Tuesday, May 3, 2011

High School is not like Grease

When Grease was announced as the musical of my senior year of high school, I remember sighing and rolling my eyes. I hated Grease, despite never having seen it. It was enough to know that it was impossibly popular among girls while I was growing up to understand that it was worthy of derision.

But, still, I had been in my school's two previous musical productions of Guys & Dolls and The Pajama Game, and I had no plans on stopping.

As with previous productions, I went to my mother for her opinions on auditioning - namely, which role I should be shooting for. "How about Kenickie?" she suggested. "I don't know who that is," I said. "Greased Lightning!" she said. "Oh, snap," I said.

I got in contact with my brother's girlfriend's mother, who was a singer and voice teacher, and she guided me through all of the ups and downs of Greased Lightning. I auditioned with great anxiety then, as I still do with musicals, but I was called back for Kenickie, along with two other guys.

One was James, a sophomore, sweet kid with an angelic voice, but kind of goofy and not especially disciplined. The real threat was Mickey.

Mickey was a year under me, and a hair's breadth shorter, and he had great deal more social wisdom than I had. He knew how to make fun without sounding like an asshole, he knew how to gain attention without looking desperate, he knew how to be liked.

He also had a girlfriend. I saw the beginning of their relationship backstage when he leaned over to several of us and said, "Hey, she's pretty hot." At first glance they seemed like two social adepts combining forces like a company merger. On further scrutiny, there was actually something like true love there.

Not only did Mickey have the experience and confidence, he loved Grease, and his name rhymed with the character he was trying out for. He had his eyes on the prize from word one. He'd be Kenickie and his girlfriend would be Rizzo and it would be perfect.

Callbacks proceeded in the open. Everyone attended the same dance callback, then sat in the house as each person sang once again on stage in front of everyone.

James performed somewhat halfheartedly, perhaps to avoid the work of a slightly more demanding role than the ensemble.

I got a pretty good response when I went up. I think everyone enjoyed the novelty of watched someone who was usually so reserved singing like their social life depended on it.

When Mickey went up, something felt off. I knew what it was, but I couldn't believe it right away. He didn't seem to be as good as he should have been. He wasn't attacking it, not really. For one of the few times in my life up to that point, I felt that I was better than someone else.

I tried to forget about it the next day. I thought it was all in my head, that he had performed terrifically and I was just being cocky. I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment.

The moment the last bell rang, I headed to the music department to see the cast list. I saw Mickey walking toward me from down the long hallway beside the auditorium. I smiled, ready to congratulate him, then stopped short when I saw something unexpected in his eyes. He patted my shoulder.

"Congratulations," he said with a smile.

He was already walking away as I tried to understand the situation for myself as much as for him. "But... you love Grease!"

"You're a senior. Enjoy it." And he kept walking.

I watched him go, then continued toward the bulletin board. Several underclassmen parted to make room, congratulating me even before I found my name next to Kenickie's.

Maybe this was right. After all, they wouldn't cast me if I weren't the right man for the job. It may be the last musical I'm ever in, so I might as well take pride in it.

I perused through the rest of the cast, and my heart sunk when I reached the Pink Ladies.

Mickey's girlfriend was cast as Rizzo.

I felt like an accomplice in something horrible.

Memories of my time in Grease came back to me while I watched a touring production at the Wang this past weekend, mostly because my memories of Grease were more impressive than the current reality.

I knew Grease was stupid when I was in it, but I couldn't realize how stupid until I got older. I mean, the songs are great. They're catchy, they're distinctive, and they've got great lyrics. Everyone remembers songs from Grease.

But does anyone remember all of the terrible dialogue between all of the songs? Or that there's so much of it? Any line that isn't a flimsy plot device is usually a really bad joke. Not even silly "yuk yuk" bad, but the kind where you're constantly asking yourself, "That's the punchline?" It's really terrible stuff, the kind of material that would be booed out of a new play festival.

I also have no idea who the jokes are written for, because they vary wildly between suggestive "almost naughty" silliness for kids and straight up raunchy stuff for adults. Dudes constantly waver between being coy and lewd and it doesn't really make sense. Also, I think we can agree that Grease doesn't "tackle such social issues as teenage pregnancy and gang violence", unless tackle means just being like WHATEVERRR~~

Also, I fucking hate it when there are, like, twelve people on stage but only two of them are talking at a time, like in an aside. I hated it as an actor because I had to do that shitty, silent fake non-talking in the background of every scene when I had no lines. I hated it as an audience member because it's weird, it provides very little pay-off by way of characterization or jokes, and it's evident of an inability to write a conversation among a group of people.

Presumably the movie fixed these shortcomings, but I don't really know because I still haven't really seen it. If the production I saw is any indication, the revival hasn't learned much, despite taking some of the movie's ideas.

The worst idea they took is the movie's opening song, Grease (is the Word). First off, the huge problem with the song is that it sticks out like a sore thumb. In a musical that hearkens back to the 50s by mimicking the sounds of the time, it's supremely stupid to open with a song that distinctively sounds like it was written in the 70s. It's also really stupid to open with all of your 50s-fashion-clad leads singing it in some undefined void. It's an alienating way to introduce the characters because it makes them seem weirdly omniscient or self-aware when we know they're just dumb teenagers. It worked in the movie because it was matched with a distinctively 70s montage, apart from the actual world of the story. You can't do that on stage. Or if you can, clearly no one has figured out how to yet.

Aside from the opening, it was just really plain. Which is natural, because there isn't a lot you can do with Grease. If you play it safe, then the best you can hope for is a copy of the movie that's slightly more disappointing because Danny isn't cool enough for Sandy isn't cute enough. If you try to experiment with it, like with Emerson's "dark" production of Grease which I think I fell asleep during, then you see how shallow the material really is.