a prepossessingly steep hill from Grace Cathedral. I had my clothes, a portable 9" TV, and nothing to play music on.

Given all the unfinished business I left behind in NY, you might think, now freed of the only reason I had left, I would rush back. Surely I would have if I'd been in Cleveland or Dallas or Minneapolis, but I had landed feet first in San Francisco, which had a hypnotic hold on me, and just walking the streets--often with Rodgers' motifs from Flower Drum Song running thru my mind--was balm to my wounded psyche. I was also flat broke. My college pals were still back in Cupertino, or dispered elsewhere--not one of them had migrated to SF. Reed had returned home from LA, as lost as I, and we spent much time together initially, trying to get excited about collaborating on a revue to be called An Evening with Boris & Natasha. Stitching a pattern that would follow me henceforth, Reed didn't prove the Rodgers to my Hart. But the City seems to draw a certain element: those running away from themselves, or those searching for the other. City bookstores attract a motley crew of employees, and Books Inc. had more than its share of characters--of which I was surely one. As I was willing to work the night shift (and one day) I got a schedule that let me off from Friday at 5 until Monday at 4. And working around books was hardly something to complain about. Within short order I was responsible for the entire paperback fiction section--which was quite comprehensive, and gave me a busman's education in world literature. After two months I found an apartment thru a colleague at work. It was straight up Powell St. two blocks past the Fairmont, but tho the environs were luxe, the building itself was a Chinatown tenament--tho terribly romantic to my youthful eyes. My view was of a steep grassy hill and the backs of other apartments; Cantonese cooking wafting from windows, the smell of the sea when the fog rolled in. It was a studio with a murphy bed and galley kitchen. For the first time in my life I was living in a place of my own--all alone. The bookstore drew suburban refugees, some even younger than I, from Illinois and Ohio, Massachusetts and Virginia, Oklahoma and Georgia. There was much fraternizing, and by summer I was spending time with a good ol' boy hippie from Macon GA: Charles--and his entourage. We smoked lots of weed and occasionally took acid, listened to music and connected on an intellecutal level, but I was more sponge than open book and shared little about my Bway-centric past, tho privately I still played my OCRs--in particular the brand new On the 20th Century--which drove my neighbors crazy. But I was also led to the altar of Blondie, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen--the closest a concert has ever come to a religious event in my experience. One thing I defiantly wasn't into, was disco, and the ubiquitos deluge of Bee-Gees singles spewing from that Saturday Night Fever soundtrack dominated the universe in 1978--and drove me crazy. I had thought the film a real B-movie snooze as well, and unlike many, didn't feel the sex appeal of Travolta at all. On the day Grease opened, I moved into my Chinatown studio. Borrowing my father's Plymouth Duster, and with the help of my DeAnza friend Micky Martin I brought up the bulk of my belongings from San Jose (mostly books and records), then after returning the car, rode back to SF with Elaine and her g.f. to go see Ruth Gordon in a staged interview at Masonic Auditiorium. The next night I rode the 38 Geary bus all the way out to the Richmond to see Grease
Little could I imagine that this would surpass even The Sound of Music as the highest grossing movie musical of all time. A record it still holds. At the end of '78 Variety reported its take in rentals to be $83,000,000--a good $30 million more than second best, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. After the disaster of Can't Stop the Music, Carr sold Paramount on a sequel, Grease 2, reversing the sexes: this time the "braniac" gets the makeover to "Brando." Travolta and Newton-John were succeeded by Maxwell Caulfield & Michelle Pfeiffer, but Didi Conn repeated as Frenchy, and some of the elder staff returned as well. Patricia Birch was given the whole train-set to build, and Carr set to open the movie exactly four years after Grease, which as fate would have it, was the same opening weekend as E.T.--proving that contrary to the ads, Grease 2 was definitely not "still the word." On the other hand, the original musical survives--the Bway production ran another two years after the movie opened; and has been revived twice already--between them runing up another 2,000 performances. Countless high schools productions (exceeding even Bye Bye Birdie) have turned many a teen into a musical theater fan. That's not too bad.

Next Up: The Wiz

Report Card:   Grease
Overall Film:  B--
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  9
Songs Cut from Bway:  6
Worst Ommissions: "Alone at the Drive-In Movie"
               "It's Raining on Prom Night"
New Songs:  4  (by various authors including  
               Barry Gibb, John Farrar)
Interpolated Oldies:  6
Standout Numbers:  "We Go Together"
               "Summer Nights" "Born to Hand Jive"
Casting:  Smart leads, 20-something teens,
               Adult roles stocked from '50s TV
Cast from Bway/Road: Jeff Conaway,
               John Travolta, Jamie Donnelly (Jan)
Standout Cast: Travolta, Dody Goodman
Sorethumb Cast: Stockard Channing
Direction:  Flat, unimaginative, Zzzzz
Choreography: Energetic ensembles, but
               staging of most songs uncreative
Scenic Design:  Local SoCal schools
Costumes:  '50s cliché sans ole'
Standout Set:  Not likely
Titles: Lengthy animated sequence set to
               Frankie Valli singing "Grease"
Oscar noms: 1:  Best Song:
               "Hopelessly Devoted to You"

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