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GREASE: The long-run champ without a Tony

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Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
I'm just going on memory here, folks, but I just had a thought I don't think I've seen written down before, and I figured I should jot it down.

If memory serves, this is the list of Broadway's longest running musicals since OKLAHOMA!, listing the ones that replaced the current champion as the new champion:

MY FAIR LADY
HELLO, DOLLY!
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
GREASE
A CHORUS LINE
CATS
LES MISERABLES
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

That's right, I think. So far, so good?

First of all, notice that that gives us one from the 50s, two from the 60s, two from the 70s and three from the 80s. Interesting.

Notice as well that the three 80s shows came to New York from London, whereas the earlier shows were American originals (originating from out-of-town tryouts, Chicago and off-Broadway).

Only one show on this list (A CHORUS LINE) won the Pulitzer Prize.

But all of them, except for one, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The odd man out is GREASE.

In 1972, it lost to TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (a follow-up to HAIR, and ACL's precursor at the New York Shakespeare Festival). And GREASE isn't even considered to be the show that "got defeated so that TWO GENTLEMEN could win"--that dubious wag honor usually goes to FOLLIES.

I just thought this was interesting, that's all. How did the first Broadway production of GREASE run so long, without instant acclaim as either a critical hit or an obvious crowd-pleaser? Similarity to HAPPY DAYS can't be the only answer. Was it because it was so rooted in rock and roll popular culture?

And where else was I going to write this stuff down? My diary?
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bdn223
Broadway Star
joined:6/14/08
Well the original productions, to my knowledge is little to nothing like we know Grease to be today.
It was a satire of the 60's culture and was much more graffic.
Grease Lightning was not about the car...it was a bout...."the bitch of living"...and the audience was made fully aware of that.
Think about every "cutsey" and "cliched" part of the movie, or that has turned into a "cliche" and think about if grease took it seriously...and thats the original production.
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HeyMrMusic
Broadway Legend
joined:5/16/04
They used hand-held microphones and used phrases like "**** wagon." What we know of the show nowadays is completely sanitized of any grit it once had.
Gaveston2
Broadway Legend
joined:6/28/11
As I recall it (and I saw the original production many times) GREASE was just an extremely likable show that got little critical respect. For one thing, it was a parody; for another, it used pseudo-rock music at a time when Broadway was unsure what to do with rock.

(Yes, I realize TWO GENTLEMEN was even more of a rock musical, but it was hip in a way GREASE never was.)

Thirdly, it was thought by some to be an off-Broadway show that didn't really belong on Broadway. But that was also a strength: by Broadway standards GREASE was very cheap to run. No stars, small cast (16 was a small musical back then), smallish orchestra. The original was nothing like the overblown spectacle of the 90s, when GREASE was remodeled and based on the highly successful film.

It also provided a showcase for the best young talent of the early 1970s: Barry Bostwick, John Travolta and Jeff Conaway, of course, but also Treat Williams, Judy Kaye, Marilu Henner, Patrick Swayze, Adrian Zmed, et al. It was practically a "farm team" for Broadway and TV.

(ETA I think the posters above are right that it may have seemed "crude", which cost it some critical respect. But to me, it was crude in such an obviously naive way, that the profanity wasn't offputting.)

Updated On: 5/24/12 at 03:36 PM
Gothampc
Broadway Legend
joined:5/20/03
It was the West Side Story vs The Music Man scenario played out in the 1970s. Everyone knew West Side Story should have won, yet they wouldn't vote for it.
If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life.
Gaveston2
Broadway Legend
joined:6/28/11
^^^^I assume you are kidding, since GREASE doesn't have any of the pretensions to "Art" that WSS has.

If anything, people that year thought FOLLIES would win and were surprised when it didn't.

But I should confess I'd have voted for THE MUSIC MAN over WSS, too. Despite a number of brilliant staging moments, by the time they make me sit through "Somewhere" I am bored out of my mind. Wake me when the killing starts!
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Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
It does seem like each successive incarnation of GREASE is less gritty and more prettified than the one before it. The first mounting of the show in Chicago had to be "cleaned up" and de-Chicagofied before the Broadway production opened, and then the movie, the Rosie revival and the reality-show revival have been increasingly squeaky-clean, I guess.

You may have something about the low running costs. And of course a lot of TV and film talent came out of the show, starting with Adrienne Barbeau going into "Maude." But none of them were stars when they were cast, of course.
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HeyMrMusic
Broadway Legend
joined:5/16/04
Yeah I think it's something like a 5- or 6-person band. And sorry, I guess my "p*ssy wagon" was censored. Whoops. But my point is, the current script doesn't even have the lines and lyrics they originally used on Broadway. I personally think the stage show works better when it's self aware and a satire/parody, but no one stages it like this anymore thanks to the movie and revivals.
goodoneinlou2
Stand-by
joined:5/29/09
What made the original Grease so successful was it's nostaligic look back through cynical eyes - it came at a time when our culture wasn't immersed in nostalgia.

The original concept of Grease grew from a party in the late 1960s where the composers got the idea by reminiscing of high school days in late 1950's Chicago. They were playing 1950's records and discussing the percieved innocence of the time vs the reality of the how much the world had changed in less than a decade.

Remember that in the 10+ years that passed between 1959 (when Grease takes place) and 1970 (when the first production was mounted) our country had witnessed the death of JFK, had fallen into a never-ending brutal war, was under the heavy threat of nuclear war, and been introduced to the free-love hippie generation. It was a far cry from the "bygone days."

What the original script of Grease did was take memories that many held of "better times" and reminded people that things aren't as innocent as we may recall them.

The original story wasn't about Danny and Sandy... it was about teenagers and the desperate measures they took to "fit in" or "find themselves." It's finale was EXTREMELY ironic a that time in that it made a statement on how society "championed conformity." But they did so with a twist - instead of the bad girl turning good, the good girl turned bad. Also along that note, the agressiveness they gave Sandy in "taking control" played into the growing woman's sexual liberation movement that was so popular at the time.

But I digress because this is turning into a thesis.

What began as a cynical romp, became a hit through word of mouth. It lasted years and years (much to the Broadway community's chagrin) because it rode a wave of nostalgia that became ultra hot in the 1970's. The show itself was loathed by many in legit theatre at the time... mostly because it was considered a vulgar, low-class show written by no-name upstarts from a small Chicago theatre troop. Theatre snobs sneered at it... and still do... and most simply just didn't understand the brilliance of it's tongue in cheek cynicism set to rock-n-roll music.

After Grease was initially produced, movies and tv shows stole the basic theme ultimately giving the Broadway show longer legs. It became a safe, fun bet for visitors to NYC or on tour. Fast forward to 1978 and the movie version, which was watered down to become simply a vehicle to feature John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, was released giving it even more notoriety.

Because the movie version catapulted "Grease" into immoratilty, future productions have catered to it rather than the original premise... that's because generation after generation know Grease by what they see in the movie - not the original. Thus past revivals, current productions and future productions have little to no choice but to revisit the Travoltaisms since that's what the mass audience expects.

Very few outisde of the "theatre world" understand what Grease was originally intended to be... a look at innocent times WITHOUT rose-colored glasses. Those that do clamour to see it in it's original form. I'd love to go back in time and see it as originally intended - an irreverent local production in a Chicago Trolley Barn.





Updated On: 5/24/12 at 04:08 PM
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Michael Bennett
Broadway Legend
joined:3/16/05
There was a huge wave of 1950s nostalgia that swept the US in the 1970s -- the 'teens' of 1959 were by the time GREASE opened on Broadway, a core demograph of the adult theatre going audience and they naturally responded. Word of mouth was huge from the time it opened Off Broadway; and like HAIR that opened a few years earlier, it was buoyed by a score that felt surprisingly contemporary to younger audiences, whose parents were reared on Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jule Styne.
Gothampc
Broadway Legend
joined:5/20/03
"But I should confess I'd have voted for THE MUSIC MAN over WSS, too."

Because you'd rather see a musical that has songs like

"Pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep" and some lispy kid singing Gary Indiana

than a musical that has song like

"When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong"
If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life.
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bdn223
Broadway Star
joined:6/14/08
Think of Grease as the Bye Bye Birdie of its time...when people think of Bye Bye Birdie..they think of the movie version not the original stage version, which was one of the main reasons for the revival to flop (besides the lack of chemistry between Stamos and Gershon). The show is meant to be cynical, but the movie turned everyone expecting it to be Bubble gum, so that is how its performed. The same thing happened happened to Grease.
Gothampc
Broadway Legend
joined:5/20/03
I remember the tv commercial:

Every night at the Royale Theatre, the 50s come to life!

We go together like....
If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life.
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SonofRobbieJ
Broadway Legend
joined:12/10/09
I think arguing about WSS and Music Man is pointless. They are two works of art that are as close to perfect as possible.

As for Grease, my parents saw Patrick Swayze. I'm jeals.
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Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
Here is Will Panek's BWW review of "The Original Grease," that played here in Chicago in the summer of 2011. While it was not really a scrupulous recreation of the Kingston Mines production, it certainly wasn't what people think of today, by a long shot. But it doesn't reveal why the show ran for a decade in New York in the 70s, either. Such vastly different productions.

http://chicago.broadwayworld.com/article/The-Original-Grease-No-Longer-the-Danny-Sandy-Show-20010101
Gaveston2
Broadway Legend
joined:6/28/11
That game works both ways, Gothampc. While I don't pretend Willson is Sondheim's equal, let's compare the lyrics to "My White Knight" with "One Hand, One Heart" (the latter having been oft deplored by its own writer). But I don't think this is the place for that argument.

***

What made the original Grease so successful was it's nostalgic look back through cynical eyes - it came at a time when our culture wasn't immersed in nostalgia.

goodoneinlou2, did you mean to write "WAS immersed in nostalgia"? Because GREASE arrived on the heels of NO, NO NANETTE and in the same season as FOLLIES. As Michael Bennett points out, the nostalgia craze was in full swing.

But GREASE was nostalgia for young adults where NANETTE was nostalgic for the blue haired (and any of us who watched Busby Berkeley movies on TV).

I can't comment on what was done in Chicago, but there was nothing cynical about the Broadway production. Unless you mean that the show basically said "Forget LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and OZZIE AND HARRIET, this is what we were doing in the 1950s." It's true that GREASE treated so-called "juvenile delinquents" fondly rather than seeing them as tragic. (Compare it to WEST SIDE STORY, since that's been mentioned.)

But in New York, at least, it was always a valentine to the period and to the teens of 1959. Not as sappy as the film (which moved the action to Venice High in LA) and the revivals, of course, but the "grittiness" was still pretty sweet. The OBC starred Barry Bostwick, not Mickey Rourke (thank God!).
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Michael Bennett
Broadway Legend
joined:3/16/05
Now here is a horrifying television commercial for the Broadway production of GREASE in 1978 that leads me to think that part of the huge appeal of the show was that it was one of the first to be directly sold specifically to a tourist audience with midwestern tastes.
GREASE COMMERCIAL
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SonofRobbieJ
Broadway Legend
joined:12/10/09
That was just the greatest minute of my life.

My entire life.

Gaveston2
Broadway Legend
joined:6/28/11
Does anyone recognize the actor in that commercial? He was in a TV series or something in later years.

The "appeal to nostalgia" is undeniable there. But where would that commercial have run? Did tourists watch TV while they were in town? Or would the ad have played in big cities elsewhere?

(I know nowadays that hotels have special ad rolls that run on your TV whenever you turn it on. It's a common practice in Vegas and here in Palm Springs. But I don't think hotels in New York had that feature back then.)
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JoeKv99
Broadway Legend
joined:12/27/04
And by "Midwestern tastes" you do mean more refined than you New York putzes, right?
No good can possibly come from using this vast wasteland of error and deliberate deceit. You should get off of it and warn others away. You should make sure your children and grandchildren know what a corrupt and morally bankrupt institution it truly is.
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Phyllis Rogers Stone
Broadway Legend
joined:9/16/07
He looks really familiar to me too, but he kind of looks like the love child of Jeff Conaway and Marilu Henner.

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Michael Bennett
Broadway Legend
joined:3/16/05
I'm pretty sure the actor in the commercial is JoeKv99 who apparently 'likes his 50s live!'
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Phyllis Rogers Stone
Broadway Legend
joined:9/16/07
Aw, c'mon Joe, you know Midwesterners like to speak in verse and shake hands with people in them fancy Broadway productions!
Gaveston2
Broadway Legend
joined:6/28/11
Since the guy in the commercial talks about going to GREASE multiple times, I'm not sure tourists were the primary target. The ad seems aimed more at repeat business in the tri-state area.

FWIW, I didn't take the reference to Midwestern tourists as derogatory. I think it's well known that the average tourist isn't looking for the edgy new experimental drama downtown. S/he is on vacation and wants to have a good time at the theater. And there's nothing wrong with that.
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Phyllis Rogers Stone
Broadway Legend
joined:9/16/07
I don't see how the original productions sex and language is something that ties in with what New Yorkers think are stereotypical Midwestern tastes, though.
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PattiLover
Stand-by
joined:2/20/04
I was in a production of Grease years ago at a community theatre - we had a great, young cast and we used the original book and stuck to it. We even did "All Choked Up" at the end. Everything was different, and much raunchier than the movie. Even Cha-Cha is not the hot bombshell, but she's referred to as "Godzilla."

I had a blast. The original show doesn't get the credit it deserves. The movie's great, but they really are two different animals.

The subsequent revivals make me want to kill myself. Worse than dinner theatre in Florida.

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