Sunday, January 31, 2016

We Watch "Grease: Live!"

I'm not exactly what you'd call a "musical theater guy", but I don't turn my nose up at a good musical on screen nor stage.  And, frankly, I kind of think it's weird that we're at a point in history where people singing through a story is suddenly seen as "unrealistic" when the combo of song and story has been a major force in storytelling in almost every culture.  If you watch anything but documentaries, your argument that people don't just break out into song is an artificial construct and you don't like artificial constructs in your story, your argument is invalid.*

Ever since the debacle that was Carrie Underwood as Maria in NBC's live broadcast of The Sound of Music, I've been chasing that high where I could find it.  My GOD, how I like a good disaster.

NBC has now also done Peter Pan, which I missed, and The Wiz, which was basically pretty much a solid performance and free of glitches or shameful moments, and had some really good performances, Queen Latifah.

But we're here to talk about Grease: Live!, which aired tonight on Fox.

For context, Grease was one of the very first movies I ever watched.  Around the same time I saw Star Wars in the theater, my folks took us to the drive-in with the belief that we'd fall asleep once the movie started, but, reportedly, we did the opposite of that.  For years and years, my memories of Grease and the drive-in were super-confused because there is, of course, a whole sequence at a drive-in, and I remembered it as being on the swings with Danny Zucco, which I'd assumed I'd dreamed.

As a very little kid, my cousin would get me to sing along to the record (she's 17 years older than me, so I'm sure it was all very adorable), and I once got in big trouble asking what a "hooker" was as a kid as the word shows up in "Beauty School Drop-Out".  I mean, I was super little, like 3 or 4.

In college, my pal CB was really into Grease, and so I watched it with her a bit, and when we were doing the roommate thing, we watched it a couple of times as she worked on a paper about the movie.  And, when I started dating Jamie, TBS turned into Raiders of the Lost Ark/ Grease network, showing the two movies in rotation and somehow it seems I watched one or the other almost every weekend I was in San Antonio.

So, I've seen Grease approximately 2,687 times.

I was vaguely aware that the Fox network was jumping on the sweet, sweet live-musical lucre and doing Grease with a bunch of pop stars of which I have no awareness (if you aren't Gaga, Beyonce or Adele, I don't really know who you are).  And then a commercial ran with someone I'm told is a former pop star saying "It's live, so anything can happen!" *wink*, and I thought "well, it's Fox, and their Super Bowl shows are always kind of embarrassing, so..."

The thing is - whether you like Grease as a musical or not, this thing was anything but an embarrassment.  That was one of the greatest live television technical achievements I've ever seen.

This Fall, I basically liked The Wiz, but you could feel the fear around the production.  Whatever went wrong with casting Carrie Underwood and the Von Trapp's movements around set to set - a pretty awkward affair - was not being repeated in Dorothy's travels around Oz.  Anything that could go wrong was mediated into a risk-averse, perfectly safe choice.  They had practically no sets to move, they used hi-def screens for their backgrounds, and it was all clearly shot on something approximating a Broadway stage.  I don't think there were ever more than 20 people on stage.

It may have been a Broadway stage.  I didn't check.  But it was pretty clear NBC and the producers were not gambling with tricky camera moves on live TV.  And it worked.  It felt like they'd recorded a live Broadway show.  Kudos all around.

I tuned in a few minutes late to Grease and was genuinely confused.  Were they in a real school?   Were they outside of a real school?  Were those people... an audience?

Grease brought in a live audience that appeared on camera.  They changed not just sets, but jumped from sound stage to sound stage between scenes.  They shot both outside and inside.  There were seemingly a hundred people in the cast.  There were moving cameras of every sort, and they went ahead and drew attention to the artifice of the whole thing, even so far as casting former participants from the famous film version, now in the roles of the adults around the kids (seeing Didi Conn talking to Frenchy sort of melted my brain).  And they had Mario Lopez doing double duties in the role of Vince Fontaine and had him backstage around commercial breaks, welcoming you back or sending you out to see our sponsors.

Not only did the pop stars participating not embarrass themselves, they were actually... pretty good.  And, on a mindblowingly tragic note, former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens - playing Rizzo here - lost her father the day before the show, and still turned in a star performance.  I cannot imagine what that poor girl is going through this evening.

The Sound of Music was hard to watch with name performers like Audra McDonald having an opportunity to blow the doors off as Mother Superior, and then getting saddled by Underwood, who may be great in an auditorium full of folks who love the formula of Nu-Country, but she felt like a kid struggling through her first high school performance.  Not one role In Grease was cast that way.  All pretty seamless.

But, again, technically - I really have no idea how they did this short of answering every question and problem with a wheelbarrow full of $20 bills at each and every turn.

If the show airs again, I highly recommend trying to catch it, just to figure out how it was done.

And, hey, NBC, you are on notice.  Fox may have outspent you 10-to-1 putting this thing on, but, holy cow.

They may have been a bit slavish in their attempts to recreate the movie in many ways, right down to the lettering on the T-Birds jackets and a lot of specifics of line delivery.  And as I've not seen the actual stage play of Grease, I wasn't sure what was from that show and/ or if things were made up for this production (one throw away line about Rock Hudson had me wondering, in particular).  But I'm also a little over seeing directors and producers trying to make their mark on well-worn productions by fighting the very well known image of a play or movie and going too far afield in their attempts to not just repeat what went before.

This thing had to bring in several million eyeballs, so familiarity here may have been a good idea.  No one needed to see David Cronenberg's Grease (even as I typed that, I totally changed my mind).

*And, if you DO watch docs, then:  Grey Gardens.  Your argument remains invalid.


Paul Toohey said...

A bunch of the sound mixers I'm in a community with have been talking about how good it sounded. The consensus there is Hair-wigs, mics hid in the performers hair, you can see the wire here:

The League said...

I knew exactly which shot you were going to link to. Yeah! That was the only time I saw the mic cable. I honestly thought, briefly, they were lip synching because it was so seamless.

The audio on this was really, really amazing for what they were doing.