‘Grease Live’: Fox Thrives In the Live Musical World

Fox took its big bow into the live TV musical space on Jan. 31 with “Grease Live,” and it hit a home run.

The three-hour production drew the best ratings for a musical since NBC’s “Sound of Music Live” in December 2013. It won critical praise as well (Variety‘s Maureen Ryan called it “solidly and smartly crafted”), and exploded on social media, drawing nearly 1.4 million tweets.

Produced across two sound stages and the Warner Bros. backlot, which were home to 21 “Grease” sets, the three-hour broadcast was not an easy jive for Fox and Paramount TV. In comparison to NBC’s three hits, “Grease Live” was the biggest musical TV production yet, with its sprawling sets and live audience of 650 people.

“That back-and-forth I think is something that is really useful for a show like ‘Grease’ — but the reality is, we have audiences in different places,” director Thomas Kail told Variety at a rehearsal ahead of the big night. “We’ll see. We have some ideas about how that would work, and at 10:01 on Jan. 31, we’ll have a pretty good sense of which of those things translated. Our hope is that it can provide some bounce and electricity for our show here which then hopefully will translate for the audience at home.”

The weather proved a complicating factor, but the producers decided to incorporate the drizzle into the show — handing out umbrellas to the cast for the opening number. There was also a wind-related sound glitch during “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which the production quickly corrected for the tape-delayed PT airing.

“We think we’re going to have a great audience for it, and we’re not going to sit there and lament if were lower than this one or that one,” Fox’s president of entertainment David Madden told Variety ahead of the Sunday night debut.

He added that he and his fellow execs aren’t comparing “Grease” to NBC’s musical efforts.

“NBC has done really well with their musicals. We’re not going to sit there and study if we did better or worse. I think we’re going to do really well,” he said. “We’re grateful that NBC has paved the way to people being receptive to live musicals. Good for them — we’re doing our own thing.”

Key to Fox’s strategy, he said, was the Sunday night timeslot.

“We are so proud of this event, we wanted the most opportunity for the most people to see it in the most comfortable way — Sunday night found like the perfect time to do it,” Madden said of the family-friendly night. “We found a good Sunday in between football that fit that slot perfectly.”

The generation-spanning appeal of “Grease” was one of the reasons the project was attractive to Fox — and given a family-friendly slot, Madden was hopeful it would bring in a wide audience. “I’m 150 years old and I’m excited,” he joked.

But he — along with Fox bosses Dana Walden and Gary Newman — were pleased that Kail and exec producer Marc Platt gave “Grease Live” a modern twist.

“It’s a show that people have expectations on,” Madden said. “It was important to us that the movie is a beloved movie and we’re trying to do something that’s an homage to it, but is also its own animal.”

That’s a point Kail was certainly mindful of, even given the tremendous buzz on Twitter leading up to Sunday’s airing.

“For so many of us, this was really the first musical theater that certainly made me feel like, ‘Oh, music can sound like that?’” he said. “We’re aware of the legacy of the show and we want to be our very small part of it. I’m just very proud to be part of this continuing movement in live TV.”

Fox is continuing its live efforts this spring with “The Passion,” a modern-day take on Jesus’ journey from the Last Supper to the Resurrection, starring Trisha Yearwood and Chris Daughtry. Madden says Fox is open to the possibility of more live musicals, but insisted nothing firm is currently in the works. But he allows that music is clearly in Fox’s DNA, given its success with “American Idol,” “Glee” and “Empire.”

“When Dana and Gary and I got here, we absolutely recognized the value of music to this network both in scripted and non-scripted. We were looking for areas to marry music to our programming,” Madden said. “ ‘Grease’ seemed like a uniquely right show for Fox. It has sort of the cheekiness and rebelliousness, but also the heart.”

There’s little doubt we’ll see more live TV musicals, the resurgence of which Madden credits to live TV in the DVR age. “Forms come and go,” he says, adding with a laugh, “It’s not like the television musical was discovered in ‘The Sound of Music’ a couple of years ago.”

Hough says she’s happily on board with the trend. “I hope that what we created and what we’re doing will even give people more chances to build off of that, too,” she says.

But noting the extra challenges of “Grease Live” given the live audience element, not to mention the quick changes across the expansive lot, she said: “That’s a whole other choreographed dance behind the scenes!”

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