When a high school produces Grease, the terrain is well-lubricated.
Grease is the 10th most-produced high school musical in North America, reported the Ohio-based Educational Theatre Association.
A quick search on YouTube reveals dozens of grainy clips from small-scale Grease endeavours across the western world.
When the Wood St. Centre’s MAD (Music, Art, Drama) program’s opens Grease this Thursday, it will be the school’s second go at the 1972 musical. It hit the Wood St. Centre stage as recently as the mid-1990s.
The play features only teenage characters—a musical rarity shared only by the likes of West Side Story and Oklahoma, says director Mary Sloan, explaining the persistent appeal of Grease in secondary schools.
“They get to be kids; play people their own age,” said Sloan.
Grease opens in the wake of a summer romance between greaser Danny Zuko and good girl Sandy Dumbrowski.
The two inadvertently find themselves sharing a senior year at Rydell High School, and their initial connection is shattered by the harsh realities of high school politics.
Back in his tough-guy role as leader of the Burger Palace Boys gang, Danny brushes off the wholesome Sandy to maintain his cool image.
Two acts worth of proms, drag races, burger joints and royal rumbles follow as the star-crossed lovers rage against the leather and lace that divide them.
Grease’s most obvious cultural impact is the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The film has gradually morphed into a pre-teen video favourite, becoming the soundtrack to hundreds of pre-pubescent sleepovers across North America. As a result, the lyrics to the Grease catalogue have inadvertently become seared into the subconscious of almost anyone under the age of 40.
Emboldened, the film’s producers followed up with the ill-fated Grease 2 in 1982. Forgettable music and a ramshackle plot soon wiped the film from the memories of all but the most diehard fans of the Grease franchise. Let’s bowl, the film’s four-minute-long ode to bowling, stands as one of cinema’s most asinine excuses to burst into song.
Filling the roles with actual teenagers adds an element of context.
“It’s true when we do it, because we’re in that age—our emotions and hormones are right there,” said Calvin Laveck, who plays Danny. ‘How to Save Water: Shower together,’ reads Laveck’s shirt.
“It’s environmental and sexual,” he said.
Professional productions typically feature cosmetically de-wrinkled adults in teenage guises.
John Travolta was 24 when the 1978 film version was shot. Olivia Newton-John was 30.
The grittiness of the original play was scrubbed out for that PG-rated 1978 film.
But the MAD program mounts the angst and aggression-laced original. The musical’s spate of religious-themed curse words, however, have hit the cutting room floor.
“This is the original Broadway play, with just a few ‘Jesus Christs’ taken out,” said Sloan.
Disney’s G-rated High School Musical has been hailed by some critics as a sanitized Grease alternative for modern audiences. Two teenagers from rival cliques find they share good “chemistry,” and must forge their way to interschool harmony through the power of song.
No teen pregnancy, no drinking or smoking—the puritanical lead characters don’t even feel the need to lock lips.
Countless community productions of Grease have raised the ire of “concerned parents,” who launched requisite letter-writing campaigns.
This version won’t be overly sanitized. MAD students will appear on stage wielding the play’s scripted liquor and cigarette props.
“That’s what the ‘50s was,” said Laveck.
However, themes of gang violence and sexual exploration led producers to scrap the play and present only musical selections to elementary school audiences.
Grease’s apparent message of conformity is what put most school officials on edge.
In the play’s final scene, Sandy throws off her prissiness and adopts a greaser persona in a bid to attract Danny.
“Better shape up, ‘Cause I need a man’,” she sings.
“That scene was the most controversial for these kids,” said Sloan.
Sandy isn’t conforming, so much as “understanding” the greaser culture of Rydell High.
“Up until then, she’s pretty judgemental,” said Sloan.
“It’s not so much, ‘Oh, I’ll become a slut and he’ll like me’ than ‘I can kind of relate to these people more and not look down my nose at them so much,” said Claire deBruyn, who plays Sandy.
A higher-than average proportion of males are in the spring MAD program, providing the male chorus needed for some of the play’s more testosterone-laden musical numbers.
In 2005, a Philadelphia theatre company attempted to mount an all-female version of Grease. The play’s licensing agent pulled the plug, arguing that they had irreparably changed the script.
Greased lightning is the play’s tribute to the eras’ car culture. After all, this was the 1950s, a full 20 years before OPEC and the Japanese would wreck tail fins and chrome for everybody.
The Burger Palace Boys take a beat-up car and transform it into a sleek vehicle of adolescent sexuality, all the while belting out line after line dripping with innuendo.
“With new pistons, plugs and shocks I can get off my rocks / you know that I ain’t bragging, she’s a real pussy wagon.”
Greased lightning is usually played by a painted slab of plywood or cardboard. Calling in a favour from a local sheet metal company, the MAD program will roll out a built-from-scratch, half size car—complete with working wheels and lights.
Much like other depictions of 1950s youth culture (Rebel without a Cause, American Graffiti, etc.) adults are non-existent in the Grease narrative. Danny and Sandy occupy a subculture free from the influence of authority or responsibility.
Grease occupies an idyllic, fun 1950s: no McCarthyism, no threats of nuclear war, no evidence of the era’s explicit racial segregation, and somehow, everybody can afford a car.
Vince Fontaine, a Dick Clark-esque 1950s disk jockey, is arguably the play’s only over-19 presence. Just like the omnipresence of Wolfman Jack in the car radios of 1973’s American Graffiti, Fontaine looms over the narrative, occasionally guiding the action with a well-spun .45.
Many of the cast of Grease have never needed to fire up a turntable in order to play their favourite Elvis song—not to mention inject a litre of Brylcreem into their hair.
Sloan ordered an intensive campaign of 50s studies in the lead-up to rehearsals.
“It was a lot of, ‘Well, when I was a kid,’” said Sloan.
Grease runs June 3 to 6 and 10 to 13 at 8 p.m. at the Wood St. Centre. The June 6 matinee is at 2 p.m.
Contact Tristin Hopper at