Mark Kennedy Associated Press
NEW YORK – On Valentine’s Day 1972, an off-Broadway musical that needs a lot of love opened. It already had $20,000 in debt, and reviews were mixed to poor. A decision had to be made: keep advancing or give him the kiss?
The choice to continue was risky but fateful, not only for investors but also for the actors who would later use it as a career incubator, including John Travolta, Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze, Rhett Williams, Marilou Heiner, Peter Gallagher, Alan Paul, Judy Kay and Barry Bostwick.
This show was “Grease,” a story of teenage anxiety and true love set in the mid-1950s. The move to Broadway would last a record eight years, which led to the emergence of several touring companies and a blockbuster movie. Not many know that he was nearly dead.
“People think ‘Grease’ was born from blockbuster movies. ‘Grease’ generated anything but blockbuster. If there is any proper metaphor for this show, it’s the ‘little engine that can’,” said Tom Moore, show director.
People also read…
The story of the show’s often rocky beginnings in a pop culture tyrant is told in the new oral history book “Grease: Tell Me More, Tell Me More,” drawn from stories provided by nearly 100 actors and crew and edited by Moore, “Grease” veteran Adrian Barbo and producer Ken Weissman.
The book includes relationships behind the scenes, accidents—broken ankles were such a danger—life on the road, the time Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor paused to wow the actors, their meeting with Liberace, the show’s performance with flashlights during the blackout in New York in 1977 and the closing day of the show on Broadway in 1980’s, complete with dozens of great photos.
The book comes out Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the opening of “Grease” on Broadway. It is organized chronologically as the show is created and delivered, after which it starts multiple rounds, with chapters at the end arranged by topic. All participants were welcomed to add their stories, from students and orchestra members to actors and designers.
“Some had very entertaining, very cool behind the scenes stories I didn’t even know about,” said Weissman, who helped audition 2,000 people for the company’s first 16 roles.
It was Waissman who fell in love with an early iteration of the show when it was an amateur production playing weekends in a converted wagon hangar in Chicago. “I’ve seen my entire yearbook come alive,” he says.
Other soon-to-be stars of “Grease” include Tony Award-winning Broadway directors Walter Bobby and Jerry Zaks. the authors: Laurie Graff and John Lansing; and TV stars Elaine Kristen, Ellen Graf and Lisa Raggio.
The music centers around the T-Birds, the “Grease” gang and their girls, The Pink Ladies. The main romance between T-Birds leader, Danny Zuko, who is still yearning for his summer love, “good girl” Sandy Dombrowski. It’s a show about making friends, raging hormones, a little jealousy, and a hot stick race.
All of the members’ successful musicals leave fond memories, but “Grease” was different in that it was a band that hired young actors of about the same age—ideally, close to high school. It was often an actor’s first big break which mirrored the themes of the show.
“It comes first of everything – love first, high school first, first finding your group, first finding your group, first finding your identity. And to some extent, we were doing it all in person at the same time we were preparing the show,” Moore said. “We were pretty much growing up together.”
Members of the various companies—touring products often become agricultural bands for Broadway alternatives—have kept in touch via social media over the years. When the pandemic hit, the idea was floated to combine all the stories into a book, a way to communicate during national isolation.
“It was as intense as it was in rehearsal because everyone wanted to do it right,” Moore said. “These memories are very important to them.”
The book — published by the Chicago Review Press — shows how tight money was at first, stylist Carrie Robbins used her shower curtain to make a beauty school gown and cut a pink bathroom rug and toilet seat cover to make a cover. Poodle skirt.
It was Waissman and co-producer Maxine Fox who took the bold step of keeping the show open in 1972 despite debts and poor reviews. Weissman put it this way: “Look, we can’t afford the $20,000 we owe right now. We might not take on much more. So we’re not closing in.”
Moore credits Waissman and Fox with believing in the project and keeping a show that would mean so much to so many people. “You don’t see that much with producers now,” he said.