Live TV musicals sure have changed. The last one I watched was NBC’s Sound of Music Live! in 2013, which seemed to be the most hate-watched event of that year. It was entertaining in all of the wrong ways, leading to countless snarky jokes on Twitter about Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer’s performances. Actual legit Broadway performers like Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Audra McDonald were on hand in supporting roles, but even they couldn’t steer the ship back on course. The staging was uninspired. The lack of a live audience to actually provide applause after every song was offputting.
Or at least those seem like the kinds of things I should say. I honestly don’t remember Sound of Music Live! that clearly because even when I watched it in 2013 I was only half-watching it. The other half of my attention was drawn Twitter where many, many outraged users who clearly had a passion for live theater were quick to declare that Sound of Music Live! was bad live theater. It was a fun experience, but I still skipped NBC’s follow-ups Peter Pan Live! (which was reportedly awful) and The Wiz Live! (which was reportedly much better).
I was intrigued by Fox’s first foray in the live musical game, Grease: Live, mostly because the producer had been talking a good game, promising a far more inventive production with multiple stages, outdoor scenes and a live audience which would be incorporated into the show. Still, truth be told, I expected another trainwreck best enjoyed with the company of your favorite Twitter friends, all of whom know way more about musicals than you.
I was wrong. Grease: Live was amazing, as in “a complete game changer” amazing. As the AV Club argued, “Unlike NBC’s previous stage-bound live musicals, Fox’s Grease: Live was a 360 degree event that blended theatricality and filmmaking in ways never seen onscreen before.”
Sure, Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough were all wrong as Danny and Sandy, but when they weren’t talking and instead singing and dancing they were far from embarrassing. In fact, holy hell can Julianne Hough dance.
Sure, there was an odd dynamic to the whole thing where some of the performers went big and theatrical and others strived for something more natural.
Sure, the often slavish devotion to the movie, right down to the dance choreography, was a tad lazy.
Sure, the new song they wrote for Carly Rae Jepsen’s version of Frenchy felt entirely like a song from a different musical, simply filling time before Boyz II Men delivered their Motown take on “Beauty School Dropout.”
Sure, it wasn’t flawless. The audio dropped out for a bit during the school dance scene, and there were also some audio issues during Hough’s belting of “Hopelessly Devoted.”
Sure, the little new jokes they added to the dialogue about the differences in technology for teenagers back in the 1950s compared to today (e.g., TV screen sizes, reality television and Netflix were all referenced) didn’t quite land.
And, sure, the actual show itself is a troubling artifact from a different era with flawed gender politics and often nonsense lyrics.
Wait, where was I going with this? Didn’t I say Grease: Live was amazing? Oh, yes. That’s right – it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Certain sequences felt like a live TV version of some of the more avante garde moments from Birdman, with ingeniously staged continuous shots aided by seamless set and costume changes, which usually happened with little advanced warning.
As THR put it:
The little things that fell short of polished paled in comparison to the things that landed against all odds. I’m thinking of the transition from Pink Lady sleepover to USO stage that turned “Freddy My Love” from a typical afterthought into a real showcase for Keke Palmer’s Marty. I’m thinking of the school dance numbers punctuated by cameras craning across the length of a basketball court and other cameras making their way unobtrusively through a maelstrom of writhing bodies. I’m thinking of the immaculate stagecraft that allowed the Thunder Road car race to go from potentially cheesy into a wholly entertaining orchestration of lighting, smoke effects and camera moves. I’m thinking of the opening and closing numbers and their ability to take the show from stages into the outside world. NBC has made a winter tradition of live theater that, at its best, feels like it’s live theater, but Grease: Live showed if you have that desired vision, live television needn’t have any barriers.
People who actually work in theater were marveling on Twitter that what we were watching was a minor miracle, noting that Grease: Live was pulling it off its intricate staging without even a single instance of a stray camera man accidentally walking into the background of someone else’s shot. What director Thomas Kail, best known for Hamilton, set out to do was insanely ambitious, and what he accomplished is the new gold standard for what can be done in the live TV musical format.
As the cast exited the stage and piled into golf carts to drive to an actual outdoor carnival all while still singing “We Go Together,” the energy was palpable. You knew they had a big finish up their sleeve, and by that point you were rooting for them to nail it, capping off untold hours of insanely hard work and preparation. The scenario unfolding before you was surely goofy, considering that they were openly acknowledging that they were just a bunch of actors putting on a show, driving around the old Warner Bros. studio lot in the process. But, wow, when the show they put on was that good you wanted them to stick the landing and take a much deserved bow.
And of course they did.
Still, Twitter had to have its say, and here some of the best reactions:
During “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”
During “Tell Me More”
Freaking Out Over Original Frenchy Didi Conn (as the Waitress at the Frosty Palace) Meeting New Frenchy Carly Rae Jepsen
During the National Bandstand Sequence Featuring Mario Lopez as Vince Fontaine
After They Snuck in a Joke About Netflix (Without Actually Using the Word Netflix) at the Drive-In Scene
During “Hopelessly Devoted”
Re-Assessing the Show’s Troubling Gender Politics
Praising Vanessa Hudgen’s Performance of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” By Referencing the Fact That Her Dad Just Died the Night Before the Show
Mocking the Car Race Sequence
Stressing Over the Ending
Summing It Up