Plus: 'When we elevate it, we really want it to lift off'

By Marc Snetiker
January 29, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Tommy Garcia/FOX
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  • TV Show

Grease is a title fans are hopelessly devoted to in any iteration — so long as you’ve got the T-Birds, Pink Ladies, and a wise, chiseled angel singing about cosmetology. But the rest is up for grabs, which is exactly what you want to hear when you’re the director of Fox’s three-hour telecast of the 1971 musical.

Grease: Live boasts a director in Thomas Kail, who made a name for himself on Broadway directing hits like Hamilton and In the Heights. With that kind of résumé, fans may be expecting Kail’s approach to the live musical production to fully twist up what we know about Rydell High. That’s not exactly true — but not wrong, either.

“Our show takes the spine of the film but then grabs a lot of elements and material from the stage play,” Kail tells EW. “We love the movie as much as everybody else. We wanted to find something that could live between that, that could still honor the love story but get to know the other T-Birds and Pink Ladies a little bit more. You could take things from the movie and say, ‘And,’ or ‘Leave that alone, we don’t need to break it.’ It’s about trusting what works and not having to muck about and get your fingerprints on everything.”

The onus is on Kail and his team — including music supervisor Tom Kitt, who’s written a new song for Carly Rae Jepsen’s character Frenchy; choreographer Zachary Woodlee; camera director Alex Rudzinski (Dancing With the Stars); and an updated script by Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary — to reinvent Grease but also honor its roots. It’s the kind of nostalgia-inducing title that demands a modern edge but, when rejiggered too much, could backfire like an old Cadillac.

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“The Travolta shadow is a real thing!” says Kail with a laugh. “We don’t pretend like that didn’t happen. There will be moments when you can nod to it and acknowledge it, because we were just as informed and delighted by that film and performance as anybody. But the reality is, we’re finding our own version, whatever that essential quality is. The Frenchy from our film might be in our brain, but we have to make our own Frenchy.”

His approach to Grease isn’t solely about tinkering with its narrative, but the live musical format in general. When NBC revived the genre with The Sound of Music and solidified the event with Peter Pan, both productions elicited unique sets of critiques until the network arrived at arguably its best production yet, The Wiz, which in essence stopped pretending the musical was a movie. Kail is presenting Grease in a similar way: with a live audience and a slew of tricks to recognize the stage magic.

RELATED VIDEO: Julianne Hough reveals the Grease: Live scene giving her the most trouble

“There are a lot of things that you can see in the theater — a wall splitting apart to reveal something — that you don’t often get to see in television,” said Kail, citing the transition between Frosty’s Palace and the “Beauty School Dropout” number as a magical only-on-TV-by-way-of-the-stage moment. The production team is presenting Grease as a traditional stage show, albeit with three separate soundstages that will require the actors to huff and puff between scenes to make their mark. “We want to embrace the liveness of this and celebrate that we’re making this tonight,” Kail adds. Meanwhile, the 700-some live studio audience will add spontaneity and even background work, appearing just feet from the action in dances and pep rallies. 

“It’s like being on a swing set at a sitcom taping,” he points out. “We’re not hiding anything. When we’re in the hallway at Rydell, there’s no audience and there’s a four-wall set and it’s fully immersive, but anywhere you are, the audience is always watching.”

And while Grease productions can vary in their shades of candy color, veteran costumer William Ivey Long is reeling in the satin and leather for Danny and Sandy’s friends, cinching the show’s approach somewhere between reality and novelty. “We wanted to make sure that when it was in the real world, we were grounded,” muses Kail. “But when we elevate it, we really want it to lift off.” Potential spoiler alert: Flying car?

Grease: Live airs Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on Fox.

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