When it comes to Grease, Australian audiences know what to expect. You hand over your money for a ticket, and in return you will be privy to a world of poodle skirts, 18 year old kids played by 30 year old actors, and a book of songs you somehow know inside out, even though you never consciously devoted your time to learning them. These are all expectations Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre plan to circumvent and reconfigure with their Australian premiere of The Original Grease, opening officially this weekend.
According to director Jay James-Moody, although he has always loved the show, before reading the Original Grease script he felt as though he had never seen a production that got to the “real core” of the characters, and felt that a lot of themes the show claimed to represent were glossed over and sanitised. He believes that The Original Grease, although technically a recreation of draft version of the material audiences have come to love, addresses the themes and real experience of the time period in a much more “authentic” way, by taking the story back to its roots.
“I feel that recent productions […] have banked more on nostalgia and painted a more optimistic picture of what life was like for teens in the 50s, so this version of Grease is a bit more of an honest approach [to the story] and shows the difficulties of life, friendship, sex and music, of the time when rock and roll was changing the way teens behaved, and they were starting to move against the expectations of their parents.
“I find this version of Grease far more satisfying in exploring a large cast of characters, and exploring [their stories] more adequately. This version is really more ensemble based, with the Danny/Sandy storyline not [focussed on] as a principle storyline. […] There are other things in this version that were subsequently removed, such as a scene where the boys are hidden in a boiler room by the school coach during an air raid siren. The story takes place during the Cold War, when there was nuclear threat from Russia, so the context of fear that was permeating through the society of the time [is present] in this version.”
Re-created in its more-or-less original version for the Chicago-based American Theatre Company in 2011, it has taken James-Moody five years of begging to license the rights to The Original Grease for presentation in front of a modern Sydney audience. He looks forward to determining the reaction of his patrons, because although society has developed in its acceptance of less rigid social norms, it seems to him as though productions of Grease sometimes move backwards by omitting references or words some audience members might deem as vulgar in 2016.
“From a historical perspective, it’s really fascinating to see how a show has evolved [with its audience] over 40 years of various productions. […] I remember watching the film with my cousin at a very young age and singing the songs from it at school in year two or three, so I would have been about eight or nine years old and giggling over some of the swear words in ‘Grease Lightning’. There has always been that naughty side to Grease and I love that the version we’re doing is very raw and has all of the swearing reinstated.”
Noting the nearly complete absence of any explicit sexual reference or swear words in the recent Grease: Live! performance of ‘Grease Lightening’, James-Moody says it surprises him that modern audiences are becoming more prudish towards the “relatively innocuous” content of the musical than audiences of the past.
“Danny swears at Patty Simcox in one scene in our version. She gets terribly upset and he says, ‘There’s nothing wrong with that word, you’re just getting shook up.’ I think that really applies [to what is happening to audiences outside of the show.]”
Although The Original Grease can never be separated completely from later versions of the show, James-Moody and the Squabbalogic creative team have focussed intensely on creating a production that stands apart from any other Australian season of the show. In addition to using the reconstructed material to do this, James-Moody has trusted a very youthful cast to bring his vision to the stage.
“During the casting process, we were very clear to state that people should throw out any expectations, template or prior understanding that they thought might apply to any of these characters. We were starting from scratch, looking at the text as a brand new text, and not taking any influence from previous versions.
“We have a couple of 18 year old’s in the cast, and the average age is probably around 20. [The cast are] not so far removed from their own teenage years, and can bring their own experiences and memories of that time to these characters. They’ve done a brilliant job of creating their own unique interpretations of what are really classic, iconic characters, and are definitely true to the spirit of Grease. They haven’t intentionally borrowed anything from a previous performance.”
In addition to different scenes, dialogue, and previously cut characters, The Original Grease also features a completely revamped score (featuring songs cut before the Broadway run and different arrangements of fan-favourites) for the cast and audience to enjoy. James-Moody says the shows’ similarities to previous versions are just as fascinating as its differences, but that there is something for everyone within The Original Grease, fans and newcomers alike.
“The Original Grease doesn’t have the neon glow of other productions. The design aesthetic is real world and gritty, in terms of the stage design. The costumes are stylised, but we are trying to dress these kids honestly and not from a costume hire of any other production of Grease.
“I think if you’re a theatre aficionado, this is a very rare opportunity see how the show has evolved. If you’re a general audience member, you’re going to have everything that you love about Grease, but it will be flipped on its head. The Original Grease [gives audiences] even more reason to fall in love with the characters and the music.”
The Original Grease will run at the Seymour Centre in Sydney until 7 May. Tickets can be purchased at this link.