Probably more than you ever wanted to think about the musical Grease...
Here I was, minding my own business (I never mind my own business, but here I was), and I was doing a typical Saturday morning Facebook scroll. All very typical. And it was a Saturday. And in one of the groups that I’m a part of there was a post talking about musicals with subject matter that make it very difficult to perform in the 2018 world we live in. You know, shows where the message is perhaps a bit too naïve now, or perhaps a bit misogynistic, maybe a little racist. Things that maybe weren’t ALL that questionable when these shows premiered, but now it’s tough to sell to a “woke” 2018 audience.
And it’s no secret that some musicals suffered from those issues even a decade or so after they premiered. It’s not just now. And, of course, there are shows where they’re parodying inappropriateness, or shows where the main point is to SEE how backwards the time was. And people, as people are wont to be, vary in their reactions. Probably a microcosm of how non-musical things alarm them on a daily/weekly basis. Some might be actually upset by these shows being performed, and some on the other side might lament our ability to see something for what it was, and how it’s “harmless”, etc…
And I’m not going to comment on that. People have their own battles they choose to suit up for, which is to each their own. But I’m sure some of these concerns aren’t new to the musical theatre enthusiast. Some examples of subject matter that people feel different about today than when these shows premiered:
South Pacific – specifically dealing with the portrayal of the character Bloody Mary.
Annie Get Your Gun – some of the Native American stuff, the idea of Annie losing the shooting competition on purpose to protect Frank’s ego…
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – Particularly the “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” bits, “The House of Marcus Lycus”, etc…
The Producers, Spamalot – A good number of derogatory gay jokes.
Peter Pan – Some of the Native American stuff.
Carousel – The idea that love softens abuse.
And on and on…Now, I’ll say I don’t share all of these above, this is a collective list of sorts from the group…And as I said before (and I’ll say again), people interface with this issue in different ways. The idea isn’t to lecture someone on how much they SHOULD be caring about the grave injustices appearing in musical theatre. And surely there’s a larger discussion to be had (not here). But one show brought up is the oft-produced musical Grease.
Now, I want to set some parameters; I’ve done the show a bunch of times, Music Directed it, Conducted it, played Danny Zuko & Sonny (in 2 separate productions at the same time, no less…), and have seen the movie probably a dozen times or so. But for reference’s sake, let’s deal with the MOVIE version in this blog. Just as more people have seen it, and I think it articulates the real point that I was trying to make. Now, for those of you not TERRIBLY familiar, the movie and the musical are very different. Like additional characters, a complete car race, some different songs, many different plot points. And the moment in question is a completely different song than the stage production. In the stage production, the penultimate number is called “All Choked Up”, where as in the film it’s “You’re the One That I Want.” We’re dealing with the latter. Let me set the scene, just so we’re all on the same page…
It’s the graduation outdoor party/fair. There are vendors set up, a pie-throwing booth where you can hit the gym teacher with a pie (which the T-Birds can’t manage to do, while he mocks them, then the brainiac Eugene gets him square in the face), there’s a Ferris Wheel…it’s an impressive showcase for a high school, let’s just say that. In the previous scene, Kenicke was supposed to race the leader of a cross-town rival gang, which is the entire purpose of creating his car “Greased Lightning”, and he gets knocked out by someone accidentally slamming his head with the car door, so his “lieutenant” Danny Zuko takes his place, and beats the other gang, thereby winning the rival’s car. None of this exists in the musical, by the way, just the film. Afterwards, Sandy – who’s been watching the race from afar, sings a Reprise of “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee”, where she sings the lyric:
Look at me, there has to be
Something more than what they see,
Wholesome and pure
Oh so scared and unsure
A poor man’s Sandra Dee
Then Frenchy comes in, asks if Sandy is ok, and Sandy says she has an idea (she does…), and would Frenchy help? Then Sandy sings the rest:
Sandy, you must start anew
Don’t you know what you must do?
Hold your head high
Take a deep breath and sigh
“Goodbye to Sandra Dee…”
Then we’re caught up…we join this graduation festival.
After the coach tells the T-Birds that YES, he did flunk them in Phys Ed, he says they’ll still get their diplomas, if they come to Summer School. Which enrages them, hilariously. Then we see Rizzo riding the Ferris Wheel, and a concerned Kenicke--who tried the best his little grease-ball heart knew how to react to Rizzo’s pregnancy, as she hardened up and said it wasn’t his, and don’t worry about it-- races toward the Ferris Wheel in an over-protective way, saying she shouldn’t be riding it if she’s pregnant. She yells to him that it was a false alarm, that she ISN’T pregnant, and he (relieved) rushes to her and says that he’ll make an honest woman out of her, to which she says “if that’s the line, I ain’t biting.” His response is “That’s a bona fide offer.” And she returns with “Well, it ain’t moonlight and roses, but…” and they kiss. THEN in walks Danny Zuko, in a beautiful letterman’s sweater. White, crisp, very un-like the greaser Danny. The T-Birds rush over to him, and here’s the dialogue exchange:
SONNY – Hey Zuko!
DOODY – You gotta be kidding me!
PUTZIE – Whoah, whoah, whoah!
DOODY – What is this, Halloween?
PUTZIE – Where did you swipe this letterman’s sweater?
DANNY – While you tools were out stealing hubcaps, I lettered in track.
DOODY – I can’t believe it…Danny Zuko…turned jock?
DANNY – That’s right. I did.
SONNY – What are you doing, deserting us?
DANNY – Well you guys can’t follow a leader all your lives, can you? Oh come on guys, you know you mean a lot to me, it’s just that Sandy does too, and uh, I’m going to do anything I can to get her, that’s all.
Then, on cue, in walks Sandy, with the Pink Ladies in tow as her entourage, dressed to the nines in the antithesis of what we know of Sandy to this point. Black leather pants, teased out hair, lipstick, smoking a cigarette. The guys are visibly impressed, whistling, and Danny reacts in pure shock. He exclaims “Sandy!”, and she coolly responds “Tell me about it, stud.”
And the bass kicks in, and we’re on our way into the number.
The song is pretty straightforward from there.
I got chills, they’re multiplying
And I’m losing control
‘Cause the power you’re supplying
And then Sandy sings:
You better shape up, ‘cause I need a man
And my heart is set on you.
You better shape up, you better understand
To my heart I must be true
Nothing left, nothing left for me to do
You’re the one that I want…etc…
Then they keep repeating the title of the song, until the 2nd verse.
If you’re filled with affection
You’re too shy to convey
Meditate my direction
Feel your way.
I better shape up, ‘cause you need a man
I need a man who can keep me satisfied.
I better shape up, if I’m gonna prove
You better prove that my faith is justified.
Are you sure?
Yes, I’m sure down deep inside
You’re the one that I want…etc…
And it’s basically just more of that until the end of the song. And throughout, they’re moving through elements of the carnival, with some clever choreography, and back up is being sung by the T-Birds (coupled off) with the Pink Ladies.
From this point, there’s basically two schools of thought on what just happened in the movie/musical. The most common:
“Wow. Sandy basically just sold out, became a bit of a ho, just to get Danny. Girls everywhere, what a great message. Don’t be yourself, that doesn’t work, as Sandy proved throughout the movie, as she was made fun of by the Pink Ladies for being too wholesome. You really need to stoop to this level of skankiness to get the guy.”
That’s most people’s response. There’s also some lighter-hearted responses of
“Well, it’s not making the statement that it’s what ALL girls should do, relax. It’s just Sandy deciding she might as well fit in and play the game. It’s a musical –it’s fun.”
My wife Sarah, who’s smarter than me in every way, and is a musical theatre performer herself, AND has been in Grease as well, mostly agrees with the first sentiment expressed.
And where do I stand? The 2nd sentiment? No, actually you’ll find I’ve taken a position even further away. You be the judge.
The musical deals with a fictional high school, these Greasers who think they run the school, play pranks on the teachers and nerds, but in most ways are obviously childish and shallow. It’s the 1950’s, so they’re not terribly hard as a gang. The Pink Ladies also think they run the school, picking on Patty Simcox, the ambitious cheerleader/student council president, and while they take in Sandy to an extent, they do think she’s a prude, a square, and incredibly naïve to an annoying degree. But they like what she’s doing to Danny, making him squirm.
But one by one, they start to deal with life cropping up. Rizzo has a pregnancy scare, which affects her toughness when it appears it’s all the school is talking about, leading her to sing “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, which is a nice moment of humility coming from her character. Frenchy decides to drop out of high school to go to Beauty School, which she fails miserably at. Marty fancies herself much older than she is, has writing flings with dozens of servicemen, tries to get with Vince Fontaine, and then learns that he’s kind of an older creep, and realizes maybe she needs to slow down. Kenicke isn’t able to compete in the Greased Lightning car race, and instead has to rely on Danny, and has his manhood questioned when Rizzo wants nothing to do with him after her pregnancy is found out.
But then we have this final scene, which I think is all about them growing up, finally. They’re at graduation, and it’s an actual graduation from them being immature young punks, to actually realizing that it’s time to grow up. Rizzo and Kenicke make up -- not because he’s a “pig”, as she says earlier in the show -- but because he’s changed and grown up, saying he’d “make an honest woman of her”, something that it seems she’d wanted all along from her response. Imperfect Kenicke and Rizzo, trying their best.
The T-Birds face reality that they were flunked, and then Eugene, who they’ve bullied the whole year, comes up and delivers a strike, hitting the coach in the face, after the T-Birds failed miserably to do so. Then they hear Danny telling them that they ‘can’t follow a leader all their lives’. Also, more subtly, Marty – who seems on the surface as way too good to be coupled off with Sonny, seems to get over her “older-man-ambitions” with Vince Fontaine, and the soldiers that she sings about it “Freddy My Love”, and is now together with Sonny.
And then there’s Danny Zuko. Let’s not forget, this movie starts with Danny and Sandy on the beaches, truly in love, with Danny being a romantic, tender guy – and it’s something out of a romance novel, complete with the over the top music “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”. It’s why there’s such a shock when they meet at the high school, and he’s COMPLETELY different, and really a bit of a jerk to her, all in the vein of trying to be “cool” in front of the gang. Something that he knows is wrong from a reaction shot we see from him as she’s walking away. Then he’s trying, and failing, to get her back through most of the show. He can’t figure out how to drop the persona to be with her. That’s why when he comes in with the letterman’s sweater, it’s a complete change, shocking to the T-Birds, and he’s got no problem explaining to them that he’ll do anything to get Sandy back. That’s all he cares about now.
So, the idea is that he’s willing to completely change his ways for her. To mature, to grow up, and to start acting a little less selfish, and a little more SELF-LESS. He’s actually trying. Not perfectly achieving it, but trying.
Sandy, on the other hand, has to grow up, too. I think the trick is that most people look at the show and ask why should SHE have to change? She’s the one who doesn’t want this life that they have, just wants the old Danny Zuko back. But let’s not forget a couple of things: She quite quickly begins dating the Football player that she meets at the Pep Rally. She tries to fit in with the girls, going to the slumber party, getting her ears pierced. She goes to the American Bandstand Hand Jive dance thing with Danny. She joins the cheerleading squad after Patty told her to tryout. Sandy isn’t really sure what she wants, except to fit in. With one large exception.
She sings “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, where she sings these important lyrics:
You know, I’m just a fool who’s willing
To sit around and wait for you.
But baby, can’t you see
There’s nothing else for me to do?
But now there’s nowhere to hide
Since you pushed my love aside
I’m out of my head
My head is saying “Fool forget him”
My heart is saying “Don’t let go.
Hold on to the end.”
And that’s what I intend to do
I’m hopelessly devoted to you.
And let’s remember where the phrase “hopelessly devoted” comes from. Marty, at the slumber party while talking about her many guys to whom she’s writing, is asked “How do you keep up with them?” To which she replies “I’m hopelessly devoted to each one.” This is a phrase that resonates clearly with Sandy, and the reason she picks it up later, commenting that that’s not how it’s supposed to be. To be truly hopelessly devoted, it happens with one person. Someone you actually love. Which it turns out, even after Danny’s been pretty lame and childish and rude, she actually does love him, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Now, if all you’re trying to do is fit this show into your preconceived notion of how terrible the message is, nothing’s likely to shake you from that. But all throughout the show, she’s TRYING and TRYING with Danny, and things just keep going wrong. Sometimes it is absolutely Danny’s fault, sometimes it’s a bit more circumstantial. But she tries with the Diner scene where everyone else rushes in after he tries to hide them with the menus, she’s with him at the Drive-In where he gives her his ring. They’re at the hand-jive dance having the time of their lives until Sonny (for some reason) whisks her away and Cha-Cha breaks in, and Danny just goes with it. So I think her trajectory is truly what she says it is. She’s hopelessly in love with/devoted to him, and she’s going to do whatever she has to do to reach him. And I think she realizes to actually REACH him, she has to wake him up a little. She has to metaphorically smack him upside the head, get him to listen, and then she can tell him ‘like it is’.
And I think that’s exactly what happens. She sings in her “Sandra Dee Reprise” that she’s “so scared and unsure”, and that it’s time to say goodbye to that. So she musters up some courage, asks for Frenchy’s help, and begins a transformation to shock the living daylights out of the love of her life. Not necessarily changing into a completely different person to fit in with the gang, but enough to make a final push at reaching the once-incredibly-sweet-romantic Danny she met over the summer, who’s since turned into/reverted back to the egg-head-ego-driven-pompous-yet-insecure Zuko. And little does she know as she’s in the midst of this makeover, Danny has decided the same exact thing. ‘It’s time to grow up and be what SHE needs me to be for her’. Which ironically is exactly what Kenicke is trying to do with Rizzo. Grow up and be what Rizzo needs from him.
Now we return to the lyrics of “You’re the One That I Want”, where Sandy sings:
You better shape up, ‘cause I need a man
And my heart is set on you.
Meaning, ‘I’m a lost cause for you, I’m in love with you, there’s no changing that, but you need to know that what we’ve been doing isn’t going to work for me. I’m all-in for you, but I need you to grow up and stop being a little toddler concerned with being “cool” and “chill”, I need an actual man’.
To my heart I must be true.
Well, that’s an interesting lyric. Either she’s saying that this is who she truly is (questionable message), OR she’s saying ‘I’ve been trying to make sense of all of this high school stuff, and the one thing that makes the most sense to me is that I love you. So I’m letting that lead me in my decision-making here, cause it’s the thing I’m most sure of. And there’s “nothing left for me to do.” I just gotta go for it, and smack you upside the head.’
Then I think comes the most important lyric of them all for Sandy:
If you’re filled with affection
You’re too shy to convey
Meditate in my direction
Feel your way.
I think what she’s really saying here is ;listen, you’re a bit of a child. And you’ve got this image that you’re trying to portray in front of everyone else. I get it. But I know the real you, because I saw it at the beach, I’ve seen it as you’ve been trying with me one-on-one before the gang comes around, but you’re really just a typical insecure high schooler, I get it. So turn off your brain for a second and come here, since that’s the only way you’re gonna even hear what I’m saying. You’re a teenage boy, I get it. That’s why I’m doing this, so I can actually get your attention to tell you these things.’
To which his response is “I better shape up, cause you need a man.” And “I’m gonna prove that your faith is justified.”
And to me, that’s the whole point. Danny came into the final scene a changed guy. ‘I’m now going to do whatever it takes to win Sandy back, including leaving behind my entire persona, the T-Birds and the Greaser life’. So he was ready for the message, and ready to stop being so selfish. Sandy chose to let love lead the way to reach out to Danny the only way she knew how – to be forceful and assertive/aggressive enough with him, talking to him in a way he could understand, telling him he better get his act together, and fast. And the joy of the moment comes when they’ve BOTH decided, independently of each other, and without each other’s knowledge, that love was more important than the idea of themselves that they were wrapped up in. So goodbye ego, goodbye selfishness, hello thinking more about the other person, and hello love.
Now, Sarah’s main complaint, and likely yours, is that I’m putting a little too much onto the musical. That that’s way more complex that what it’s actually doing or saying. “It’s GREASE for goodness’ sake…” Or, maybe a Director could pull that out of a production, but that’s not really what’s on the page. Or if that’s all true, why have I not felt that way? Surely high schools across the nation are getting the first message of “don’t be true to yourself”.
Well, and perhaps I’m a bit too loftily thinking about how selfish the phrase of “just be true to yourself” can be, because we’re innately selfish creatures as it is, and true love is about doing LESS for you, and MORE for the person you love. Which is why we ALWAYS feel better giving gifts and surprising people with sweet intentions than when we’re just taking and taking for ourselves.
But this is a musical theatre blog, and I give you this Grease dilemma. What are YOUR thoughts? Perhaps I’m thinking of Grease too thoroughly than its intended story arc. But wrap your brain around it, and you be the judge!
If you’ve got thoughts, comment!
(Be civil, now…)