‘Grease: Live’ Delivered Both Dazzling Highs And Ridiculous Lows

After years of NBC holding exclusive dominion over the live televised-musical form, Fox got in the game last night with a broadcast of Grease! Live, an unprecedentedly elaborate production with talent that mostly matched the scope of its ambition. The night was something of a mixed bag, both technically accomplished and riddled with errors, suffused with the fun of musical theatre while awkwardly angling toward a millennial audience, chockablock with standout performances, but marked by long stretches of lifelessness. It was weird, thrilling, buzzy, exciting, confusing, and liable to fall apart at any moment — so, you know, a live TV broadcast. Though not without the occasional hitch, director Thomas Kail has pulled off a seriously impressive feat of TV craft and bright-eyed, gregarious entertainment. Below, take a look at the highs and lows of the broadcast, and brace yourself. This all went too well for there to not be more like it coming soon.

What worked

• Showbiz is fun!
The program smartly opened with the camera zooming around the backstage corridors in long, unbroken shots like a less-insufferable Birdman. It’s clear what Kail was trying to communicate: the hustle and bustle of putting on a show is electrifying. These shots served as reminders of what a big operation something like this is and the scrappy spirit of teamwork that goes into a moonshot as crazy as musical theatre. The program consistently owned its overtly theatrical qualities, taking pleasure in showing the audience the strings holding everything together if for no other reason than it makes the viewers feel part of the exhilaration of Broadway. It was a subtle, ingenious move for Kail to cut back and forth between the kids doing the hand jive for Vince Fontaine and the waitresses watching it on their cruddy little monitor. There’s a power in the communal acts of spectatorship and performance in the business of show, and Kail wanted everyone to get in on it.

• Secret weapons in the cast
Without question the most aptly-cast of all the live musicals to have run thus far, Grease got a lot of the oil in its tank courtesy of the talent propping up a script that’s aged poorly and been retro-fitted with even worse material (see below). As Sandy and Danny, Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit were as broadly likable as they needed to be, but the real treasures were in the supporting performances. Though she doesn’t get a chance to show off her weapons-grade pipes — pick up a copy of the Reefer Madness musical on DVD and you’ll see what you’re missing — Ana Gasteyer got a laugh with every line as Principal McGee, who begins at the end of her rope and keeps inching down its fraying strands. Future starlets reasserted their wattage, with Keke Palmer showing off her brassy charisma and Vanessa Hudgens displaying traces of the same erotic fire she brought to Spring Breakers in 2013. The stealth MVP, however, was Jordan Fisher as one-scene wonder Doody. A relative unknown, the singer-actor shone in his rendition of “Those Magic Changes,” measuring his upbeat energy with a silky smoothness as the T-Birds’ resident cool nerd.

• A more colorful Rydell
Fisher’s presence also speaks to quiet multicultural spin added to this traditionally white Broadway staple. Though the diverse cast might offer a misleading impression of the America of 1959, that’s a small price to pay for being able to provide a model for pint-size viewers harboring dreams of the Great White Way, regardless of race. Palmer’s a bona fide star, so’s Fisher, but beyond that, Latino actor Carlos PenaVega played Kenickie, The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce gave an unexpected, but perfectly welcome supporting performance as Coach Calhoun, and Haneefah Wood provided Gasteyer with a worthy comic sparring partner as Blanche.

• Key celebrity appearances
That original tune that Carly Rae Jepsen was singing, that tuneless stew of pop cliches that weighed down the show like an anchor — that was a stone-cold atrocity. Luckily, who but Boyz II Men would show up mere moments later to salvage the scene with their elegant treatment of “Beauty School Dropout?” The show had its fair share of celebrity cameos, a ploy with faint whiffs of crass gimmickry wafting off of it, but they generally connected. Joe Jonas and the boys of his new pop-rock outfit DNCE made for a stirring accompaniment for the Hand Jive as Johnny Casino and his band, and Jessie J-as-Jessie J safely made her way through the opening number.

• The showstoppers
Folks don’t go to musicals for nuanced depictions of adolescent courtship, they go for flash, for pizzazz, for razzle-dazzle. And Kail, director of In The Heights, as well as a little phenomenon called Hamilton, delivered the goods, big time. For the major toe-tappers in Grease‘s classic soundtrack, Kail staged massively involved technical spectacles that communicated the sheer bigness of Fox’s resources and the noisy majesty of musical theater. His cameras flew through crowds and over their heads, wending their way around sets and past extras while still maintaining a consistent sense of physical space. Translating the two-dimensional visual language of theater to the three-dimensional visual language of film is a tricky proposition, and one that the major networks are still trying to figure out. But until further notice, Kail’s closest to the hole.

What didn’t

• Mario Lopez
As the erstwhile host of Fox’s The X Factor, it makes an icky corporate sense why the network would want him installed as the production’s Vince Fontaine. Less easily explained, however, was the insistence on his pulling double duty as the host for this whole undertaking, as well. It’s a musical — it doesn’t really need a host, and Lopez was far from actually adding anything to the broadcast with his interstitial one-liners before the commercial breaks. If ever there was a case for addition by subtraction, his extraneous hosting gig is it.

• Technical snafus galore
For a production that wowed mostly on the merit of its formal achievements, Grease was also packed with rookie tech mistakes that cast an amateurish pall over the show as a whole. The color-grading jumped all over the place between shots in a single scene, resulting in moments where a character outside appears to be conducting a conversation with another character inside. At one point, the sound cut out entirely for approximately 10 seconds. (And mid-musical number!) At another, it’d crackle with static on the audio mix. Live TV ain’t easy, but they do it every week on NBC without screw-ups like this. Before a production can get to the jaw-dropping bits, it’s got to be sure all of the nitty-gritty is securely taken care of.

• The car chase
For reasons beyond popular comprehension, Fox decided to go for an all-out car race scene between our valiant Danny and the leader of the Scorpions. It was… not great. It looked like this:


• Going meta
Fans raised a minor fuss over the outmoded sexual politics of the central Danny-Sandy relationship, especially when they learned that censors excised the phrases “pussy wagon” and “the chicks’ll cream” from the script, but saw fit to hold onto the bit where Danny’s friends asked if his new girl “put up a fight” before getting intimate with him. But Fox also made a number of edits to the script that make winking extra-textual references to stuff like the advent of Netflix, the fact that this is all taking place on live television, and the inconvenience of rain that marred the show earlier that day. These aren’t particularly funny if they do indeed qualify as “jokes,” and do little else than jolt you out of the interior world of the show. They’d be best left behind in the next go-round.

• The length
All things accounted for, the broadcast ran exactly three hours, as in one-hundred and eighty minutes, as in six episodes of a half-four sitcom, as in slightly shorter than Schindler’s List. That is, to make use of a critical parlance, a long-ass time. Grease doesn’t necessarily demand this length, few musicals do, it only ended up at such an unwieldy runtime because of the many, many commercial breaks. So then Fox would appear to have a twofold path ahead of them, if they do choose to make shortening these broadcasts a priority: either decrease the number of commercial breaks, and in doing so, reassert the paramount importance of art over the corporate realities that enable its existence. Or maybe, like, cut a couple scenes out. Either way would probably work.