The special is also the first of its kind to incorporate a live audience – the lack of which was one of the biggest criticisms aimed at NBC’s musical endeavors – and it does so seamlessly. Hearing applause at the end of a mainstay like “Summer Nights” just feels right – cathartic even – letting each performance truly come to a close, rather than leaving at-home audiences holding their breath.
Bringing the audience on-screen for large chorus numbers also works to Grease: Live’s advantage, as the sheer addition of bodies make the world of the show exponentially bigger. While the huge stage and sparse sets of NBC’s Peter Pan Live! seemed to swallow the action whole, Grease: Live feels full and busy, packing a specific energy that only comes from the relationship between actors and an audience.
Perhaps the least effective of Grease: Live’s attempts at manufacturing the immediacy of the theatre experience are the clunkily added in-jokes about the spontaneity of live performance, mostly given to poor Ana Gasteyer, whose comedic chops stretch far beyond the uninspiring material she was given. Grease has always been self-aware in regards to its silliness, but these self-referential gags pander to the Twittersphere in an overly hokey manner that fail to add anything to the performance.
While Grease: Live certainly pays homage to the medium of live theatre, the special also borrows heavily from a more modern genre: reality television. The choice makes sense given broadcast director Alex Rudzinsk’s Dancing With The Stars background, yet don’t necessarily hit the mark. From the first scene – punctuating Danny and Sandy’s tearful beachside goodbye with a dramatic camera pullback revealing the moving sets and action of a busy soundstage – to the continued flashes of the actors mugging to the camera as they ran offstage at each commercial break, the audience is continually reminded of the artifice inherent in what they are watching.
These additions may have been intended to capture the theatricality of a live production, yet they are presented in a manner that we’ve come to be familiar with from reality shows like The Hills and American Idol, making the entire product feel more packaged than spontaneous. Utilizing techniques that reality television has perfected may be the most effective way to produce a live musical event for a 2016 audience – but it also places an obtusely modern gloss over the entire production.
However, fourth-wall-shattering camera angles are not the only addition that make Grease: Live feel distinctively modern. From the school nerd being awarded an honorary T-Bird jacket (instead of a pie in the face) to several characters’ dreamy proclamations about the importance of taking chances, the entire special is positively Glee-ified. Not to mention the complete lack of cigarettes in a show that, when sticking to the script, portrays all of its characters, save for Sandy, as chain smokers.
This cleaning up of the script is only intensified by the casting of Joe Jonas and his band DNCE, Jessie J, and Mario Lopez (whose attempts to woo Keke Palmer’s Marty fell particularly flat) – which seem like an attempt to please parents rather than the teen demographic that Grease is usually aimed towards. Boys II Men is the only real stunt-casting success in the bunch, with their performance of “Beauty School Dropout” managing to deliver on nostalgia, while distinguishing itself from one of the most memorable scenes in the movie (and sounding great to boot).
All in all, Grease: Live proves to be an exciting three hours – yes, three hours – of musical fun for the whole family – which is exactly what it set out to be. No, its bubblegum script and inconsistent performances don’t allow the special to tear down boundaries or redefine the genre, but with innovative choices from director Thomas Kail and an enthusiastic cast, Grease: Live manages to satiate audiences and pave the way for many more iterations of its kind. And sometimes, as a musical-lover, that’s all that you can wish for.
Despite its innovative direction and talented cast, Grease: Live fell victim to its bland source material - and equally bland leads - leaving it unable to truly top other iterations of the modern TV musical.