50s rock

This is the story of one of the most successful musicals of all time, and how it got destroyed.

Two Chicago actors who’d grown up in the 50s met in the 60s and started talking about what their experience of high school had been. It was markedly different than the way teen life had been presented on stage and screen. They remembered the drinking, the swearing, the cigarette-smoking, the violent bullies, even rape. So, they set out to write a show involving their memories of a tough adolescence.

The last thing they wanted to do was to create a squeaky-clean whitewashing of the era. When producers suggested their memory play should be a musical, they set about writing parodies of the songs they loved in the early rock era. There were simple chords back then, fairly easy to play on a guitar, quite often in the familiar harmonic pattern of I-VIminor-IV-V7, repeat ad absurdum. And did I forget to mention all of this was funny? In determining the right tone for a grounded-in-recalled-reality musical comedy, they dropped the rape and toned down the violence.

This was before George Lucas’ film, American Graffiti, before the television sitcom, Happy Days; it was before a nostalgia craze began involving war babies reminiscing about their salad days. In other words, it was a fresh idea, one that presaged a cultural phenomenon.

Or, perhaps, caused it: Grease became the longest-running musical ever to play on Broadway. And it’s hard to recall what an extraordinary hit it was. This was a musical for adults; really, back then, you wouldn’t dream of bringing your kids to it. After all, it had all that teen drinking, cigarette-smoking, and sex – did I mention sex yet? – including a plot turn involving an unwanted pregnancy. The final beat of the story involves a formerly “good” girl dressing up in a tough and/or slutty way and this leads to her triumph. That’s a fine conclusion to a silly story contrived for adults.

Six years after its Broadway opening, a film version was released. This is the highest grossing movie musical of all time, and the soundtrack was the second best-selling album of its year. You can’t argue with success like that, right? Well, here goes:

Hollywood has a habit of going for the least common denominator. Movie tickets are intended to be sold to viewers of various ages, particularly the young. While the Broadway show successfully marketed itself as a piece for people who remembered the 1950s, the studio wanted cinemas filled with kids who hadn’t even been born then. And that meant a lot of change in content.

The stage Grease begins at a high school reunion, where the school Alma Mater song is heard. Then, a flashback begins with energetic electric guitars and we hear raunchy teens shout-singing a parody:

I saw a dead skunk on the highway
And I was goin’ crazy from the smell
Cause when the wind was blowin’ my way
It smelled just like the halls of old Rydell
And if you’ve gotta use the toilet
And later on you start to scratch like hell
Take off your underwear and boil it
Cause you’ve got memories of old Rydell
I can’t explain Rydell, this pain Rydell
Is it ptomaine Rydell gave me
Is it V.D., Rydell?
Could be Rydell
You outta see the faculty

The movie Grease has no Alma Mater parody, and various other lyrics get bowdlerized. New songs – not by the Broadway songwriters – have a decidedly un-50s feel, particularly the new finale, You’re the One That I Want. Supporting roles – adult characters – are given to stars from 1950s television, in an effort to play up the sweet nostalgia element. And wait: I just used “sweet” in association with Grease, the musical that was designed to be anything but.

With all that success, Grease inevitably became the most-performed musical in high schools. So now there were kids in the audience, kids on stage, and the nostalgia people felt was for when they saw the hit movie. Many productions cleaned up some of the dirtier lyrics, such as “You know that ain’t no shit, I’ll be getting lots of tit.” You can understand why that would happen. But Grease is the prime example of being a victim of its own success. The forces of Hollywood and educational theatre turned it into the squeaky-clean whitewashing its authors strove to avoid.

I have a higher opinion of the original Grease than most: I embrace the rebellious nature of its frankness. A chorus singing chord symbols tickles the music theory nerd in me. I loved Patricia Birch’s choreography – jettisoned in all subsequent stagings. And the way the songs so closely resemble what you could hear on the radio in 1959, often with effectively funny lyrics: I find a lot to like, there.

But last decade’s Broadway revival used four of the film songs, and presented itself as an entertainment for the entire family. There was quite the publicity machine involved in casting the leads – a TV reality show “documenting” the process. (I remind you: the presence of “reality” before “TV” is a sure sign it’s the opposite.) Great Britain followed suit with its revival. And here we are, 57 years after the time the show is set. Senior citizens remember the era. Baby boomers remember the film. And very few people care about the message Grease sends to youth.

Now comes a live television presentation, which also contains songs the original creators didn’t pen. It’s hard to feel bad, I suppose, for two writers who made such a fortune they never really did anything again, but I’m just sentimental enough to mourn their dashed intentions.

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One Response to 50s rock

  1. This article is so correct. I only listen to the OBC version from 1972 or 73.

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