Billboard Cover: On the Set of Fox's 'Grease: Live!,' the Riskiest Live TV Musical Yet
"This is serious business," says Carly Rae Jepsen, wide-eyed at the dozens of carpenters and gaffers hammering, sawing and wiring the massive high school gymnasium still under construction at Warner Bros. Studios. "I have to get my Hula-Hoop!"
It's the first day of school at Rydell High -- or, rather, the first day of on-set rehearsals for the young stars of Fox's TV musical Grease: Live, which on this dreary December day is only six weeks away, with a 7 p.m. ET air date on Sunday, Jan. 31.
Overhead, banners hang high from the gym rafters: "Wrestling State Champs 1949," "Soccer Champions 1947." Large cardboard boxes mark where school bleachers will soon host a live, onscreen audience as part of what may be the riskiest live TV musical yet.
It's no surprise that Fox chose Grease for its first foray into live musicals, where half-minute ads have sold for as much as $400,000. NBC got 18.6 million people to watch its poorly reviewed smash The Sound of Music Live, 9.2 million to hate-watch the star-starved Peter Pan Live and 11.5 million to celebrate the celebrity-studded The Wiz, according to Nielsen. In TV's latest oil rush, Grease is pure crude: a multigenerational crowd-pleaser that boasts one thing other musicals don't have -- smash staples of karaoke, weddings and radio like "Summer Nights" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You."
The stakes are high for Fox, which is jumping into the genre with both feet, with The Passion (Tyler Perry's musical take on Jesus Christ's last days) scheduled for March and The Rocky Horror Picture Show coming later in 2016. The network of Empire and Glee wants to align even more closely with music -- and drum up excitement as it rolls out other programming, like the X-Files reboot and new series Lucifer. "Having an event that will appeal to such a wide audience and will promote all of that [at the same time] is very meaningful," says Dana Walden, chairman/CEO of Fox Television Group. Lachlan Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox, stresses the importance of featuring sports, news and live events. He says that bold programming is critical in the age of Peak TV, with its seemingly limitless menu of shows: "You don't want to do anything average or bland."
Which is why, in addition to hiring a brash crew of pop-star actresses, Fox brought in Tommy Kail, the 38-year-old director of revered Broadway sensation Hamilton, to direct with Alex Rudzinski, 43, a vet of Dancing With the Stars. (Paramount Pictures, which owns the rights, put the initial package together with Kail.) Kail touts the old-fashioned theater tricks he plans for Grease: Live -- vaudeville-style quick changes (with Tony-winning designer William Ivey Long, who says the clothes will be "tighter, shorter, sexier") and turntable sets -- as well as big gestures only possible on TV. Rudzinski says handheld cameras will push into the action for close-ups that have more in common with an NFL game than Great Performances. "This will be the biggest radio, mic and [communications] footprint any company has ever done," he says. (The show's budget is reportedly about $16 million.) Not that there are visible jitters among the actors on set -- seven of them separately say the rehearsals feel "like summer camp."
"With the girls, it's really easy," says Jepsen, 30. "You're braiding each other's hair, grabbing each other's asses. We're just girlfriends in that way, like the Pink Ladies."
The Pink Ladies are, of course, the girls who "rule the school," alternately fighting off and crushing on the skirt-chasing, leather-jacketed T-Birds. Right now, they're tangled in a pile of entwined limbs on the gymnasium floor, trading gossip and jokes and snapping duck-face selfies, when Kail calls everyone back to their marks: " 'Summer Nights!' Let's go!"
First to hit the floor: Vanessa Hudgens, 27, who's essentially a 10th-year senior, having starred in 2006's High School Musical. "The live aspect doesn't freak me out," she says, but "it's a bit nerve- wracking" to step into the role of Rizzo, whom Stockard Channing immortalized in the Grease movie as an icon of take-no-shit toughness. Coming close behind Hudgens are two singer-actresses with experience as Cinderella on Broadway: Jepsen -- whose 2015 album, Emotion, won all sorts of critical praise -- as the beauty-school dropout Frenchy; and Keke Palmer, 22, the Scream Queens star who plays the lovesick Marty. Kether Donohue, 30, who co-stars on the FX sitcom You're the Worst, plays Jan (and wears the braids twisted by Jepsen).
With all assembled and the music kicking in, the Pink Ladies circle the new girl, Sandy, played by singer, Dancing With the Stars champ and Dirty Grandpa actress Julianne Hough, 27. Hough, who grew up Mormon in Utah and says she had to sneak viewings of her parents' Grease laser disc because it was so "racy," may be just perfect to play the innocent Sandy. Hough and her beloved Danny Zuko -- Broadway star Aaron Tveit -- sing the song's teasing verses: "She swam by me, she got a cramp…" "He ran by me, got my suit damp…" As Danny and Sandy move in for the final verse, one of the T-Birds strikes a pose on a cardboard box and -- crunch! -- it collapses underneath him. Kail calls out "Cut!" to a hail of giggles, as another T-bird comes in with the punch line: "Crushed it!"
Grease was nostalgic from the very start. In 1971, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs wrote a little musical about life in 1958, at Chicago's rough-and-tough Taft High School, and based many of the characters on their friends. They set their sweet love story of two kids working up the courage to be themselves in a world of teen issues -- pregnancy, social pressure, abortion -- to a soundtrack of vintage-inspired originals that were meant to make young audiences dance and older audiences feel young again.
After the rowdy show's Chicago run, its 1972 downtown New York transfer "didn't even open to great reviews," says Barry Bostwick, who originated the role of Danny Zuko, later played by Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze and John Travolta, but "it just sparked something." Grease eventually became the longest-running show in history at the time. "American Graffiti hadn't been out, and the Fonz hadn't been invented yet," says Bostwick. "After the turmoil of the '60s, I think audience members wanted to recapture that innocent time when things didn't seem so complicated."
The appeal remained potent a few years later, when the 1978 film -- produced by Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees impresario who died in January, and directed by first-timer Randal Kleiser -- became a global phenomenon, leaping over Superman to eventually (with a 1998 rerelease) earn $394 million worldwide -- roughly $1.3 billion today. (Bostwick still prefers the musical to the movie, in which "everyone is so frenetic and hyper [and] seems coked up.") People talk about Travolta's career as if Saturday Night Fever (another Stigwood production) was as important as Grease, but Grease has earned twice as much domestically as that film. (Grease 2 famously bombed.) Meanwhile, the movie's original soundtrack eventually spent 12 nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Since 1991 alone, when Nielsen Music began tracking music sales, it has sold 6.1 million copies.
"Summer Nights" and Olivia Newton-John's swoony ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You" hit No. 5 and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively. But the album's two No. 1 hits were songs added to the movie at Stigwood's behest: the John Farrar-written "You're the One That I Want" and "Grease," written by Barry Gibb and sung by Frankie Valli. "When Barry sent me the demo, I immediately said yes," says Valli, the Four Seasons frontman and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. "If they'd known that song was going to be such a big hit, I never would have gotten it. I guess it keeps coming back because Grease was a celebration of the teenager."
Valli, 81, still performs his Grease hit, as does Newton-John, 67, who just extended her Summer Nights revue at the Flamingo Las Vegas casino for another year. "They were made of sharkskin or something," Newton-John says, remembering the form-fitting pants that "Sandy Two" wears in the film's finale and without which her pre-Madonna 1981 hit "Physical" might never have spent 10 weeks atop the Hot 100. "Gosh, I was kind of thought of as the girl next door, country and all that, and Grease was considered so naughty! Playing Sandy Two gave me the courage to branch out and do more rock." In Vegas, Newton-John says, fans come up and tell her they watch the movie with their kids and now their grandchildren: "Grease is timeless."
Of course, it's not timeless in every respect, and Grease: Live dispenses with the all-white cast singing R&B, the gay jokes about the nerdy Eugene and the racist crack about Koreans. Fox means to reach the widest possible audience by updating Grease for the widest -- and necessarily most diverse -- audience. "We can move past some of those [politically incorrect] things," says Kail, "and still have the integrity of the story."
Palmer, who is African-American, says she was initially worried that her casting would be tokenism but now believes the production truly reflects America in 2016. (Hudgens is Filipino-American; the T-Birds are thoroughly diverse.) "They specifically wanted to make this new to our generation," she says. "That's so dope."
While older fans should appreciate cameos by the film's original Frenchy and Doody (Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, respectively) and the sight of Boyz II Men harmonizing on "Teen Angel," Hough, Hudgens, Jepsen and Palmer each capture different, millennially skewed demographic slices. Meanwhile, Jessie J, 27, will kick the show off with a rendition of Valli's "Grease," and Joe Jonas' band DNCE will play the dance competition and pep rally. Jonas, 26, promises a "throwback" feel for "Cake by the Ocean," which DNCE will play for the first time at the Dance-Off, along with "Maybe Baby," a new song written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, who share a Pulitzer for Next to Normal. Kitt describes it as "a really fun rockabilly, bluesy song from the era." (It doesn't hurt that writing new material costs less than licensing "Hound Dog.") Kitt wrote the ballad "All I Need Is an Angel" specifically for Jepsen's Frenchy. The iTunes soundtrack, to be released the night of the broadcast, will include all three new tracks.
Jonas is a lifelong Grease fan. "I auditioned to be Danny Zuko months ago," he admits. "I'm glad they've got a cast that's believable and younger and sexy because Grease is sexy. I mean, the sweet girl falls in love with the bad boy, then the roles reverse? That's unbelievably sexy."
Kail, who spent the morning on conference calls for his gig directing Hamilton, huddles the cast for a pep talk after the "Summer Nights" run-through. "We are going to establish that this is a live show," he says. "You'll see the hustle and bustle, the gunk of it -- the golf carts, the crew, the cables, the satellite uplinks."
The format may be what ultimately sets this show apart from countless other iterations of Grease like the Broadway revival starring Rosie O'Donnell as Rizzo, the London revival with Debbie Gibson as Sandy or the 2006 reality show Grease: You're the One That I Want. Kail tells the cast that he has been drawing from a wide range of inspirations, from concert films and Playhouse 90 (the live CBS series from the 1950s) to "the site-specific theater of the '60s and '70s" and social media, which will be aggressively integrated into the show.
To underscore that Grease: Live is one night only -- "Grand opening, grand closing, as Chris Rock says," jokes Kail -- the show will begin in natural daylight at precisely 4 p.m. Pacific time, rain or shine, with Jessie J's "Grease." It will conclude three hours later, in the actual dark of night, at exactly 7 p.m.
"We'll end in the town square," Kail tells the cast, noting that they're building a full-size Ferris wheel and 50-foot carnival tent. "Any questions?"
Hough: "Um, where are the restrooms going to be?"
Kail says the potential for hate-watching is part of the kick. "The number of people who watched Peter Pan Live [equals] 22 years of a sold-out Broadway house," says Kail. "Something is going to happen. When it does, I tell the actors, you just have to get back up because that's the beauty of these live events. We love Rocky because he gets back up."
Kail has inserted a self-referential little joke into the script, which the cast rehearses in an institutional green hallway on set: The Rydell principal shares the thrilling news that the National Dance-Off will be performed here in the gym and broadcast live.
"What if something goes wrong?" shrieks a peppy student.
"It doesn't matter," says the principal. "The American audience is pretty forgiving."