Grease belongs to the ages. Well, it obviously doesn’t belong to Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey, who wrote and composed the show that debuted at Chicago’s old Kingston Mines in 1971. Fox is airing a live performance of Grease on January 31, and Sunday’s New York Times carried a story on the show that didn’t bother to mention either of its creators. Something comparable would be a story about a live production of Oklahoma! that didn’t mention Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then again—to push the comparison a little further—this would be a live production of Oklahoma! set in southern California, and it could be Rodgers and Hammerstein wouldn’t have wanted to be mentioned.
Times reporter Brooks Barnes told us that director Thomas Kail and choreographer Zach Woodlee “are most definitely not just putting forward a carbon copy of what ‘Grease’ fans have seen before. Their goal is to combine elements from the movie and the stage version that preceded it while adding two new songs . . . and updating others.” The new songs, incidentally, are by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Yorkey was one year old when the original Grease first opened in Chicago. Kitt hadn’t been born yet.
Grease has been through so many versions that a 2011 Chicago staging called itself The Original Grease, a boast that Chicago was mature enough to handle the scruffy show Casey and Jacobs had actually written, based on fast times at Taft High (Jacobs’s alma mater).
Cynthia Gallaher, writing in the Reader about American Theater Company’s Original Grease, observed that Jacobs and Casey cleaned up the lyrics and dumped the Chicago references before Grease went to Broadway, and that “by the time the sun-soaked California film version came along in 1978, Grease was squeaky clean enough for Olivia Newton-John to star.” Now Thomas Kail tells the Times, “We have affection for the movie and the stage play just as much as everybody else. But it’s not about trying to redo those. It’s trying to capture the spirit.”
But the spirit of what, exactly? If it’s the spirit of Jacobs and Casey’s original, then it seems doubly rude of the Times not even to mention them. If it’s the watered-down, bowdlerized spirit of the show that reached New York and the silver screen, then it’s singly rude.