How do you follow a Broadway blockbuster that’s being called the most revolutionary show to come along in decades? For director Thomas Kail, who masterminded the intricate staging of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop historical musical about America’s founding fathers, you navigate the divide between theater and television.
On Jan. 31, Kail will oversee the stage direction of Fox’s Grease: Live, the latest network attempt to bring a live musical to a mass audience. It follows NBC’s The Wiz Live!, which gave the burgeoning event-programming genre critical as well as commercial respectability, following the uneven results of the previous years’ The Sound of Music and Peter Pan entries.
His take on the popular ‘50s-set high school musical will star Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, Carlos PenaVega, Carly Rae Jepsen, Keke Palmer, Kether Donohue and David Del Rio.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Kail three weeks into the two-month rehearsal process about his post-Hamilton pressure, updating Grease for the next generation and the challenges of live TV.
How are rehearsals coming along?
It’s going well, thank you, even if I just burst into tears. (Laughs). This show is so much about the chemistry of the group, and it’s been pretty fantastic to watch them all. Many of the cast met for the first time two weeks ago and instantly formed this very cohesive bond.
Are you rehearsing in a similar way to a stage production?
Yes, because so much of this experience is about trying to create that feel that you have with a theater company. We basically recreated that out west.
You’re coming off a monster hit musical with Hamilton. Does that boost your confidence or create increased pressure to measure up?
The reality of working, and having another chance to get up at bat, is that whatever you do doesn’t erase the previous at bat. So I just take them one at a time. I’m certainly buoyed by the energy of Hamilton. That’s something that’s very invigorating and makes you want to go and meet a new challenge. But this is a job that I started working on last September, so I’ve had this job since before I even went into rehearsal for Hamilton off-Broadway.
What was your first exposure to Grease?
Well, I grew up in a family where I was in the middle of two sisters, and when you have two sisters there are very few movies you can agree on. So let me tell you how that usually worked: They said they wanted to watch Grease and I said, “OK.” Grease and Grease 2 were on a very constant rotation. Grease is the first musical I had exposure to. I didn’t really start going to see a lot of musicals and live theater probably until I was in seventh or eighth grade, maybe my first year of high school, and by that time I’d probably seen Grease twice a year every year of my life. Parts of the show are in my vernacular, so much so that I don’t even realize they’re actually from a movie.
There was a moment during rehearsal with [music supervisor] Tom Kitt, where I said, “OK, let’s go back and do ‘Summer Nights’ again,” and we just kind of looked at each other like, “Really? We’re doing ‘Summer Nights?'” These things are part of us, and part of the iconography of the world. So we feel a lot of responsibility to try to honor the people who made this show, and the people who have participated in it over the years. But also try to create a version that feels like it’s ours.
What will the new writers, Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, be adding to the script?
Those two have a great depth of knowledge and affinity for musical theater. Their work on [the 2014 Broadway revival of] On the Town is a very recent example of their ability to take something that exists and honor it, but also try to make it work for the next generation. What we’re doing here is taking the spine of the film and then also having access to parts of the stage play. There have been a lot of conversations about how to make something that feels cohesive and consistent with the original spirit.
So you’re incorporating the songs that were added for the movie?
Obviously, there’ll be the hand jive, but will there be a lot of other dance elements?
There’s a fair amount of dance. Some of the larger numbers in the show have real movement in them. Obviously one of the keystones is that dance at the gym… with all respect to the “Dance at the Gym,” in West Side Story. Our choreographer, Zach Woodlee, and I have had a lot of really fun conversations about how to take specific characters and make sure that we continue the narrative through that very substantial sequence where a lot of the intersection between our heroes is on the dance floor. That’s one of the things I was particularly looking forward to in this show. Really, I could listen to “Hand Jive” seven times a day.
How is the cast shaping up?
I take a lot of pride and time when I’m putting together a group. You know, Mike Nichols talked about his feelings about casting, where if you do that part right, then a very high percentage of your job is that much easier. It’s really a pretty remarkable thing to find people who’ve never met and then try to invent ten years of history together. That’s something that you’re always trying to read with people when you’re meeting them for the first time. But our actors all have experience on stage, so they understand that ability to bond in the way that the theater community forms so quickly. To me, Grease was always like this big party, and everybody was invited. We want to try and capture that feeling of inclusion.
Thomas Kail, far right, with the cast of ‘Grease: Live’
You’re working again with David Korins, your set designer on Hamilton; what can you say about the sets? Will you be using a turntable like in Hamilton, and how will you be moving from one set to another?
My brain had to wrap itself around a turntable quite enough in the last year so we decided to give ourselves a break from that. One of the things we wanted to try to do with this is capture that feeling of being backstage and moving everything from one place to the next when you do something live. We’re actually on three different locations on the Warner Bros. lot, so there’s going to be a fair amount of activity and backstage choreography happening during the commercial breaks.
You directed a concert staging of The Wiz several years back. Did you watch The Wiz Live! and if so, what did you think?
I find that show so moving and full of heart and delightful, and I was thrilled to see it embraced the way it was. Almost all the company of Grease watched it together. I think once you start doing this, there’s a very instant community that gets formed. So we were cheering on loudly through The Wiz Live! and just had an absolute ball.
It felt like people want this. That’s what was so refreshing; they sat around and watched it and they DVRed it and they watched it again. That’s pretty rare these days, to get that many people to stop what they’re doing, all coming together. I applaud them for that.
Unlike the NBC live musicals, Grease is going to be staged with a studio audience. What do you anticipate to be the pros and cons of that?
When I first started talking to [executive producer] Marc Platt about the show more than a year ago, one of the ideas we both were very keen on was that the energy of Grease would really be buoyed by having an audience. It feels like Grease lends itself to figuring out how to incorporate that studio audience. It’s a lot different depending on which stage you’re on or which set it is. But we have moments where the audience plays as audience, and then we have moments where they’re more integrated into the storytelling. Like at the pep rally.
Does that mean the audience will be costumed in 1950s clothing?
The audience will not be costumed. But because we also are aware that we’re doing this show live, set in 1958-1959, that’s the world of our show. The relationship of the audience, and the fact that our audience is very clearly from today — we hope that intersection can create a lot of really positive energy. It’s more about the depth to which we can integrate them rather than fully costuming everybody.
What’s your biggest fear going into this?
My job is to make sure everybody’s on the same page, and I have a partner in Alex Rudzinski, who’s a live television director. We’ve been working in a way that I find great. One of the challenges of being a director is often you don’t get to work with your peers. You know, writers can write together, and as a director you get to work with so many wonderful actors and writers and designers. But it’s pretty rare that you get a chance to partner in that way with another director. What we’ve tried to do together is create a very clear tone and mode of storytelling. It’s about making sure that it all feels integrated. Mostly, I just need to make sure I’ve given our cast everything they need to feel as confident as they can to give the most robust performance for this first “preview.” This is just like getting ready for your first preview. In the theater you can work for months and months and months for one-night events. That’s a very singular feeling. And so the job is the same; it’s to get the show to a place where it’s as bold as it can be to go meet that audience.
As somebody who comes from a stage background, do you think the attention being paid to these live musical telecasts is going to encourage a new generation to discover theater?
That’s one of my great hopes and one of the reasons that I’m most proud about being involved with something like this. Much like with Sound of Music and Peter Pan and The Wiz, and all of those shows like Philco and Playhouse 90 back in that time — what we’re tasked with doing, is allowing a broad audience to see that there’s a place for live theater. I just keep on thinking about some kid sitting in Texas or in Seattle, Washington or in Illinois or in Philadelphia who didn’t know that this thing existed, who didn’t know that there was a place where you could come together and make something to tell a story. My pride at being a member of the theater community is deep, and we have a chance to reach a lot of people who might feel like there’s a place for them. I want theater to be part of the cultural conversation, and be on par with all mediums of television in its ability to be relevant.
What’s next after Grease: Live for you?
A week after Grease I start rehearsal on a play with four characters at the Public Theater. I’m sure there was something in my brain that just said, “Keep going.” You know, Hal Prince always said, “The day your show opens make sure you have a production meeting for your next project.” It’s called Dry Powder, set in the world of private equity, by Sarah Burgess. I just really flipped for the play.
Grease: Live airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on Fox.