to Sandra Dee
(Introduction to the 1972 published script)
The 1950s have survived in the popular imagination as that decade when nothing happened. Yet in fact a great deal did: History does not stop simply because a fatherly ex-general is elected President of the United States. One thing that happened, for instance, was that the U.S. successfully prevented free elections, in direct contravention of the 1954 Geneva Accords, in a small Asian country, of which very few Americans had heard at the time. Thus, while the men who ran The Ed Sullivan Show were debating whether or not to show Elvis Presleyís pelvic gyrations on national TV, America committed itself to the war in Vietnam.
Grease does not discourse about our presence in Saigon. Nor does it contain in-depth study of such other 50s developments as the growth of mega-corporations and conglomerates, the suburban building boom that broke the backs of our cities, the separation of laborís political power from the workers by union leaders and organization men. Although set in and around an urban high school, it does not even discuss one of the decadeís dominant news stories, the massive expansion of the university system, and the directing of a whole generation of war babies toward the pursuit of college degrees. Grease is an escape, a musical designed to entertain, not to concern itself with serious political and social matters. But because it is truthful, because it spares neither the details nor the larger shapes of the narrow experience on which it focuses so tightly, Grease implies the topics I have raised, and many others. So I think it is a work of art, a firm image that projects, by means of what it does contain, everything it has chosen to leave out. And between the throbs of its ebullience, charm, and comedy, it conveys a feeling, about where we have been and how we got to where we are, that is quite near despair, if one wants to dwell on it.
Nostalgia is a pretty unhealthy emotion. In the theater it evades, more often than not, the reality of both past and present. It indulges ugly feelings of condescension toward the former ("Isnít that quaint!") and of envy that comes from petty resentment of the latter ("They donít make shows like that anymore!"). Grease, however does not evade; in that sense it is not a nostalgia show. One has to have some affectionate memory of a period one has outlived, and the musical does not scruple to show its affection for every person and thing involved; it is, I believe, utterly without hate. Yet it is objective about the triviality and emptiness of the lives it portrays, about the sweeping changes that have now rendered those lives obsolete, about the sweet manufactured insipidity of the music and lyrics that were a constant background to a 1950s adolescence.
The people of Grease are a special class of aliens, self-appointed cynics in a work-oriented, upwardly mobile world. We know from the prologue that history has played its dirty trick on them before they even appear: They are not at the reunion; they will not be found among the prosperous Mrs. Honeywells and the go-getting vice presidents of Straight-Shooters, Unlimited. Nor, on the other hand, did they actively drop out: that was left to their younger siblings and cousins. (Memory of a line too explicit, and cut from the script early on: "Course I like life. Whaddaya think I am, a beatnik?") They were the group who thought they had, or chose to have, nowhere to go. They stayed in the monotonous work routine of the lower middle class, acquiring, if they were lucky, enough status to move to one of the more nondescript suburbs, and losing their strongest virtue Ė the group solidarity that had made them, in high school, a force to be reckoned with. It is appropriate that the finale of Grease celebrates that solidarity, with the saving of its heroine, and the reclamation of its hero, from the clutches of respectability Ė a good lusty razz at the sanctimonious endings of those Sal Mineo j.d. [juvenile delinquent] movies (Somebody Up There Likes Me, remember?) wherein the tough punk is saved for society at the end. Everybody knew you didnít go to those films to see that part.
Here, as elsewhere, Grease is in possession of a truth, one of its strongest, about the media and how they worked on us. This is of course best seen in its superb, sharp-eared songs. The musical basis of 50s rock is fractured by comedy quite early in the enumeration of "Those Magic Changes." After that it is a matter of astonishment how many delicate subforms there were to the songs of the period, and how many different comic approaches Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey use to pin them down: Imitative homage ("Rock Ďn Roll Party Queen"), outright burlesque ("Sandra Dee") ironic, look-the-other-way dirty joke ("Mooning"), character satire ("Freddy, My Love"), improbable-situation parody ("Beauty School Dropout"), and, best of all to my taste, the quiet revelation of fact as an antidote to the sentimentality of the originals. Take "Itís Raining on Prom Night":
I donít even have my corsage, oh gee,
It fell down a sewer with my sisterís ID.
Truthful, admittedly, but pretty squalid. Small. Petty. Not the deep sentimental tragedy you will find in a prototypical "serious" song like "Tell Tommy I Miss Him" or "Teen Angel." This song is easier to laugh at than some of the others because it is more firmly distanced Ė not a report of something that actually happens to our heroine, just a convenient index to her momentary emotions.
"There Are Worse Things I Could Do" seems a harder case, momentarily: What is this ostensibly serious, "dramatic" song doing in the middle of this rumbustious, frivolous show? But after all, it, too, is a parody. The seriousness of the situation is equaled only by its smallness: "Even though the neighborhood/Thinks Iím trashy and no good . . ." Here again the point is not sympathy, or dramatic urgency, but history: This feeling, now obsolete, was recorded during the 1950s. Make of it what you will. The greatest achievement of Grease (and the aspect which produces the loudest laughter in the packed house every night) is its perfect deadpan objectivity about everything in it: A D.A. haircut, a new guitar, a missed period, a falsetto backup group, a preposterously accurate hand-jive. It is a loving, funny, museum of where we were, perhaps even, when we scream and stomp our feet at it, a gentle attempt to exorcize the parts of ourselves we left back there, a tribute to the many small, stupid things that happened to us during "the decade when nothing happened." If, after we see it, after we have our hearty laugh and our tender glow at the memory of where we were, we scream silently, "How did we end up here?", or shudder at the memory of the greasers we left back there Ė if we do that, it is entirely up to us.
The authors have left the case open, and the depths are there only if you want to dig for them Ė itís equally easy to have a good time and look no further. But we might as well face the fact that sooner or later we all have to say "goodbye to Sandra Dee," and to her cohorts in the field of illusion. Grease is a warm, laugh-loaded, relaxing way to get disillusioned, as honest in its comedy as any great musical of the 20s or 30s. So donít let anybody tell you they donít make shows like that anymore.
The Village Voice