Peter Fenzel and Matthew Wrather overthink Idris Elba’s future roles, the cultural problems Grease Live will have to surmount, the balance of good and bad things in Louis C.K.’s new show Horace and Pete, and launch the Nicholas Sparks challenge to promote Overthinking It Memberships.
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I have never seen a live staged version of Grease and I probably never will even though I see a lot of live theater, especially Broadway. And that is because the current versions have deviated seriously from the original concept of that musical. It goes back to my high school days. In my freshman year of 1978 our school was looking for a show to do and this was soon after the movie version of Grease came out and of course we wanted to do that.
Our drama teacher (who was also my biology teacher but that is irrelevant to this discussion) sat us down and explained the nature of theatrical licensing to us. Since Grease was still running on Broadway the likelihood of the rights organization to grant a performance license to a small DoD high school in the Philippines were negligible.
He also expressed extreme distaste for the movie version of the show with which were were so enamored of. He explained that the original concept of the musical was grim and gritty and deeply satiric of youth culture. Wikipedia (the source of all information) backs him up on this:
It was in some ways, the Spring Awakening of its day. The show is a little ‘rapey’ to modern sensibilities, intentionally so. Just really listen to the lyrics of “Greased Lightning.” Some of this grit has survived as one of the main plots is about a pregnancy scare, although the version licensed to schools, particularly Catholic ones, excises even this from the story.
Our teacher was also dismissive of John Travolta’s performance who was the break-out star of Welcome Back, Kotter with his greasy hair and leather jackets but of unknown vocal talent. The laugh-inducing cracked note at the end of “Summer Nights” is not in the score but was added because Travolta just couldn’t hit that note. If you pay attention to the staging of the movie, there are a lot of choruses used to cover up his solo songs. And of course several songs were added to the movie just to showcase Olivia Newton-John.
So instead of “Grease” our school did “West Side Story. As a side note, our drama teacher (who was very charismatic and resembled Roy Scheider as Bob Fosse in All That Jazz) was that he had previously been Mark Hamill’s high school drama teacher, a fact that incredibly impressed us in 1978 but in hindsight is perhaps not as great of an achievement as it sounds.
Since the first Broadway production was in 1972 it predates the release of American Graffiti in 1973 which is traditionally marked as the kick-off of the 1950s nostalgia craze (despite being set in 1962) which led to Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley which gave increasingly sanitized views of the 1950s.
And now the songs from Grease are endlessly tortured in karaoke bars, complete with the ear-splitting screech at the end of “Summer Nights”.
tl/dr: Grease started out as dark edgy satire and has been increasingly Flanderized over the years to the point that it is wispy rosey-eyed nostalgia.
Here is a pretty good Overthinking-worthy deep dive into the meaning and impact of Grease:
Hi guys, I’m having trouble getting the OTI postcast via RSS on my Samsung. The last 2 episodes show up in my feed, but the files are empty. I’m not having trouble with any other feeds, so I thought the problem might be on your end? Letting you know in case it’s a more widespread thing. Or maybe I’m the only dirty Android user around here…
“This summer, in Fast and the Furious 8, Idris Elba is…STACKER PENTECOST SR.”
That’s right boys and girls: a shared Fast/Pacific Rimiverse.
I want to see Idris Elba play George RR Martin in the bio pic of his life.
Can we please have a more extended discussion of Rick and Morty? The show is great, and I know Fenzel wanted to keep going!
I was born in the Year of Star Trek, which means I was 12 when Grease was first shown in theaters. I owned the soundtrack on an LP. My parents were teenagers in the 1950s. I’m not sure how much they knew about the original musical, but I know they enjoyed the movie, with maybe some knowing asides that I was not privy to at that age. For my part, as I got older I realized that the criminal element of the movie version was sugarcoated, but I wanted to believe that the “Summer Lovin'” was genuine, and showed a desire on Danny’s part to change his ways, at least enough to win Sandy over for good. On the other hand, Sandy’s final transformation, which in the movie was seen as a triumph, strikes the adult me as very disappointing. I mean, she can wear the outfit, sure, but I don’t start smoking for anyone.
The Podcasters didn’t quite get to it, but I think the link between the BTTF discussion in connection with Rick and Morty on the one hand, and the nostalgia latency period discussion in connection with Grease on the other hand, was hanging in the air somewhere. Just to make it explicit: Grease cashed in on Fifties nostalgia in the Seventies (as did, as @yellojkt pointed out, American Graffiti and Happy Days); Back to the Future cashed in on Sixties nostalgia in the Eighties. In the Nineties we had That Seventies Show on TV. In this decade I’ve seen a lot of Seinfeld reruns, which are surprisingly good at invoking nostalgia for the Nineties (cellphones like bricks, rising cultural consciousness of LGBT rights, economic optimism, embryonic hipsterism, most notably perhaps a world that looks almost the same as ours except for the near-complete absence of the Internet … this could be a whole article for Overthinking It perhaps).
BTTF cashed in on 50’s nostalgia in the 80’s, right?
But you are on to something w/r/t to the length of time it takes for nostalgia for a certain era to come in. In my Karaoke Quotient article from a few years ago (which, incidentally, found “Summer Nights” to be the platonic ideal of a karaoke song), I suggested 22 years as the amount of time needed before nostalgia for a certain era sets in.
See also: a Clinton running for president again, ID4 reboot, Full House reboot, X-Files reboot, etc…