Sunday night’s live musical performance “Grease Live” on Fox was a resounding success, winning raves from fans and critics alike. The three-hour production, from Paramount TV, drew the best ratings for a musical since NBC’s “Sound of Music Live” in December 2013.
“I’m tired, but we were all jubilant,” executive producer Marc Platt told Variety the morning after the big event. “We had so much fun in the telecast, but also because the whole journey of ‘Grease Live’ has been such a joy for everyone. It’s been quite a celebratory journey.”
Here, he gives Variety a morning-after report card on “Grease Live”:
Continuing with the high school theme, how would you grade the production?
I’d give everyone involved an A+ for effort. I always think there’s room for improvement in everything but we’re very proud and pleased with what we accomplished. We sat down when we started with my collaborators, (directors) Tommy Kail and Alex Rudzinski, and our design team. ‘Grease’ is such a celebration of music and youth and joy, and we just wanted to find a way to stretch the genre and take advantage of the medium of live TV and create the biggest party ever and invite everybody to it. That’s what we tried to do.
One of the biggest differences with previous live TV musicals was the addition of a live audience. How do you think that paid off?
I think that paid off wonderfully. First of all, it was a gift to the actors. It gives them the feedback and the interaction and the energy that they just drive off of. It started off because when we first sat down, one of the first things that Tommy Kail said was it’s a comedy, we need an audience. That developed into, we just don’t need a live audience, as we’re trying to create this genre of musical that’s not for stage, it’s not for film, it’s for TV — why not make the audience a character in the piece. Which is why in the sets where you saw the audience, they were intended to be where you would find people. If you’re in a gym at a pep rally, there are going to be folks in the stands. That’s what we tried to incorporate into the design of the show itself. We loved it and thought it brought a lot to the proceeding.
The weather didn’t exactly cooperate with you yesterday. How did you work around it, given that you’d planned to be outdoors for part of the production?
This has been in the works for months. And we in Los Angeles have been very aware of the El Nino of this winter. So for a very long time we contemplated what we would do. We built a structure that went over the front of Rydell High with a covering that had canvas walls so we could perform out there, rain or shine. Nothing, however, prepared us for what occurred early in the day Sunday which was a very blustery windy day with lots of rain. We actually had to take the walls of that structure down because the wind was blowing so strong. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to use it because of the wind. So at 3pm, an hour before showtime, we restaged the opening, the Jessie J number, because we didn’t think we’d be able to go under the structure for that number. At 10 of 4, miraculously, the winds died down and the engineers said we could go. At 4pm, boom, we were back to the original opening. That’s the fun and the challenge of live TV which makes it exciting for us behind the camera and hopefully for the audience.
What about the final carnival scene, which didn’t have any covering at all? What was your rain plan for that?
You know what? We decided as advertised, we were going to go, rain or shine. Because we thought it’s the end of the show. If the characters get wet, they don’t have to go into the next scene. We thought, how fun would it be to have that joyous party in the rain. The strong winds might have prevented those rides from operating, but as it turned out, we had neither wind nor rain. And it was great.
Talk about Vanessa Hudgens. You must have been heartbroken when you got the news that her father had died Saturday night. It was brave of her to go ahead with the performance.
It was incredibly brave of her. She’s a professional, but she’s also a human being and a daughter. I looked at her in the eyes and said can you do this? I think your dad would want you to do this, and she said she knew that he would. She knew that she had to do it. She knew that she had to put that in a box for a few hours and use it to fuel her performance. We asked her if her family would come. And they came to the show and watched in a trailer live on the Warners lot. I was with her mom. I think it was for all of them a very cathartic experience given the brutality of the circumstances. Her performance speaks for itself. We were all very proud of her and send her love to her family.
It was touching that you added the slate in the end, “In loving memory of Greg Hudgens.”
At the 11th hour I asked her if we could honor her dad and the memory of her dad in that way and she was very touched by it. Fox jumped on and Paramount and we put it in the last moment. We were happy to do so. The performance was indeed dedicated to his memory.
What happened with the sound problems during “Hopelessly Devoted to You”?
It was one of those glitches. Somewhere in between the mike on the wardrobe and the wind created that static. You can look at it as irritating or exciting. That’s what happens in a live telecast. We’re all humans and it’s impossible to prevent any glitch. Fortunately everybody kept moving forward and we deliver in spite of it and then some. And so it goes.
How were you able to fix it for the Pacific broadcast?
Because the Pacific broadcast is a taped version of the live broadcast three hours earlier, we can use the taped sound. We used the audio and picked it up. We were able to deliver what were live elements, just from a tape.
One of the changes you made was adding a new song for Frenchy, played by Carly Rae Jepsen. Based on the response on social media, fans seemed to embrace it.
We love the song, we love the folks who wrote it. We love Carly Rae, who did a fantastic job delivering the song. We hope it will become part of the “Grease” canon as people move forward with productions. One of the challenges in these TV musicals is to make it economically worthwhile for the networks. The production has to fill up a certain amount of time because they’re expensive. That’s just where the economics and the art intersect. We were looking for a moment where we might be able to embellish and add as a treat a new musical number that would feel organic and come out of a character. Interestingly enough, that character, Frenchy, never sings. It’s such an ensemble, and each character has his or her own moment when you combine the musical stage and movie version. So it felt like that’s a perfect place to put a song and she’s the perfect actress to perform a song. We were delighted with it.
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing up the movie “The Girl on the Train,” based on the bestseller. I’ve got a new musical this summer with Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole. And I’ve got a beautiful film coming out this summer called “La La Land.” In terms of television, you’re going to have to stay tuned.
Will you tackle another TV musical?
I had a great time. If the right opportunity and the right musical came along that I felt I could do something with, I’d certainly explore it.