It’s been 40 years since Olivia Newton-John’s good-student Sandy told John Travolta’s leather-jacketed Danny that he “better shape up” in the 1978 movie “Grease,” the first musical “to cash in on premature nostalgia amongst members of the baby boom,” according to Ben Brantley, chief theater critic at The New York Times.
As a stage musical, “Grease” set records for its 3,388 performances after it premiered on Broadway, winning seven Tony awards in 1972. “Grease” underwent two revivals in 1994 and 2007, and is one of many Broadway hits to get new life on the big screen and bust box office records. And now there’s talk of a reunion.
Forty years later, “Grease” may not hold up well for new audiences, especially against the weight of the #MeToo movement, and particularly in its treatment of Sandy. In the song, “Summer Nights,” Danny’s T-bird buddy Kenickie asks whether his summer sweetheart “put up a fight.” “She was good, you know what I mean,” sings Danny. In a show that’s about teen dating and sex, such lines may have been written to titillate as young bragging, but show their age just as society faces a reckoning over sexual assault, consent and the power imbalances that lead to exploitation.
The ending is also a point of debate: Sandy transforms herself from a sweet and fairly innocent ingenue in a poodle skirt to the slick, cigarette-wielding, leather-pant-wearing vamp that Danny seemed to want. Some argue that Sandy is just becoming comfortable with herself, while others say it’s a standard (and sexist) plotline of a girl changing for a guy.
“Grease” was one of a wave of movies and TV shows in the 1970s that looked back on the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as a golden era of teenage life and freedom, such as “American Graffiti,” “Happy Days” and “Animal House,” propelled in part by the liberating force of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. But the 2000s brought a surge of musicals built on pop sounds that incorporated new cultural awareness: Travolta, former star of “Grease,” donning drag to play the mother of a socially conscious teen; a gay romance in the midst of a high school singing group.
Here are six recommendations for musicals from the post-“Grease” era from Ben Brantley:
1) “Hairspray” Broadway debut 2002, film 2007
If you loved John Travolta in that leather jacket and oil-slick pompadour in “Grease,” wait until you get a load of him a housecoat and hair curlers as a doting Baltimore mom who learns to jive. Featuring a Motown-inflected, 1960’s-style score by Marc Shaiman and Stuart Wittman, this upbeat adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical (itself adapted from John Waters’ 1988 film), Adam Shankman’s 2007 movie continued the “Grease”-oiled tradition of translating vintage pop into latter-day entertainment, and allowed Travolta (leading a cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky and Zac Efron) to change genders for his return to musical razzle-dazzle. As the film’s buoyant anthem has it, you can’t stop the beat.
2) “Jersey Boys” Broadway debut 2005, film 2014
Another hymn to the days of vinyl records, greased hair and close harmony. This jukebox musical, inspired by the career and songs of the 1960s chart toppers the Four Seasons, ran a whopping 4,642 performances on Broadway and has since been seen around the world. Clint Eastwood directed the film adaptation. But the live show continues to walk like a man in touring productions.
3) “Mamma Mia!” Broadway debut 2001, film 2008
The strapping mother of 21st-century nostalgia trips with vintage soundtracks, this charmingly clunky tale of mid-life romance and reunion on a Greek island is fueled by the disco-era hits of Abba. It packed ‘em in London’s West End (where in opened it 1999) and on Broadway (2001) before being adapted into Phyllida Lloyd’s film, in which Meryl Streep unleashed her inner dancing queen.
4) “Avenue Q” Broadway debut 2003
A show that was to Gen-X-ers what “Grease” was to baby boomers, this Tony-winning musical translated the sensibility of “Sesame Street” into a tale of recent college graduates navigating the mean streets of real life in New York City, with singing puppets as its stars. In 2003 it transferred from Off-Broadway to Broadway, where it ran for more than 3,000 performances and went on to a second Off-Broadway reincarnation, not to mention tours around the world. (It is also the show that causes such division among the fractious California school parents in the HBO series “Big Little Lies.”)
5) “Moulin Rouge!” Film 2001
Baz Luhrmann’s movie musical extravaganza, set in the Parisian demi-monde in the age of Toulouse Lautrec, used an eclectic (and anachronistic) roster of pop hits to tell the story of a doomed love affair between a poet (Ewan McGregor) and a ravishing cabaret star (Nicole Kidman). Coming soon: Luhrmann’s Broadway-bound stage adaptation of his own film.
6) “Glee” Television show 2009-2015
The Fox network series, about a high school glee club in Ohio, introduced a new generation to the joys of Broadway-musical-style interpretations of pop hits, not to mention making TV stars of such Broadway babies as Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff. And to complete the circle, let’s note that in 2012, the “Glee” kids did their own special tribute to “Grease.”