A few years ago, NBC was savaged for ruining The Sound of Music in its first live musical broadcast and they’ve done lesser-known musicals since. Fox, in its first foray into the genre, fearlessly picked Grease and that risk paid off. Grease: Live was mostly an enjoyable, competent three hours of television.
Perhaps because Grease: Live was filmed in LA (the home of movie musicals) instead of New York (the home of Broadway) it wasn’t as stage-y and stilted as the NBC productions. To start, the camera movement was far more dynamic—almost dizzyingly so. The show began with Jessie J singing “Grease (Is the Word)” and while she was already a poor substitute for Frankie Valli, the camerawork didn’t do her any favors. Having her run around the studio lot surrounded by dancers felt like a desperate attempt to manufacture energy rather than a showcase of the production values. The same was true of the live audience.
There were moments like the football rally when their presence made the world within the musical feel populated where the NBC musicals often feel sparse. However, it was often hard to pay attention to the main characters because watching the audience members’ varied reactions to being on camera was its own form of fun. Admittedly, their enthusiastic cheers did make the transitions between scenes and musical numbers smoother than the crushing, awkward silences NBC’s live musicals have.
Frankly, it was almost staggering how much better the production value was here. All the major broadcast networks should be required to put on a live musical so viewers can understand the true nature of their finances. Everything from the sets to the dancing felt like it was done on a bigger, grander scale than anything NBC has done. The first half of the National Band Stand sequence–which moved from the students’ arrivals to the dance floor and into the first part of the live broadcast within the live broadcast–unfolded so seamlessly and energetically that you wanted to stand and applaud when Mario Lopez as Vince Fontaine led us into a commercial break.
That said, not everything went smoothly. There was a heart-rending 10 seconds of silence during “Born to Hand Jive” and it was not the only sound problem of the night. The singers’ microphones were mostly too low, and they were often drowned out by the background noise or the music itself. “Greased Lightning” should make everyone want to get up and dance, but the vocals were so difficult to hear that it was hard to notice the lyrics for the dancing. Some of the responsibility, however, lies with Aaron Tveit as lead T-Bird, Danny Zuko.
Tveit’s had a lot of experience in musicals both onstage and onscreen, so it’s slightly baffling that he wasn’t more charismatic. Although maybe it’s that he was the wrong kind of charismatic. Travolta’s Danny was lovable because he was too arrogant to realize he was stupid. Tveit played the character as a standard romantic hero–a good guy who needed a lesson about not caving to peer pressure–and he was bland as a result. His “Stranded at the Drive In” was well-sung, but lacked the pathetic poor-me irony that makes that song funny. Still, he danced well throughout and his confidence seemed to grow as the show progressed.
The same was true of his onscreen paramour, Julianne Hough as Sandy. Early in the show, she struggled to hit the required notes in “Summer Lovin’,” often almost running out of breath before finishing the lyrics. By contrast, there were blessedly few cracks in her belting during “Hopelessly Devoted to You”. By the same token, Hudgens’s “There are Worse Things I Could Do” was maybe the best number of the night while her “Sandra Dee” bordered on embarrassing.
It feels a little cruel criticizing Hudgens given her father died mere hours before the broadcast, but as one of the few cast members with Broadway experience, it was difficult not to expect more from her. Frankly, the same could be said of pretty much all the main cast members. Instead, the secondary characters stood out. Jordan Fisher as Doody nearly stole the show when he crooned “These Magic Changes” and Elle McLemore as bitchy, over-confident Patty Simcox outshone professional dancer Hough in their cheerleading showdown by offering acting instead of empty dance moves.
The lone standout of the top-billed cast was Keke Palmer as Marty. Perhaps it’s because she spent most of the season perfecting her comedic timing on Scream Queens, but she drew the most laughs outside of Ana Gasteyer as Principal McGee. Her angry, “Is she that sophomore?!” when Frenchy mentioned Emily Dickinson was one of the funniest moments of the broadcast. However, her performance wasn’t flawless. Her voice was more nasal than lounge singer-esque in the USO fantasy number, “Freddy My Love,” but she played to camera like a pro while most everyone else was so nervous or restrained that the musical’s most iconic songs often felt underserved.
Perhaps the most egregious example was “Beauty School Dropout,” where Boyz II Men substituted melisma for actual singing. Producers likely hoped to attract more viewers by including popular recording artists in the show, but just as with Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live!, it rarely worked. While Joe Jonas as the lead singer of the school dance’s band didn’t embarrass himself like his brother Nick did on Smash, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy was another matter. Acting-wise, she was fine if a bit cold. Singing-wise, well, let’s just say that she’s lucky this wasn’t an actual Broadway performance. Her voice lacked power in her one solo, “All I Need is an Angel,” which was surprising considering it was specifically written for her.
Still, regardless of its flaws, Grease: Live was fantastic television. It was energetic and well-produced and by the time the whole cast danced to “We Go Together,” it was impossible not to be caught up in it. Watching the whole cast run out of the gym, pile into golf carts and dance in front of a giant outdoor carnival set was thrilling and nearly as exciting and enjoyable as the same scene in the movie.