The exuberant joy of Fox’s three-hour telecast of Grease: Live — which was plenty joyous already before Monday morning’s report of massive ratings sent it soaring to live-musical Valhalla—was no doubt marred on Sunday with a few unexpected challenges that tested the mettle of the filmmakers and cast.
On one hand, inclement weather threatened the proceedings with torrential rain and 50 mile-per-hour winds.
“We planned for the rain even back in August, and we thought if it rains on the big carnival at the end, it actually would be kind of exciting, but nothing prepared us for the windstorm,” producer Marc Platt tells EW the morning after the telecast. “Shortly before airtime, we were told by the engineers that we could not use the structure we had built outside of Rydell — we weren’t going to be able to do any of the scenes there or have any of the audience under there, or even end the Jessie J number there.”
With just an hour to go before the live telecast, the cast and Jessie J feverishly had to restage the entire exterior portion of the opening number so they could still perform it live rather than use a pre-recorded version. But Mother Nature must be a theater queen: just 40 minutes later, the rain stopped, the clouds began to part, and the wind died down.
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“At 3:50 [Pacific time], the engineer said, ‘You can go in there.’ And at 3:52, we flew the audience in there and we told everyone we’re going back to the A version, and we did it,” says Platt, chuckling with relief. “You saw the umbrellas and the things we did for the rain, but the wind…that’s what makes live television exciting and nerve-wracking. Not just behind the camera, but in front of the camera. You don’t want to pretend it’s not live; you want to grab it.”
By the same token, another major obstacle faced the telecast, and it was far graver than inconvenient weather: The night before the telecast, Vanessa Hudgens’ father died of cancer.
Hudgens, who played sarcastic bad girl Betty Rizzo, announced the news on Twitter Sunday morning, and as a result, viewers knew that her solo “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was imbued with real tragedy (made all the more bittersweet by the fact that the number was a career triumph for Hudgens).
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“I’m fiercely proud of that young lady,” Platt tells EW. “I was proud of her anyway for the performance she gave, but to come in on Sunday morning and share with me the news… she’s a very determined young woman. She felt that her father would want her to perform, and she’s a professional and she knows that the show has to go on, as any actor of the theater or in a live event knows. So she decided she would take her feelings of loss and sadness and put them in a box for that afternoon, that she would use them to fuel her performance and she would do it in honor of her father.”
The top brass behind Grease also decided the production should do its part to acknowledge Greg Hudgens’ passing on air. “We asked if we could dedicate the evening’s performance to the memory of her dad, which she was touched by,” said Platt. “Fox and Paramount immediately jumped on and said, ‘We would love to do that.’”
The producers also brought Hudgens’ family to the Warner Brothers lot and set up a private trailer for them to watch the East Coast feed live.
“I could just tell you that I think it was very cathartic. Her mom said to me, this is a celebration of Vanessa’s dad’s life, and I think everyone felt that way,” Platt continues.
“The cast was behind her and we all joined hands and said, ‘We’re going to live in this moment. Sometimes life interferes. But you have all worked so hard for this moment and we’re going to go for it.’ So everyone was together. God bless her, she performed magnificently and we’re very proud of her. She brought a lot of joy to a lot of people who got to watch that telecast.”
Head here to see more of Sunday night’s Grease: Live performances.