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Drugs, Knives, Knickers – the Grit Behind Greased Lightnin’

The production’s creators reveal how real-life thugs inspired the high school musical that tore up the Broadway playbook.

The Telegraph

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black and white still from the movie Grease

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“The first preview was a horror,” recalls Tom Moore, who directed the original New York production of Grease 50 years ago. “It didn’t work and, being in New York, the gossip started spreading.” The word got out that the show – set in a 1950s high school and stuffed with period-­pastiche songs – was going to flop. “Half my job was simply bucking the cast up every day.”

Determined to prove the doubters wrong, over the next three weeks Moore and the team – including choreographer Patricia Birch and Grease’s co-creators, writing duo Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs – reworked the musical, about the hesitant romance between Rydell High newbie Sandy and status-­conscious dreamboat Danny, and the antics of their image-obsessed peers. Songs were cut, scenes rewritten, even the band were moved, from on stage to the orchestra pit. Perhaps inevitably, tempers frayed: one late-night shouting match ended with a sceptical financial backer being angrily shown the door.

Their overhaul paid off, though. Having started previews on January 25, the show officially opened in the East Village’s Eden Theatre on Valentine’s Day. Reviews were mixed but, crucially, Walter Kerr in The New York Times was adulatory, describing Grease as an “agreeable musical about the very last moment in time when boys submitted to haircuts, when cigarettes and wine were the makings of girls’ pyjama parties, when hubcaps were highly thought of as objects worth snatching”.

Ticket sales took off, and on June 7, the show moved to Broadway. By 1979, Grease had surpassed Fiddler on the Roof to become (albeit briefly) the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and spawned a movie that, in turn, smashed box-office records. It has since become a global phenomenon, its influence felt on everything from Back to the Future to High School Musical. Today, there are reputed to have been more than 120,000 productions of Grease worldwide, the latest of which opens this month at the Dominion Theatre in London, in a new staging from director Nikolai Foster.

What in hindsight might look like a commercial sure bet, at the time seemed anything but. Tell Me More, Tell Me More – a 2022 book offering the insiders’ account of Grease’s early days – reveals that when the call went out among the original New York cast members to take a modest stake in the production, many of them demurred. Marya Small, the actress who played would-be beautician Frenchy in that Broadway production, tells the book’s authors that “had we any idea what this show would become, we might (definitely would) have gone to some radical extremes to borrow money to invest – but who knew?” Ken Waissman, one of the show’s original co-producers (with Maxine Fox), tells me that those who stumped up $10,000 for that initial Broadway run got a return on their investment of $1,200,000.

Not bad for an idea that first came to Jim Jacobs in 1969 while the young actor was hosting a boozy party at his Chicago apartment. “It was a bunch of deadheads lying around drunk and stoned at about two in the morning, listening to Led Zeppelin,” Jacobs tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I said: ‘I hate this music. I love rock ’n’ roll.’ I went to my closet, dug out a shopping bag full of old 45s from the late 1950s – Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. And I said: ‘By the way, how come there’s never been a Broadway show that uses rock ’n’ roll as its music?’ ”

His friend and fellow actor Warren Casey (who died in 1988) pronounced it a good idea, then set to thinking what such a show could take as its subject. “Maybe the people you went to high school with,” he suggested to Jacobs. “What did they ever do except stand on the street corner and go: ‘There goes a ’58 Buick!’?”

Jacobs’s thoughts rewound past the 1960s – with its transformative social upheavals and the generation-scarring Vietnam War – to his years as a student at William Howard Taft high school, in Chicago’s predominantly white north-western suburb of Norwood Park. The son of a factory foreman, he enrolled there in the autumn of 1956. Memories of those days provided him and Casey with the basis for almost every character in Grease. “You had all these inner-city kids, particularly Italian and Polish, move out to the outskirts. The Polish kids brought drugs, the Italian guys brought switchblade knives. It was ‘give me your lunch money… let’s steal a tyre’. That was all new to my neighbourhood and it was rampant.”

Not that he was an innocent himself. The truth is, he says, “we were all in gangs”, each with its own local hang-out. “In our neighbourhood, we had the Pizza Palace Boys, Fred’s Drive-In Boys … there was the Canale Boys, too, who [requisitioned] another pizza joint – and I was one of them.”

Canale’s also happened to be “where the Pink Ladies mostly hung out”. In Grease, the Pink Ladies are the smoking, drinking rebel queens of the high school, vying for the attentions of Danny and his Burger Palace Boys (rebranded, in the film, as the T-Birds). Their real-life counterparts, Jacobs says, were formidable, “a bunch of tough broads who would kill you for a nickel if you looked at them wrong”. He put aspects of himself into the characters of clowning Doody (played on the first national tour by a sweetly goofy and green John Travolta) and Roger, “the mooner”. There were even actual models for the central couple: Danny was based on Tom Meyer, his fellow Taft student and second cousin, who was “the top banana in every way: tall, good-looking, great build, wonderful smile, toughest guy in the neighbourhood… You name it, he had it.”

As for Sandy, she was inspired by another student, Meyer’s one-time sweetheart, Jeanie Kozemczak, “a good Catholic girl, a real goody two shoes, until she met Tom and he took her around to the joints where we hung out, a bunch of no-goods. Everyone knew she was ‘Tom’s girl’. No one went near her. You didn’t ask her to dance, or you’d get beaten up!”

Not for them the happy-ever-after that Grease gives to Sandy and Danny: Meyer drifted through life, still seemingly pining for Kozem­czak, who had moved away, settled down and got married. “He became an alcoholic and had problems with drugs in his later years,” Jacobs tells me. “He was always on the outside, and looking for a quick buck. He once told my ex-wife, “The thing that really gets me is that [Jim] wrote Grease about us guys and he wasn’t nothing – he never pulled any stick-ups!”

Grease has come to emblematise the American high-school experience, but in its earliest, wildest incarnation, its sweary, sketch-like scenes afforded a vista onto the posturing of the young greaser crowd, a ­working-class male subculture that took peacockish pride in its slicked-back hairdos, and their female counterparts. The show seemed destined to be called Grease because back then, as Jacobs puts it, “everything was greasy, the hair, the food, those guys always under the hood of the car”.

In February 1971, it got a $200 try-out at Chicago’s now vanished Kingston Mines Theatre, housed in an old tram depot, where Waissman – who was visiting Chicago following his first Broadway success (And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little) that year – caught it in August, its run extended by popular demand. “There were no seats, you had to sit on newspaper on the concrete floor,” he recalls. “The scenery seemed to have been painted by the cast themselves on brown paper, you could see the drip marks!”

The music, which already contained such future hits as Greased Lightnin’, We Go Together and Beauty School Drop-Out, along with more localised anthems, was performed by a small, unpaid band. But the pièce de résistance was a real, old 1951 Chrysler that served as Greased Lightnin’, the automotive object of desire for Danny’s gang, which was driven on stage and filled the air with exhaust fumes. Waissman was transfixed – “I saw my whole yearbook come to life,” he says, “I knew those kids” – and decided to take the show to New York.

First, though, as Moore put it, “we had to make it palatable for a wider audience”. The ratio of dialogue to song, originally about seven to three, was flipped; the Sandy-Danny romance was foregrounded; characters were made more likeable; expletives and racial epithets junked. Which isn’t to say it was completely sanitised: the opening song, Alma Mater, made plain the lack of propriety in the class of ’59:

“If ya gotta use the toilet
And later on you start to scratch like hell,
take off your underwear and boil it, 
’cause you got memories of old Rydell!

That’s not a lyric that will be familiar to fans of the sun-drenched, bubble-gum-tastic film, or many of the more cautious productions that have since turned the original characters into cleaner-cut versions of their former selves. As Jacobs says, “They’ve gotten to be Disney characters!” – but Nikolai Foster’s new production is determined to restore the original grit. “Treat it like candyfloss or a cartoon,” warns Foster, “and it will screw you over.” Arlene Phillips, who choreographed the last big revival of Grease at the Dominion, in 1993, has reconceived the footwork to give it more attack. “It should be raw,” she tells me, “they are dancing out their hormones.”

You have to wonder how the new production’s decision to honour the show’s original spirit (while taking a more diverse approach to casting) will go down with those who see Grease as a sexist throwback, out of step with the heightened sensitivities of our times. That school of thought has already claimed its first victims: in Australia in 2021, a production by two Perth high schools was cancelled after students deemed the material inappropriate. And ­complaints greeted a BBC Boxing Day broadcast in 2020 – which one outraged viewer dismissed as “misogynist, sexist and a bit rapey”.

“It seems silly to judge a previous era by today’s standards,” Moore counters. “If you wanted to argue the case for Grease, you can actually say that it’s about female empowerment. Sandy completely throws this cock of the walk and winds up in control.”

Now 79, Jacobs sounds similarly unfazed, even amused, by some of the new nervousness about his 50-year-old baby. “I say: read your history books. You have to show how it was. If you want everything good, fair and equal, then write a show about now.”

He is sanguine about its survival prospects. “I’ve heard a million opinions about why Grease is so popular,” he says. “But I think it’s so loved because it’s about the first time in people’s lives – your first boyfriend or girlfriend, your first drink, first date, first car, first cigarette. All those moments. And that never gets old.”

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This post originally appeared on The Telegraph and was published May 7, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.