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'Grease: Live' cast on making those show-stopping musical numbers

‘Grease Is the Word,’ ‘Greased Lighting,’ ‘We Go Together,’ and more were on the lineup

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Todd Williamson/Getty Images

The stars and team behind Grease: Live celebrated the show’s standout musical numbers at Fox Broadcasting Company and Paramount TV’s Grease: Live For Your Consideration Event at the Paramount Studio Lot in Los Angeles on Wednesday. The event featured footage of “Grease Is the Word,” “Born to Hand Jive,” “Greased Lightning,” “Freddy My Love,” and “We Go Together,” and had a panel made up of cast members Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kether Donohue, Jordan Fisher, David Del Rio, Andrew Call, director Thomas Kail, executive producer Marc Platt, production designer David Korins, choreographer Zachary Woodlee, and music supervisor/composer Tom Kitt. Below are highlights from the panelists speaking about the making and execution of their showstoppers.

“Grease Is the Word”

“What we wanted to do was create almost a new genre,” Platt said of the show in general, before turning to “Grease Is the Word,” which was sung by Jessie J. “That opening number encapsulates what the genre was all about to us. We always wanted to feel live; you never want to forget that you’re seeing a live theatrical presentation, but the very opening could almost be a film. When you see the guys in front of the beach… the camera pulls back, and you see that you’re backstage, you break the fourth wall, you see the audience, Jessie comes forward so it’s live.” Platt added that the opening is all one shot, a throwback to how Hollywood used to make film musicals.

Kail attributed the ability to get it all in one shot to the really solid cast and crew, and recalled how they were able to adjust when rain poured down the day of the show. He explained the performance started at 4 p.m. and they gathered at 3 p.m. to rehearse an alternate ending; the cast said, “Just tell us which one you want us to do,” and they were told 10 minutes to showtime and pulled it off. Platt said everyone went for it, and embraced a show-must-go-on mentality well beyond the weather conditions. “One of our cast members had a very difficult personal situation arrive the morning of and there was no issue,” Platt continued, speaking to the death of Hudgens’ father. “The show had to go on and so we did and for that we’re grateful.”

“Born to Hand Jive”

Woodlee reflected on the complex choreography. “It was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “Does this feel good? If we remember it tomorrow, maybe it’s right? The number itself was the biggest math problem. If anyone would have moved a little bit we would’ve lost an eye, a thumb, a foot. The biggest note was don’t kill yourself, have a good time.” Things were just as complex behind the scenes. “The choreography of the camera guys is as intricate as the choreography you’re seeing,” Platt said, explaining that Woodlee really understood the relationship between the dancers and the camera because of his experiences working on Glee.

As for the live audience, Kail explained, “It felt that the rhythm of Grease was one that would be so deeply enhanced by a conversation with an audience… Grease itself actually presents these moments throughout the show when we can use the audience as part of the story, so at the dance in the film there are the people that aren’t dancing, they’re interacting. When we go to the pep rally, when we have these moments when they’re not a discreet audience, but they’re actually interpolated into the story, it felt like those were the moments when we knew we could really come alive.” He observed that there was a sort of feedback loop, where the cast was feeding off of the audience and vice versa.

“Greased Lightning”

This song and dance had some pretty extraordinary set and costume changes, with the car and boys both getting flashy makeovers. To pull it off, the production leaned heavily on the live TV aspect. “Let’s play the magic of being able to play angles,” Woodlee said, and added that magnets were used to fix up the car. He also called it the “scariest number” because the guys didn’t have a lot of time to get into costume. For Kail, another standout was the way Kitt updated the orchestration and arrangement. “That song, it’s part of us,” Kail said. “You don’t need to remember when you first heard that song.”

“Freddy My Love”

“That’s not a real bedroom,” Korins said of where you find Marty [Keke Palmer] and the girls at the start of “Freddy My Love.” “It’s like magical, heightened realism, [‘Freddy My Love,’ ‘Beauty School Dropout,’ and ‘Greased Lightning’] explode into this really, incredible abstract place and I feel like these really hold into a microcosm of what we were trying to do. Very theatrical presentation, they start in one place [and] you think you know it. The great thing that theater does that no other art form really does is it shows you how the sausage gets made. You’re able to see the scene changes. I think people might have thought it was a camera mistake when we pulled into her face and then all of the sudden we blow up into this whole new location.”

Kail spoke to the changes seen in the show as well. “It’s okay that we see a little bit of [Marty’s] dress change. That’s part of what we’re saying, that’s right, this is happening now.” The costume changes for Marty’s backup had people on edge, as the group explained that it’s one thing to imagine the number and another to execute, but everyone pulled through. As for the leading lady here, Kail also praised the Scream Queens star’s performance. “This is like watching a star being born, Keke Palmer looking down the barrel. You could hear America, like, flipping through their programs.”

“We Go Together”

The big closer was a huge moment for the cast because, being a one-time show, it marked the end of their time on the project. “At that point, I think maybe we would have broken character a little bit because it was pure excitement,” Hough recalled. Hudgens, meanwhile didn’t want it to end. “Right afterwards it was like, ‘Wait, we don’t get to do this again?” And Fisher added on the finality of it all, “Speaking for myself, by the time we get outside it’s like, it’s it. We’ve been rehearsing everyday for the last nine weeks doing something that everybody already knows, but doing it in a way that no one’s ever seen before. Hopefully they like it. I don’t care. We’ve had a great time doing it.”

The ultimate goal for everyone, it seemed, was to put their own spin on a very familiar source and give audiences something that they would love. As for the actual end of the show, with the cast gathered and singing softly, Kitt wanted to have a quiet moment. “What if we go inward,” he thought of how to wrap while working on the music. “I had a feeling that our cast at that moment [would] want to savor a few moments of stillness with each other and take in what they’ve accomplished.” Added Platt, it was “the perfect musical ending.”

Other Things Said 

  • The group spoke of the Easter eggs seen in the production, such as the punch bowl at the dance, which is from the movie, and appearances by Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, original cast members who played Frenchy and Doody, respectively.
  • “I was very intimated by the idea of taking on the role of Frenchy in front of the original Frenchy, that is until I actually met her,” Jepsen said. “She’s the warmest, sweetest soul you could imagine…She nicknamed me Baby French and I call her Mama French, and up until the last day her support carried me through whenever I’d get nervous.”
  • Hough also got support from an original cast member, that cast member being Olivia Newton-John who played Sandy in the film. She sent a few emails basically giving everybody her blessing and praising the finished work for honoring the original.
  • And Donohue got a thumbs up from Newton-John’s counterpart, John Travolta who played Danny. She met him at FX’s Upfronts event; she was there for You’re the Worst and he for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. She nervously introduced herself and said she was in Grease: Live. “He interrupted me in the middle of the sentence and he goes ‘I know, it was phenomenal.’”
  • As for the possibility of a second go around with the show, Platt said, “conversations are ongoing.”