'Grease: Live' EP on New Song, Toughest Scenes and "Stretching the Envelope"

"We're presented with a three-hour time block so we're embellishing the show itself," Marc Platt tells THR about how Sunday's broadcast will differ from the movie and stage versions.
Kevin Estrada/FOX; Frank Micelotta/FOX

It's (almost) showtime. Nearly two years after Fox announced its first foray into the live musical business that NBC resurrected to big ratings, the network will unveil the three-hour Grease: Live event Sunday at 7 p.m. But despite the months of prep, executive producer Marc Platt still wishes he had more time.

"Any producer will tell you in any production, 'I wish I had more time.' Or any director will say, 'I wish I had more rehearsal,'" he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "You always want more time."

Thankfully, Platt, who is also a newly minted Oscar nominee for producing the World War II drama Bridge of Spies, stepped away from rehearsals on the Warner Bros. lot to speak with THR about his connection to the material, the decision to add a new song for Frenchy and whether he'd return for another Fox live musical event.

How has it been going so far?

It's really going well. It's really challenging and really hard, but really wonderful. Everyone is so excited and appreciative to get to do this so everybody's having a great time and I think it's coming together in a really lovely, interesting, different kind of way.

Obviously, these musicals have been popular on NBC for the last couple years. What do you think that Fox and this particular production will add to that conversation?

I don’t know if it's about adding. It's kudos to NBC and Bob Greenblatt for re-introducing the idea of live musicals on television. I'm a lover of musicals. I'm so excited that they did that and so thanks to them, we have the opportunity to do this. I think that we're just trying to do the best version of Grease that we can to the live television format, and so in regards to that, we're trying to stretch the envelope of what live theater can be. Specific to this material, there's so much energy and exuberance in Grease that it feels like it ought to be matched by the excitement of a live event, and so we're trying just to deliver big entertainment and I think Fox is hoping for great ratings.

What was your first exposure to Grease?

I remember seeing it when I was 14 or 15 and my folks took me. I grew up in Baltimore so the first production of Grease I saw was the national tour, and I even have something in the back of my head that John Travolta might have been in that national tour. So that was my first exposure to it and then, I remember seeing the film when the film came out like everybody else and having a great time. I have kids that grew up acting, some of them still act successfully, but they've all been in productions of Grease. I have five kids, multiply that a couple times, so I probably saw seven, eight or 10 productions of Grease while my kids were growing up. So, like most people, Grease has been a part of my cultural experience.

You're obviously very familiar with the material, so what went into the decision to mix the musical production and the film?

Well, it’s a couple of things. One is that most people know the movie, and those are the rights that Paramount actually owns; it's a Paramount production. There are some iconic moments in the film which is "You're the One That I Want" and "Hopelessly Devoted" and, believe it or not, a car chase which we're actually going to do live. So you have to have that because it's become part of the lexicon of Grease. Similarly, there are some great musical elements in the play that just weren’t included in the film so we decided, because some of us come from the world of theater also, we wanted to pay homage to it. We included a couple of those great musical numbers in our version as well. I hope we represent the best of Grease in big combination.

I have to ask how do you do a car chase on a set during a live production? How has it been to mount that part of the production?

You know what, we're very creative about it and you're going to have to tune in and see. We're being inventive and clever and hopefully delivering the fun. The whole goal here is, more than anything, is to deliver great entertainment with great music and great dance and great energy and great characters. At the same time, we're trying to deliver a live event that feels live and feels in the moment but it still feels like an interesting combination of more cinematic elements and live theater elements. So we're sort of mixing that all up in a bowl and coming up with our own language as you will and the car chase is part of that.

You're also adding a new song for this production. What went into that decision and what do you think this new tune adds that wasn't there before?

First of all, we're presented with a three-hour time block so we're embellishing the show itself. We have a great character in Frenchy and it always felt to us that, because she has such a wish fulfillment  she's the one who gets a teen angel in all the productions of Grease that giving her a musical moment felt really organic to the story and really great for a character who otherwise doesn’t have a musical moment. And then when we ended up casting Carly Rae Jepsen in it, it felt like well there's even more of a reason because who doesn’t want to hear her sing? So it's all those elements combined together and thankfully we came up with a song we all loved that fits the narrative and furthers the narrative so it's a happy win for everyone.

Is there one musical number that has been the toughest to rehearse or mount for the live telecast?

I think there are a lot of challenges. First of all, we're doing some numbers in a way they haven’t done before so we've created our own set of challenges, which go to the whole idea of combining all these elements. I think the whole dance contest is a challenge because it's being done live and there's a lot of dancing and a lot of music. They can't cut between takes and catch their breath. We have a number at a drive-in movie theater that's done live so there are a lot of challenges throughout. They're all accomplishable, I think, in a fun, entertaining kind of way.

How early did you know you wanted to incorporate a live audience?

Tommy Kail and I talked about it about a year ago when we first came on. One of the first conversations we had started with the notion of, Tom said, "You know it is a musical comedy and if it doesn’t have laughs in it, it's not going to work. We should have an audience," and that's how we started. Then, we brought in our designer last March and we said, "Well, wait a minute, we want to combine different elements from film and theater, etc.; why not actually design environments in which the audience is not just there but almost there as a character?" The audience there won't see the whole show; they'll different portions of it because they're placed into different environments, and the idea just evolved and evolved.

You said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour that this is an updated version of Grease, but it clearly still takes place in the same time period. How do you see this as an update?

The script sticks to its time period. Of course, we brought our own orchestrations into it and arrangements, which still feel very much set in the period but also introduce some contemporary feel to it. The clothing is of the period, the settings are of the period, but what's fantastic about Grease and the reason that it extended way beyond Broadway and that film and into the culture is because there's a timelessness to it. We've all had that experience in high school whenever we went to high school. We've all had our first love and we've all had those times where we wanted to act a certain way but felt we had to act another. They're all very relatable experiences set to fun music and presented with great dance and that makes Grease contemporary. All we have done is cast it in a way that reflects the world we live in, so we have a great, wonderfully talented and diverse cast. We're diverse in our backgrounds of our cast, we're diverse in the age and generations of our cast and this all points to a musical theater piece and a musical film that transcends its time and place and is universal and that’s why it's so popular.

Ultimately, what are you hoping the audience takes away from this specific production?

Hopefully that everybody in the audience and at home can have a great time and it brings a smile to your face because its Grease. If you don’t smile when you're seeing Grease, why bother?

NBC has done these live musicals year after year with the same producers. Do you already have your eyes set on another musical to tackle? Have you had those conversations yet?

I haven't. I've really enjoyed this. I found it really challenging and wonderful, but as much fun as I'm having, I'm fortunate to have a very robust film career. I have many films that are being made or that are in pre-production and are going to be made and same thing in the theater, I have musicals coming. So this has been a wonderful experience and I've loved it but… I'm looking forward to getting back to the film and theater world.

Grease: Live airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on Fox.