Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Dance Party: A Hickey From Kenickie

Grease has been on my mind this week, initiated I'm sure by the death of Jeff Conaway (I wrote about that yesterday). What a long, lucrative life this piece of mediocrity has had. Yes, I confess to being an anti-fan of Grease. I hate the underlying theme of the show, that acceptance can only be gained by subverting your own personality and going along with the crowd. It's a lousy lesson which is being taught in junior highs and high schools, community theaters, colleges, and everywhere else Grease is produced. Yuck.

I should have a soft spot for the piece, as it was my appearance in it which earned my Equity Card. The production was at the Lagoon Opera House, located in an amusement park outside Salt Lake City. My best friend was attending the University of Utah, earning her MFA in Directing, and she had asked me to come up from L.A. to appear in her Masters Thesis production of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (at left). I came up a few months early to hang out with my friend at the same time that the Lagoon folks lost an actor for their summer stock company. As soon as you could say Ra-ma la-ma la-ma / ka ding-a de ding de dong / shoo-bop sha wad-da wad-da / yipp-it-y boom de boom / chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo-bop / dip da-dip da-dip doo-wop da doo-bee doob / Boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy boog-e-dy shoo-by doo-wop she-bop / sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na yip-pit-ty boom de boom / a wop ba-ba lu-mop a wop bam boom, I had a gig. (And aren't those lyrics which would make even Noel Coward proud?)

I disliked the show even then, but could not turn down the job playing Teen Angel and Johnny Casino. I did learn how much fun the show was to do, it's just not all that much fun to watch.

But I'm clearly in the minority on that one, since Grease will be turning 40 years old next year, and is still being revived constantly. That first New York production ran years and years, and when it closed, it was the longest running musical in Broadway history. It has since been surpassed, of course, but it currently ranks as #13. And that movie! I only saw it once, but again, I know I'm in the minority; there is a whole generation who grew up with repeated viewings of Grease. It has a distasteful moral: Are you being bullied in school? The way to solve that problem is to put on some leather and start smoking. Despite the film's cast being ludicrously old to play high school students (Stockard Channing? A teenager? Really?), Grease the movie was a smash, and surpassed The Sound of Music as the most successful movie musical of all time, a position it still holds in America (Momma Mia! was the bigger hit internationally).

This week's Dance Party must have depressed poor Jeff Conaway, who is playing second fiddle to John Travolta in this clip. I mentioned yesterday that Jeff had to watch his former understudy take his role in the movie; that disappointment must have been multiplied when the decision was made to give this number, "Greased Lightnin'" to Travolta (in the stage version, the song is always sung by Conaway's character Kenickie). It's also worth noting that these lyrics, which are pretty raunchy in places, have since been sanitized by the authors in order to make the show more attractive to high schools and conservative groups. In fact, the whole show has a tamer version available for licensing, a version which has removed all smoking, drinking, and lewd slang, as well as the subplot regarding a pregnancy scare.

But here, from the film, is the original version, in which our heroic hoodlums hope their new hot rod will get them "lots of tit" and predict "the girls'll cream." Classy.