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Pink Ladies and T-Birds, please assemble.
In a further attempt to bring the immediacy of theater to television, Fox’s upcoming Grease: Live will be the first of the recent crop of small-screen live musical events to be staged in front of a studio audience.
Director Thomas Kail and set designer David Korins, who collaborated on this year’s Broadway juggernaut, Hamilton, confirmed on Wednesday that an audience “in the multiple hundreds” will populate Rydell High and other locations featured in the 1950s-set musical, which airs on Jan. 31 on Fox, broadcast live from the Warner Bros. backlot.
Kail also revealed that the show will be a combined version of the original stage musical, first produced in Chicago in 1971, and the perennially popular 1978 film that starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It will include songs added for the movie — “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want” and the title track — as well as songs from the original show that did not make it into the screen version.
“Very early on as I started imagining what this could be, talking to Marc Platt, our executive producer, and the folks at Paramount, one of the things we really were very focused on was trying to capture the spirit of both the original companies of Grease and that film that has left such an indelible impression on all of us,” said Kail, now in the third week of rehearsals in Burbank. “To try to honor that and pay homage to something that has moved us and we have such a great affection for, and then try to make our own version of it.”
The incorporation of a studio audience — who will be seen on camera though not in costume, handling props or delivering lines — gives the Fox event a fresh, and potentially more risky, angle to distinguish it from NBC’s live broadcasts of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz.
“It’s been pretty remarkable to feel how vibrant and fresh the material continues to be,” Kail said. “My feeling always, about Grease, has been that the spirit of those companies and that film felt like a party and everybody was invited, and that’s really what we’re trying to do with our production. Because of the nature of the show and the musical-comedy rhythms, one of the very early conversations that Marc Platt and I had last fall was about how to try to capture that feeling that can exist in the theater and see if we can transmit and translate that. We settled on this idea that we could try to create and use and harness the energy of a live audience.”
“There’s an energy and an undeniable vitality that real humans give back to real humans that are performing that we wanted to try to capture and exploit,” added Korins. “People will populate the world that are real-live audience members where live audience members would be, so in a pep rally or when we’re seeing the hand jive. We are going to flesh out the world with real, giving-back audience members. ‘There are several other opportunities in the show where we’re going to use real live audience members, but for some of those, you’re going to have to tune in January 31st to see where and how we’re going to use them.”
Among the sets Korins has built is a four-wall “cafegymatorium,” providing a 360-degree environmental opportunity for immersive audience participation, as well as more traditional theatrical sets like the front of Rydell High and a three-wall set for the auto body shop scene in which “Greased Lightning” is performed.
“I think this medium is one that is going to be able to really show off what theater does best, and also what film and television does best,” said Korins.
The cast for Grease: Live is headed by Julianne Hough as Sandy, Aaron Tveit as Danny, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy and Keke Palmer as Marty. Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins are writing the adaptation, with Alex Rudzinski serving as TV director and Zach Woodlee as choreographer.
The production will use three different locations on the Warner lot — two soundstages, each containing several sets, as well as exteriors on one of what’s known as the Midwest streets on the backlot, requiring a considerable amount of movement during commercial breaks, and sometimes during a scene. Monitors will be placed to allow the live audience in one location to watch action on other sets, much like an SNL taping.
“We’re looking to infuse our world with many, many theatrical devices and cool ways to present different transitions,” said Korins. “We’re trying not to cut away that much, so we can let people experience theater on a very mass scale.”
“If we’re going to say Grease: Live, and we’re owning the liveness of it, as all of the ones that have come before us have, too,” Kail said, “then we have to wrap our arms around that. That’s part of the thrill, to see and understand that this is happening in the moment.”
Kail hinted that outreach programs, lotteries and contests are being planned to recruit studio audience members. He also confirmed that a recording of the show will be released as an album, with Broadway composer, orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt serving as music supervisor.
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