Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. You have some good times in a period of your life, time goes by and you feel like going back to that time period. I am guessing someone in the late 70s felt nostalgic about late 1950s high school life in America, leading to the creation of “Grease,” one of John Travolta’s first hits. The life and time are very dated today, but every now and then you still hear the soundtrack on classic rock stations. Clearly the lyricists did their jobs right.
This is not my favourite musical. It’s cutesy with catchy tunes, but my top two musicals are “The Blues Brothers” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” If it involves car chases, Ray Charles, the Time Warp, Meat Loaf, and Carrie Fisher with a rocket launcher then count me in. I have less enthusiasm for Danny Zucko singing about his summer love for Sandy. But the movie was available for a dollar on iTunes during an evening when I had nothing to do in University, so I might as well kill two hours and see why it is an enduring success.
Set amid a world of high school greasers, guys with a lot of grease in their hair, and Pink Ladies, the girl gang, “Grease” tells the story of seniors Danny Zucko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olson (Olivia Newton-John). Danny and Sandy met and fell in love during the summer and thought they would never see each other again since Sandy thought she was going back to her native Australia. Turns out, change of plan, she’s staying and finishing her senior year at Rydell High School, where Danny studies.
“Study” is a bit of a stretch as Danny prefers to hang out with his gang the T-Birds, consisting of his pals Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), Doody (Barry Pearl), Sonny (Michael Tucci) and Putzie (Kelly Ward). Meanwhile Sandy joins the Pink Ladies consisting of Rizzo (Stockard Channing), Frenchy (Didi Conn), Marty (Dinah Manoff) and Jan (Jamie Donelly). Danny and Sandy sing different accounts of their encounter, Danny bragging about it like he scored a goal while Sandy has a more romantic view on the whole thing. When they realize they are in the same school, Danny tries to act aloof in order to keep up appearances in front of his pals while Sandy is shocked at being ignored.
The rest of the school year is spent as Danny and Sandy navigate their relationship while trying to keep face with their respective social group. Danny initially wants to keep up his bad boy image but eventually decides winning Sandy matters more so he turns to sport. With the help of coach Calhoun (Sid Caesar, a comedic icon of the 1950s) he becomes a long-distance runner.
Subplots involving the minor characters include a possible pregnancy, breakups and conflicts with rival gang the Scorpions. The gang rivalry leads to a car race in the L.A River, a setting of many car races in that city.
Of course al of the major and minor conflicts are all solved by the end of the school year, right in time for the last day of school and for one big dance-off involving the whole cast.
High school hasn’t changed that much since the 1959, but the clothes, music, and cars have all evolved so it is rather retro to see a musical recreating that particular era. The cars in stand out the most as cars today look all the same and lack personality. George Lucas honors such vehicles in his own slice of 50s nostalgia, “American Graffiti.”
I find “Grease” to be a rather safe musical that features actors in their late 20s playing high school kids who solve all of their problems by randomly bursting into songs. However I can’t deny the soundtrack sure is catchy.