Fox’s Grease: Live was easily the most ambitious live TV musical we’ve seen. The effort to film the production on multiple stages paid off, with perhaps the most dynamic entry into the canon yet. We’ve come a long way from 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!
If the live TV musical trend continues — and let’s hope that it does — we can look forward to increasingly elaborate takes on the genre, with productions that capitalize on the medium to create something that feels both theatrical and unique to television.
For now, here’s a look at what worked and what didn’t in Grease: Live.
2. The highs…
3. 1. The incredible direction and camerawork.
Director Thomas Kail deserves a lot of credit for some exceptional work here. Grease: Live found that rare balance between a live stage production and something distinctly televisual. There was so much going on here that it was often hard to believe that everything was live. (Footage of the cast being rushed between stages on trams only underscored how difficult this was to pull off.) Yes, there’s something to be said for keeping it all on one stage like a real Broadway show — but this is television. Kail understood that, and the gorgeous, sweeping camerawork reflected how great this medium can be, and how thrilling it is to see a musical number filmed to perfection.
The fact that Vanessa Hudgens chose to perform as Rizzo in Grease: Live so soon after the death of her father speaks to her incredible professionalism. She was praised for her decision — and with good reason — but it was incredible how well she pulled it off. She had every reason to be distracted, but Hudgens committed fully. Her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was a highlight of the three-hour show, with her vocals at the top of their game. Hudgens has spent the last decade maturing past her High School Musical days, and even though Grease: Live plopped her back into high school, it showcased her development into a more grown-up musical theater talent.
5. 3. The costuming.
William Ivey Long must have had a lot of fun with the costumes for Grease: Live, which were a vibrant blend of homages to the 1978 film and completely new ensembles. The colors popped, the sequins dazzled, and it all came together to make the production a feast for the eyes. The highlights of the Grease: Live costumes: Marty’s transition from pajamas to sparkly gown, the “Greased Lightning” dancers’ shiny get-ups, and — of course — the seemingly endless array of short shorts. If you know your audience is going to consist largely of straight women and gay men, pander to us with exposed man thigh. We will never complain.
6. 4. Keke Palmer.
Keke Palmer is very frequently the best thing about whatever she’s in. (Case in point: her scene-stealing role in Scream Queens.) With Palmer in the role of Marty, one of the more forgettable Pink Ladies became a sultry diva. Her “Freddy My Love” was one of the most pleasantly surprising numbers of the night — and while that’s largely a credit to the inventive staging, it also has a lot to do with Palmer’s sweetly seductive performance. She gave Marty a backbone, to the extent that it sometimes seemed unclear why Marty wasn’t the de facto leader of the Pink Ladies. When Palmer is invited to the next live TV musical, she deserves an even more prominent role — she has way too much leading lady potential to squander.
7. 5. Kether Donohue.
Anyone who watches the FXX comedy You’re the Worst, which is easily one of the best series on television, knows how gifted a performer Kether Donohue is. For those who haven’t watched You’re the Worst — and seriously, what are you waiting for? — seeing her as Jan likely made a big impression. Jan is the least-appreciated Pink Lady, but she can be consistently entertaining, particularly with someone making the smart comedic choices that Donohue did. Whether in the background or front and center, she turned Jan into the Pink Lady to watch. Plus, she and Putzie were super cute together.
8. 6. The lust for Doody.
Who could have guessed that in a show that gave us Aaron Tveit, Joe Jonas, and Mario Lopez, the standout hottie would be the actor playing Doody? Doody is not supposed to be hot. Doody’s name is Doody. But Jordan Fisher was so relentlessly charming in the role that it was impossible not to fall in love with him. His rendition of “Those Magic Changes,” a great song that gets relegated to the background in the ‘78 movie, was a joy to experience. Also a joy: watching everyone on Twitter collectively realize that for the first time in the history of Grease, Doody was the hunkiest T-Bird of them all.
9. 7. These women.
Ana Gasteyer is such a consistent talent — in musicals, in sketch comedy, in sitcoms, in drama — that it’s easy to forget how wonderful she is. She didn’t get a particularly showy role in Grease: Live — Principal McGee is not exactly a lead — but, as usual, she owned every scene she was in. While it would be nice to hear her sing more in the next live TV musical she’s asked to do (and for the record, she should be in all of them), it’s nice to see how much she can make of a smaller role. And at her side was the highly emotional Blanche, played by lesser known (but also very talented) actor Haneefah Wood. With an even smaller part than Gasteyer, Wood delivered some of Grease: Live’s funniest moments, including her iconic descent under the table.
10. And the lows…
11. 1. The live audience.
Admittedly, musical fans have been clamoring for a live audience. Past productions, like the otherwise very good The Wiz Live!, suffered from the awkward silences that followed musical numbers. And yet, Grease: Live’s solution, however innovative, may not have been the right one. By incorporating the audience into the show, there were too many awkward moments when audience members sat around, unsure of what to do with themselves, and pulled focus from the actors performing in front of them. The point of an audience is to hear the laughter and the applause — not to catch glimpses of their “oh, crap, I’m on live television” facial expressions. And speaking of laughter and applause, it was almost nonexistent except for intermittent cheering. That’s because they were coached to only make noise sometimes. Boo.
12. 2. The sound quality.
Twenty seconds of silence in the middle of a big dance scene? Not OK! Mistakes happen, but this one was pretty egregious — especially since the next scene, featuring Julianne Hough as Sandy singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” was plagued by a weird crackling sound that competed with her high notes. There are so many technical challenges to putting on a live TV musical, especially one with as many moving parts as Grease: Live. And, to be fair, this was mostly a success. But if we’re talking about areas of improvement, sound is a big one. If you’re going to have actors singing live, you have to be able to hear them. And on that note, it did sound like some mics were louder than others. When Frenchy sang her brand-new song (more on that below), you had to strain to hear what she was singing, and that can’t just be an issue of Carly Rae Jepsen not projecting.
13. 3. The Mario Lopez commentary.
Mario Lopez as Vince Fontaine? Delightful casting! Mario Lopez as a commentator on the evening’s events? Confusing. This is a musical, not the Super Bowl. We don’t need someone popping up between acts to talk about what’s going on — that takes us out of the show, especially when that same person is going to pop in later as one of the characters. But Grease: Live was oddly persistent when it came to breaking the fourth wall. Sometimes it worked, as in the charming finale, but it mostly came across as forced. Having Lopez repeatedly remind us that we’re watching a musical made it harder to get lost in the story. And it also created resentment against Lopez, so that by the time he showed up as Vince Fontaine, we were already sick of him.
14. 4. Frenchy’s new song.
This is painful. Carly Rae Jepsen is such an incredible talent. Emotion may not have sold as many albums as it should have, but it was far and away one of the best albums of 2015. And Jepsen as Frenchy had her moments, sure, but the new song written for her was not one of them. “All I Need Is an Angel” felt out of place in the show, but worse, it just wasn’t very good. Jepsen sounded weak singing it — as in, literally weak, quiet and hard to hear — and the lyrics and melody were banal and forgettable. It’s easy to understand the temptation to add new music, particularly when you have someone like Jepsen to sing it, but this was a misstep. Why not just let her sing “It’s Raining on Prom Night,” which was needlessly excised from this production?