BWW Interview: We Go Together: GREASE Ensemble Discusses Challenges and Camaraderie
"We are all there for each other," Kevin Nietzel asserts, affirming the bond that is making Maine State Music Theatre's Grease so electric.
"It is very rewarding," adds Neil Starkenberg, MSMT's Danny Zuko.
Co-star Chelsea Williams, who plays Sandy to Starkenberg's Danny, continues the thought: "Neil and I have had conversations about how we could do this show for a really long time. It is so much fun, and I think that must be obvious to the audience. The energy is so palpable that it is a special joy to work that hard every night. Everyone is having the time of his life!"
These three actors together with principals Gerianne Pérez (Rizzo), Charis Leos (Miss Lynch), Costume Designer Travis M. Grant, and MSMT Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark all joined BWW's Maine editor Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold for the third panel discussion in the theatre's Peek Behind the Curtain series held each summer at Curtis Memorial Library. In an especially lively and far-ranging conversation that highlighted not only the challenges but also the camaraderie of this ensemble, the panel and capacity audience explored the history, characters, and production process for MSMT's summer mega hit.
Clark explained the history of the piece, which was written in the basement of the Candlelight Theatre in Chicago in 1971. "I cut my teeth at the Candlelight as an actor, and it is this fantastic space. There was a den underneath the lobby where those of us who wanted to get away a little went, and it was there that Jim Jacobs and WarRen Casey hammered out their little musical play, Vaseline. When they completed it, they kept asking the [Candlight's] producer to stage it, but he wasn't interested. I am sure if he were here today, he would tell you that was a big mistake, and he spent the rest of his life trying to hit on a show that would make up for his passing on Vaseline." The show did eventually receive a production at the tiny Kingston Mines Theatre and then after undergoing some serious revisions and a name change, went on to Broadway in 1972."
Not only was it a stage success, but Grease was made into the iconic John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John movie in 1978 and has spawned numerous subsequent revivals, attempted sequels, and a recent live television production, while the score remains one of the all time greats of American pop culture. Clark talks about his reasons for choosing the stage the version MSMT has mounted - one that contains not only the Broadway songs, but also several of the most beloved from the movie. "There are so many versions of the show. The script was actually considered avant garde when it was first done, almost in the way that Spring Awakening or Rent was, though by today's standards it is pretty tame. But the reality is that it contains that iconic music, so Stephanie [Dupal, MSMT Managing Director] and I agreed that we had to spend the money to get the rights for the additional music. All of the incarnations of Grease have something awesome in them. The public pulls memories from each of the versions they've seen, and that's what sticks in their heads. So by our pulling the best from each stage version and the movie music, which is more upbeat and adds a happy infusion of life, we are doing what we set out to do - give the audience the Grease they remember."
Among the various factors contributing to the perennial appeal, certainly the colorful characters are foremost, and the five principals discuss their interpretations and role preparation. Starkenberg and Williams have worked together before in Mamma Mia! on tour and on Broadway and at MSMT last summer, and because of their friendship on and off stage, he says "we have a special chemistry. It is great to work with an actress with whom you have on stage what you have offstage. Chelsea is my backbone, and I hope that translates to the audience."
"Danny is an iconic role," Starkenberg continues. "I knew movie as a kid, but when I prepare a role I generally don't like to watch someone else. But in this case, I felt I had to give a little nod to those icons." He goes on to recount how he thought he was being creative in the way he delivered a line in rehearsal, only to realize it was subconsciously influenced by Travolta's delivery. " I decided to keep it that way as an homage. But for the most part, you have to put yourself and your interpretation first and live the character as you. We are all cast because we are bringing something of ourselves to the role, so as an actor, I have to make sure I am being present in the moment as Danny."
Williams agrees, saying that "Once I was cast I didn't re-listen to the Broadway cast albums and did not rewatch the movie, though it was probably never far from my mind because as a kid I obsessed with it. I did try to remember what the movie made me feel when I had watched it, and I tried to emulate that feeling from my own perspective. Capturing the youth and innocence of Sandy - which is not necessarily who I am in daily life - was the most challenging part. Vocally, however, because Olivia Newton-John is such an amazing vocalist, I did rip off a few vocal choices."
"It's a show people know so well," Leos interjects, "and they are expecting to hear a certain thing. So, yes, you bring yourself to the music, but you also honor what they think they remember. It's a fine line, but I would say it's not so much 'ripping off' as honoring."
Williams concurs and also explains how she and director/choreographer Mark Martino approached her character's transformation at the end of the show. "I like to think Sandy is empowered in the end. I don't want the audience to walk away thinking she has abandoned her former self to appease these people who haven't treated her especially welL. Sandy learns from these people that there is a whole other world out there. She sees the good in them, not the bad. Rizzo's lament is the turning point for her. She thinks that maybe there is some merit in how freely these kids are living, and she understands that there has been a great deal of experience she has missed out on that could make her life richer and more fulfilling."
Pérez also feels that her big number, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" is the dramatic turning point for her character and her relationship to Sandy. "In playing the role, I have to dig my teeth into why Rizzo is having such a hard time with Sandy as a human being. Sandy is everything Rizzo is not. Rizzo is pretty happy with who she is; she sees herself as the leader of the pack, sure, strong, an outsider, and then along comes this new girl whom everyone is paying attention to. Sandy has an innocence that Rizzo hasn't known for a very long time, and Rizzo envies and misses that. At the reprise of 'Look at Me, I'm Sandra D,' I have to imagine what happens when Sandy goes to Frenchie's house. I think all the Pink Ladies are there, and everyone finds a common ground. It's a quick turnaround, but thankfully, I love Chelsea and we have a great relationship so we make that moment work."
Pérez also feels that her big vocal moment in act two is crucial to the show dramatically, and it is a shame when it is cut from some high school versions, especially in this day and age. "If you cut that song ['There Are Worse Things I Could Do'], you cut who Rizzo is. That moment deals with the one true problem in the show. Being pregnant and unmarried in that day meant your life was over. You can feel the energy shift, and a real gravitas enter. It is a beautifully written song with every acting beat laid out, so I just have to go organically through the journey to make it justified. I just have to live it, and it works."
Finding the depth in the characters is something which Nietzel agrees is important as well for his character. " Kennickie has to show more than one color. He has to be more than the macho tough guy; in the second act with Rizzo's pregnancy scare, he has to have more depth. I like to imagine that Rizzo and Kennickie have more grit in their family backgrounds than some of the others."
Leos, who now plays one of the "grownups," Miss Lynch, concurs, saying how playing Rizzo has been for her an unrealized dream. "As a kid growing up in Honduras, we had a TV room at the American Embassy, and it was my idea to show the movie Grease and charge admission, so I watched it about fifty times, and I decided I wanted to be Stockard Channing. When I grew up and got to North Texas State University, they were doing a production, but it had been cast before I got there, so I missed that chance. And here I am getting to do it now when I am the old one," she says with a laugh. "But Gerri is so brilliant that I cannot imagine anyone doing it better. I am happy to be where I am and watch all these young actors shine."
Leos, who has had a busy and demanding summer at MSMT playing three diverse roles - Louise in Always, Patsy Cline, Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and now Miss Lynch in Grease - says she has learned to compartmentalize in order to switch gears from character assignment to assignment."I try not to let one spill over into the other. If the other show I am working on comes into my head, I block it out. When I am on stage in the evening, I want to be present in the moment. So really I am shifting gears several times a day."
The vibrancy of the characters in Grease is one reason for its popularity, but as the current MSMT production demonstrates, so, too, is the score, the choreography, and the bright joyous visual designs.
Clark comments, "It feels like a juke box musical, but it is not."
"The songs are SO iconic," Pérez remarks.
"In other musicals you don't always get the big band sound. The huge boom of rock 'n roll sound our band produces puts you mentally and physically into the era," adds Starkenberg. Clark seconds that explaining that MSMT is using pit musicians who double on instruments.
Leos notes that Music Director Samuel Thorne Bagala "is so entertaining down there in the pit. I love watching him."
Clark says with pride that "Sam started with MSMT when he was sixteen and has come back after training at the Boston Conservatory and working in New York and on national tours."
Starkenberg praises the incredible choreography of the show. "Mark Martino has done a great job of incorporating a huge cast on stage; it looks visually spectacular when you see a bunch of kids punching their arms, flailing the air [in "Greased Lightning"]. It's choreography everybody can do; it has an upbeat energy, and we are all making sure we elevate our own energy to the peak that these characters are experiencing in the show. We remember what it was like to be that age and so rambunctious. Whereas the Newsies choreography is all about technique, Grease is about having fun and always living on that note."
Rounding out the total exuberance of the production are the sets by Charles S. Kading, the lighting by Jesse Klug, and the costumes by Travis M. Grant, who makes his MSMT design debut with Grease. Grant talks about the mandate he was given as costume designer to "make it bright and happy." He adds that luckily for him as the designer, "I had great resources on which to draw for the period look. While the characters are heightened textually and musically, they are real people in real situations wearing real clothes. I had access to so many reference materials like the Sears catalogs and a pattern maker, who had been alive in that era, and knew the home sew Butterick and McCall's patterns, and so we were able to reproduce everything meticulously.
Grant talks about completing the look of his attire with "some of the best wigs I've ever seen" by Gerard James Kelly and by his own obsession with details. "I am a little bit of a detail freak, so at the fittings, I would tell the costume shop, 'we have to take another look at that,' but it paid off in the end. " He cites the Teen Angel costume which has over 10,000 individually placed rhinestones as an example, and tells the audience that MSMT has built everything "here in Brunswick. Because we know they are going to have a life after this production through our costume rentals department" - a decision Clark says is necessary to finance the huge expense of such a lavishly costumed show - " we built them to withstand a nuclear blast," Grant jokes. They have steel boning, seams to be let out or taken in, and linings that will give them a life of ten-twenty years."
Putting the costumes and wigs on, the actors assert, transports them to an era which predates them all. Asked what accounts for the huge nostalgia surrounding the 1950s of Grease and what has been each of their individual access points into this past seen through rose-tinted glasses, Clark talks about his own experience and how it seems to continue to translate itself for contemporary audiences. " I first came to show when I did it in summer stock. I played Danny in the old version, which was sort of mean and negative. There was even a moment at the end when Sandy punches Patty Simcox, something we cut from our production because I felt it was too jarring. What we have on stage now is a show that makes you happy over and over again. I, myself, have already watched it four times, and I can't get enough of it. There are people who say there is not enough cerebral activity in the piece, but my response to that is that we [as a theatre company] are also responsible for the mood of this community. And MSMT's Grease is uplifting."
Clark's sentiment is clearly shared by those in attendance at the panel (as well as by the sold out theatre crowds). One new subscriber stands to comment: "Grease wasn't the one we were looking forward to this summer because we had already seen multiple productions of it. But it was the most enjoyable show we have ever attended. The dancing is to die for; the orchestra is wonderful. We had the best time we have had in the theatre in ages!"
Photo Olivia Wenner
Grease runs at MSMT's Pickard Theater at 1 Bath Road, Brunswick, ME until August 5th www.msmt.org 207-7258769