Book celebrates 50th anniversary of musical ‘Grease’
NEW YORK — On Valentine’s Day 1972, a musical debuted off Broadway that needed a lot of love. He was already $20,000 in debt, and reviews were mixed to mediocre. A decision had to be made: continue or let go?
The choice to continue was risky but fateful, not only for investors but also for actors who would later use it as a career incubator, including John Travolta, Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze, Treat Williams, Marilu Henner, Peter Gallagher, Alan Paul, Judy Kaye and Barry Bostwick.
That show was “Grease,” a story of teenage angst and true love set in the mid-1950s. It would go on to transfer to Broadway for a record-breaking eight-year run, spawning multiple touring companies and a famous movie. Few people know that he was almost stillborn.
“People think ‘Grease’ was born a blockbuster. ‘Grease’ was born anything but a blockbuster. If there’s one metaphor that works for this show, it’s ‘The Little Engine That Could’,” says Tom Moore , the show’s director.
The story of the series’ often turbulent beginnings in a pop culture juggernaut is told in the new oral history book “Grease: Tell Me More, Tell Me More,” drawn from stories submitted by about 100 cast members. and crew and edited by Moore, “Grease” veteran Adrienne Barbeau and producer Ken Waissman.
The book includes behind-the-scenes connections, accidents – broken ankles were a big risk – life on the road, when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor stopped to enchant the cast, their encounter with Liberace, performing the show with flashlights during the New York blackout in 1977 and the day the show ended on Broadway in 1980, with dozens of great photos.
The book comes out Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the opening of “Grease” on Broadway. It is structured chronologically as the show was born and cast, and then as it unleashed multiple tours, with chapters at the end organized by theme. All participants were invited to add their stories, from stunt doubles and orchestra members to actors and designers.
“Some of them had really really fun, really risque backstage stories that I didn’t even know about,” says Waissman, who helped audition 2,000 people for the 16 roles in the first company.
It was Waissman who fell in love with an early version of the series when it was an amateur production playing weekends in a converted wagon barn in Chicago. “I saw my whole yearbook come to life,” he says.
Other future stars who played roles in “Grease” include Tony Award-winning Broadway directors Walter Bobbie and Jerry Zaks; authors Laurie Graff and John Lansing; and TV stars Ilene Kristen, Ilene Graff and Lisa Raggio.
The musical centers on the T-Birds, a gang of “greasers”, and their daughters, the Pink Ladies. The main romance is between T-Birds frontman Danny Zuko, who is still pining for his summer love, “good girl” Sandy Dumbrowski. It’s a show about forming friendships, raging hormones, petty jealousies and hot-rod racing.
All successful musicals leave the members with fond memories, but “Grease” was different in that it was an ensemble musical that employed young actors all around the same age – ideally , close to high school. It was often an actor’s first big break and it reflected the themes of the show.
“It’s about the first of all – first loves, first adaptation to high school, first finding your pack, first finding your band, first finding your identity. And to some extent, we were doing it all personally at the same time that we were setting up the show,” Moore explains. “We were still largely growing together.”
Members of the various companies — touring productions often became farm crews for Broadway replacements — have stayed in touch via social media over the years. When the pandemic hit, the idea was floated to combine all the stories into one book, a way to connect during a national lockdown.
“It was just as intense as rehearsal because everyone wanted to get it right,” Moore says. “These memories are so important to them.”
The book – published by Chicago Review Press – makes it clear how tight money was at the start, with costume designer Carrie Robbins using her own shower curtain to make a beauty school smock and cutting her pink bath mat and her toilet seat cover to make a poodle skirt.
It was Waissman and co-producer Maxine Fox who made the bold decision to keep the show open in 1972 despite debt and poor reviews. Waissman explained it like this: “Look, we can’t afford the $20,000 we owe right now. We might as well not afford much more. So we are not closing.
Moore credits Waissman and Fox with believing in the project and saving a show that would mean so much to so many people. “You don’t see that much with producers now,” he says.