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It's back to Broadway for Danny, Sandy and the gang

'Grease' gets a face-lift: Songs from the film, and the leads won their roles in a reality show.

August 20, 2007|Michael Kuchwara | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Kathleen Marshall is dealing with durability these days, finding a new way to tackle "Grease," a pop staple of American musical theater for more than 35 years.

Born in Chicago in the early 1970s, "Grease," a raucous celebration of 1950s high school life, has never really disappeared. Critics may not have embraced it the way they did "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story" or "Gypsy," but there have been two long-running Broadway productions (the 1972 original and a 1994 revival), a hit movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and countless stock, foreign and amateur incarnations.

Now, Marshall is shepherding the musical back to Broadway in a $10-million production whose leads -- Max Crumm and Laura Osnes -- were chosen this year on an NBC-TV reality series, "Grease: You're The One That I Want."

"The TV show did exactly what it was supposed to do: find us two talented, young, fresh people to play these parts," says the director-choreographer, who along with the musical's lead producer, David Ian, and co-creator, Jim Jacobs, was a judge on the television program.

"It also has brought a whole new audience to the Broadway show," says Marshall, sitting in an upstairs foyer of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre before a matinee preview performance. The show was set to open Sunday.

Marshall says she has had an advantage as the show's latest commander in chief. She never saw the Broadway original or the 1994 revival -- although she did see the movie in high school.

"I'm approaching 'Grease' like it was a new show," she says. "Even though, obviously, it's a musical that's really well known and beloved, it's still kind of fun to say, 'OK, let's get to know the story and these characters and figure out who they are.' "

Who they are include bad boy Danny Zuko (Crumm), the virginal Sandy Dumbrowski (Osnes), bad girl Betty Rizzo (Jenny Powers) and the rest of the gang at Rydell High.

Marshall examined the musical, written by Jacobs and Warren Casey, with a meticulous attention to period detail and to the actors she has chosen to inhabit a very specific era.

After all, she dusted off an earlier part of the 1950s in the recent Tony-winning revival of "The Pajama Game," originally a big Broadway hit in 1954. She tapped into the magnetism of Harry Connick Jr., transforming the jazz crooner and piano player into a Broadway leading man by showcasing his strengths.

For "Grease," she did a lot of research for her young cast (14 of them are making their Broadway debuts). "A lot of them weren't even born when the movie came out in 1978," she says.

Ryan Patrick Binder, who plays Doody in the revival, saw a community theater production in Michigan when he was in the sixth or seventh grade. He always liked the movie too. "I thought it was the coolest thing that these guys were dancing around a car," he says.

Lindsay Mendez -- she's Jan in the new production -- grew up with the film. "My parents were big movie-musical fans," Mendez says. "And I thought 'Grease' was different from the usual MGM musical. I was intrigued and fell in love with it."

Five years ago, in her first big job right out of high school, Mendez played Jan in a European tour of "Grease," phonetically learning her lines in German.

Marshall and her production team created a library of DVDs for the cast to watch. Classic '50s-to-early-1960s-teen-flavored flicks such as "Rebel Without a Cause," "Blackboard Jungle," "The Young Savages" and "Rock Around the Clock." There were CDs too, featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bill Haley & His Comets, Connie Francis, Chuck Berry and more.

"There was a great Time-Life book called 'Rock & Roll Generation: Teen Life in the '50s,' which has all kinds of information about the social behavior of the day," she adds. "We put together research boards on the walls of the rehearsal room -- all about car culture, teenage dating at the time, clothes, where [kids] would hang out and more."

Although she loved doing the research, Marshall says it's the characters and actors portraying them who really count.

"We've got a lot of fresh faces in the cast -- and they range in age from their early 20s to early 30s," Marshall says. "The hard part is that even though they're supposed to be high school students, there aren't many 17-, 18- or 19-year-olds who really have the skills to play these parts.

"The great thing about the TV show is that we could just cast the best people for all the rest of the roles. There was no pressure about big names."

"I think Kathleen wanted newbies galore -- and the energy that comes with that; we have this group that is so excited to get out there every night," says Powers, one of the more veteran members of the cast. Among other things, she has been on Broadway in "Little Women."

"Grease" purists -- there must be a few -- will be surprised to discover that, when it comes to the score, this latest revival is not a replica of the original show.

"This is the first Broadway production that has permission to use songs written for the movie," Marshall says. They are: the title song, "Sandy," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want."

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