This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Grease!,” the third longest-running Broadway show in history, one of the most often performed shows in high school theaters, and one of the most popular movie soundtracks of all time.
To mark this grand occasion, the show is playing again on Broadway, and a touring company is performing all around the country — including at Salt Lake’s Capitol Theatre through Sunday.
And if ever a show was bloated from eating its own congratulatory anniversary cake, it’s “Grease!” (The exclamation mark is now part of the title, just one indication of how self-aggrandizing the show’s current promoters have made it to be.) The show is big, with big sets, big acting, big dance numbers — but it’s all hollow, with no substance. The actors deliver their lines with zestful energy, but they don’t make them funny, like they’re supposed to be. Instead, they bray them in pseudo-Noo Yawk accents, apparently unconcerned with the travesty they are committing by making truly funny lines come out over-done and shallow.
The characters are all without motivation, but this is saddest with Danny and Sandy, the two “main” characters who somehow get completely overlooked in this production. When they finally get together at the end, the audience couldn’t care less because we really never got to know them in the first place. In fact, nearly every character is performed with such blandness that the show becomes an artifact, the fossilized remains of what a good show used to look like, rather than actually being a good show.
Ironically, “Grease!” has become exactly what it set out to NOT be. When it was written in 1972, it was intended as a parody of the supposedly wholesome, pure decade of the ’50s. Great satire abounds in the script — a song about how most ’50s rock tunes only used four chords, sly mentions of Troy Donahue, Sal Mineo, and other teen idols, not to mention all the sexual innuendo that the misty-eyed nostalgia-peddlers would have us believe didn’t exist in that decade. In short, “Grease” (as originally presented, without the exclamation mark) was meant to tear down the false notions that people had about the ’50s. It takes place in 1959, just 13 years before it was written. Can you imagine a show being written now, taking place in 1984, and being a tribute to the ’80s? Of course not. No one takes the ’80s seriously right now, and so it could only work as a parody, not a tribute.
And yet “Grease!” has become a tribute. Rather than making fun of the ’50s, it’s become a Baby Boomer-oriented paean to that decade. The show set out to take a bite out of false icons, but now it’s had its teeth taken out, and it’s singing praises to its original target. And just as the ’50s were overblown and airbrushed into imaginary perfection, “Grease!” has become a show that itself is overblown and needs to be cut down to size. “Grease” set out to tear down the ’50s, and now “Grease!” needs to be torn down.
The problem here is that everyone remembers “Grease” with such fondness that it doesn’t matter if the show is actually good or not. The promoters know this. The word “Grease!” hangs above the stage hugely, and the backdrop is covered with ’50s terms like “Elvis,” “rock and roll,” and “necking.” You can practically hear the show saying, “Look! It’s ‘Grease’! Don’t you love it, just because it’s ‘Grease’? Eh? Eh?”
Furthermore, the show starts with an actual dance contest, hosted by a cast member and filled with real audience members, dancing onstage. Obviously, it’s an attempt to play to nostalgia, and it’s a fair warning of what’s to come: A slide show of ’50s images thrown together into what used to be a really good musical.
It’s even mildly disturbing that the dance contest opening night was filled with young kids whose parents, mis-remembering how vulgar and dirty “Grease” is, had brought them to see the show. It’s about the ’50s, so it must be wholesome, like “Leave It to Beaver,” right? See, we’ve forgotten that “Grease” was meant to show the falseness of that image. Instead, we remember only the false image and forget the whole point of the show. I suspect the authors of “Grease” would be frustrated at the dull, lifeless beast their once-great show has become.