Show the magic — that was a guiding principle for the “Grease Live” team as they tackled the challenge of mounting Fox’s live staging of the beloved musical.
The end result of the Jan. 31 telecast was more than 14 million viewers, rave reviews for the ambitious effort exec produced by Marc Platt for Paramount Television. Last month, “Grease Live” landed 10 Emmy nominations.
On Monday night, “Grease Live” directors Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski and other key members of the creative team reunited at New York’s Edison Ballroom for an FYC panel session. The gabfest was moderated by none other than “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who worked with Kail on that Tony Award-winning musical playing “a block away,” as Miranda noted.
Kail emphasized that the goal was to demonstrate the enormity of the production at key moments in the three-hour telecast, which included a live audience in many scenes. The approach was rooted “in a very simple premise,” he said. “If we’re going to put the word ‘Live’ in the title, let’s embrace it. Let’s wrap our arms around that idea. Let’s show the joy of making this in front of all these people. Let’s celebrate all the people that you do get to see and all the people you don’t get to see making a musical.”
That meant pulling the camera back at times to show actors running from scene to scene, to show costume changes and set pieces being shifted — all regular components of theater but unusual for television. Kail said the team knew from the start that they would develop “some sort of opening number that showed the wires,” he said.
“We really loved the idea that once (in each) act we would show something magical. We were embracing the theatricality of it,” he said.
Manuel proved an enthusiastic moderator for the panel rounded out by three esteemed theater vets: costume designer William Ivey Long, casting director Bernard Telsey and “Grease Live” star Aaron Tveit.
Among the backstage insights shared:
- The musical’s race scene was the most challenging to figure out from the get-go. At one point telecast director Rudzinski hoped to actually shoot it on the streets of L.A. — until Kail reminded him that it would be “really expensive.”
- Tveit confessed that he “almost totally torched” his voice during the dress rehearsal on the Friday before the Sunday telecast. He chalked it up to being a “ham” and his effort to pump up the audience in bleachers as he raced around the set for a costume change and scene change. Even eight months later, Kail’s jaw dropped at Tveit’s revelation.
- In the spirit of “Hamilton,” assembling a diverse cast was a priority from the start. “There’s going to be diversity in this ‘Grease’ and we’re not going to worry about the time period,” said Telsey. But every key cast member had to have one quality that was non-negotiable, and that took some persuading at the network and studio level. “The biggest thing was trying to get them to realize it’s still a live musical and these people have to sing,” Telsey said. “That became the biggest education process.”
- The company had prepared for rain but was still surprised to wake up on the day of the telecast to a significant thunderstorm in drought-stricken Los Angeles. “The rain was going sideways at 8 a.m.,” Kail said. Umbrellas were worked into the opening number as another “very magical reminder (to viewers) this is happening right now in front of you,” he said.
- The “Grease Live” troupe rehearsed an A version of the opening number and a B version designed to adjust for rain. “Fifteen minutes before we went live we thought we were going with (the B version),” Tveit said. “Two minutes before we heard ‘No, we’re going with A.’ ”
- During the “Greased Lightning” number Tveit’s supporting cast members were wearing “three layers of overalls” to facilitate the costume change, Long said. “They’re young,” he quipped. Miranda observed that the scene had the quintessential touches of Long’s work. “Even the car had a costume change,” he exclaimed.
- The “Hand Jive” sequence at the dance in the gym was another feat that included pulling out two walls of the gym set to set up the crane “all during a three-minute commercial break,” Rudzinski said. “It’s a testament to what it means to be part of a team,” Kail added. After a clip screened, Tveit admitted: “It’s emotional to watch the work of 400 people all committed to this one thing. We weren’t acting. We were in the gym in high school,” he said.
- In the carnival scene in the big finale, keen-eyed viewers can find Kail and exec producer Platt jumping up and down and yelling on the back of a truck. The company knew that “if we made it to the carnival scene, it was ‘Oh my god, we actually did it,’ “ Tveit said.
(Pictured: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, William Ivey Long, Aaron Tveit, Alex Rudzinski and Bernard Telsey)