With so many camera angles, soundstages and cuts, "Grease: Live" forgot to be a musical first and TV spectacle second.
Grease: Live forgot it was supposed to emulate theater.
The NBC — and now Fox — live musicals were supposed to bring the rich traditions of the world of Broadway into the everyday person’s home. Despite their pitiful faults, The Sound of Music Live and Peter Pan Live at least looked like subpar musicals on stage. The Wiz Live, on the other hand, was the epitome of everything a live musical should be: well casted, well performed, well staged and well filmed.
Grease: Live had a strong cast, complex sets and solid performances, but it felt less like a musical being filmed live than a spectacle shot like a TV show or movie. Grease: Live boasted about its multiple soundstages, but that led to its biggest downfall. With too many cuts and camera angles, it didn’t feel like viewers were watching a live musical. And without the live element, what is its purpose?
Had Grease: Live aired before The Wiz Live, it no doubt would have acquired the title of being the best live musical the networks have aired, but instead it just managed to peak out of The Wiz’s shadow.
The problem began immediately when Jessie J gave a studio tour as she sang the opening number, “Grease.” Though Jessie J triumphed vocally, it started the night off on a weird vibe. The behind-the-scenes footage of the soundstages was intriguing but it should have been held until the end because it pulled viewers out of their suspension of disbelief. The live musical idea should be an attempt to nationalize a work of art that isn’t always tangible for the average person. Not everyone can afford to see a show on stage, so broadcast or stream it to their homes. For that to work, it needs to be shown as an actual work of theater. Theater doesn’t have cuts. It doesn’t have multiple stages, and it certainly doesn’t have GoPros.
The Wiz Live could be instantly transported to a Broadway stage and survive as is. Grease: Live could not.
There was one thing Grease: Live had that The Wiz didn’t have: a live studio audience. It was the only criticism of The Wiz, as the transitions from musical number to TV and commercials were met with somewhat of an awkward silence. Whether it was Mario Lopez’s utterly unnecessary outro messages or the audience, something was always making noise in Grease: Live. But that wasn’t always a good thing. Several times, the audience reacted as if it were a studio audience in a sitcom, not a theatrical work. Again, Fox forgot it was supposed to be channeling the theater and not Glee.
Despite its faults, Grease: Live was certainly an impressive feat. Zach Woodlee’s choreography was impeccable and fortunately very well full of Aaron Tveit pelvic thrusts.
The sets were quite impressive — even if the diner looked more Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century than it did of the 1950s. William Ivey Long created another stunning Cinderella moment when Keke Palmer’s Marty transformed from pajamas to a shimmery red dress for “Freddy, My Love” and back to pajamas — all in one sequence, mind you. Even so, the “Freddy, My Love” number epitomizes the problem of Grease: Live. An entire stage transformation that lavish is more akin to TV or film than theater. In the theater, some aside lighting, smaller prop changes and a break in the fourth wall would more likely accompany a dreamed musical number.
The cast was equally as notable. Tveit was a smart, safe and sexy choice for Danny Zuko. His innate sex appeal exuded through the screen, offering inspiration for dozens of GIFs. A major shout out goes to whoever thought of reviving those short-shorts for the scenes when Danny tries to be an athlete. That was just a public service.
— Jarett Wieselman (@JarettSays) February 1, 2016
Julianne Hough has starred in the film adaptation of Rock of Ages and the Footloose reboot, and with Grease: Live, the third time wasn’t exactly the charm. Hough will just never impress as more than a dancer. Gasps were uttered and deserved during her and Tveit’s “Born to Hand Jive” routine, but other than that, Hough was pretty flat, as expected. There had to have been other young, blonde actresses that could have been cast instead of her.
Vanessa Hudgens surprised us as Rizzo. After losing her father one day before the live show, Hudgens powered through. Throughout the entire show, she maintained Rizzo’s sassy attitude and scoffed with the best of them. Though her vocals weren’t incredibly strong during “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” no one could deny that she improved tenfold when it came time to the big “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” ballad. She certainly gave Stockard Channing something to be proud of.
Interestingly enough, the next notable actors aren’t Keke Palmer (though she performed flawlessly but sporadically) or Carly Rae Jepsen, who sang the brand new but out of place “All I Need Is An Angel,” they are Elle McLemore and Jordan Fisher. From those splits to that unwaveringly bright personality, McLemore stole every scene as the uptight, goody two-shoes Patty Simcox. Fisher, who is hilariously from the Teen Beach movies, made everyone swoon when he sang “Those Magic Changes.” It’s an amazing ballad that is half performed in the iconic 1975 movie during the dance but deservedly is a full-blown number in the stage musical. Congratulations to Fisher, who managed to make a name for himself among the star-studded cast.
Possibly the most magical moment of the night belongs to Boyz II Men’s appearance as Teen Angel — yes, IMdB credits the entire group as the Teen Angel. Could there really have been any other respectable follow-up to Frankie Avalon’s iconic performance?
Speaking of iconic, bless Didi Conn for not having anything else going on and making an appearance. Somebody had to do it.
— Zap2it (@Zap2it) February 1, 2016
But of course, the true MVP of the night was Haneefah Wood as school secretary Blanche to Ana Gasteyer’s perfectly casted Principal McGee. Wood’s enormous facial reactions in every scene were top notch and very GIF-worthy. A-plus work. What a dancer, too.
Here are some other highlights of the night (if you want even more GIFs, check out E!'s live GIF blog):
Nice green screen.
Um, what was happening with Rizzo and the Scorpion gang leader at the dance? That is quite a graphic dance move
Mario Lopez was entirely unnecessary and made me realize how weird the character of Vince Fontaine is. Why was he less creepy in the original film?
Aaron Tveit, YOU are the one that everyone wants, especially now.
Keke's sass on point.
My eyes honestly hurt from how much they rolled when Joe Jonas and his annoyingly titled band DNCE were revealed to be the school dance band, Johnny Casino and the Gamblers.
That Thunder Road sequence was quite embarrassing. They made it look cool but they put way too much effort into that scene.
Jessie J, Boyz II Men and Ana Gasteyer. What else do you need in one GIF?
It was a huge feat to conquer, but Fox managed to do quite well with its first foray into the live TV musical realm. Grease: Live certainly didn't knock the 1975 blockbuster off its pedestal, but it certainly added to the Grease universe with a respectable remake whose soundtrack is sure to be eagerly anticipated. Those who were already fans of the musical were sure to enjoy it while others might have been left wanting more.