background and analysis by Scott Miller
The year is 1959, a pivotal moment in American cultural history, when rock and roll was giving birth to the Sexual Revolution and everything in America culture was about to be turned upside down. Record companies were releasing more than a hundred singles every week and the country was about to explode. Grease, generally considered a trivial little musical about The Fabulous Fifties, is really the story of America’s tumultuous crossing over from the 50s to the 60s, throwing over repression and tradition for freedom and adventure (and a generous helping of cultural chaos), a time when the styles and culture of the disengaged and disenfranchised became overpowering symbols of teenage power and autonomy. Originally a rowdy, dangerous, over-sexed, and insightful piece of alternative theatre, Grease was inspired by the rule-busting success of Hair and shows like it, rejecting the trappings of other Broadway musicals for a more authentic, more visceral, more radical theatre experience that revealed great cultural truths about America.
An experience largely forgotten by most productions of the show today.
Like Hair before it and The Rocky Horror Show which would come a year later, Grease is a show about repression versus freedom in American sexuality, about the clumsy, tentative, but clearly emerging sexual freedom of the late 1950s, seen through the lens of the middle of the Sexual Revolution in the 1970s. It’s about the near carnal passion 1950s teenagers felt for their rock and roll, the first art form that actually changed human sexuality. (The phrase rock and roll was originally African American urban slang for sexual intercourse, going as far back as the 1920s, and it made its way onto many rhythm and blues recordings before the 1950s.) As theatre, Grease finds its roots in the rawness, the rowdiness, the lack of polish that made Hair and other experimental pieces in the 1960s such cultural phenomena. The impact of Hair on Grease can even be seen in the two shows’ titles, both taking as their primary symbols the hairstyles of young Americans as a form of rebellion and cultural declaration of independence. Just as the characters of Hair and Grease reject conformity and authority, so too do both Hair and Grease as theatre pieces. Like Hair, Grease is an anti-musical, closer to the experimental theatre pieces of New York’s off off Broadway movement in the 60s, and light years from other musicals running on Broadway at the time, like No No Nanette (in a terrible revival), Sugar, The Rothschilds, Applause, or A Little Night Music.
Goodbye to Sandra Dee
Also like Hair, Grease is about authenticity, the watchword of that first rock and roll generation. Teen sexuality has been an issue in America since the invention of the rumble seat, always moving forward like a freight train, forever going faster and farther; and Grease is a snapshot of America right before teen sexuality exploded, examining the early cracks in the armor of middle-class "respectability" and repression, the fantasy American Dream that never was but that came beaming into Americans’ homes over the television airwaves. Movie star Sandra Dee becomes Grease‘s overarching metaphor for the artificiality of adult American life, a symbol that needed piercing. Sandra Dee was a big star at this point, and just in the two years that Grease spans, she released The Restless Years (1958), The Reluctant Debutante (1958), A Stranger in My Arms (1959), Gidget (1959), Imitation of Life (1959), The Wild and the Innocent (1959), and A Summer Place (1959), jumping back and forth between empty-headed teen comedies and stark melodrama. Today, it may be hard to understand what Sandra Dee represented, but she was the poster girl for the big studios’ attempts to make teen movies, a genre which was up until that point the exclusive territory of small, low-budget producers like the ubiquitous Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood, and others). But the studios’ teen flicks were inevitably artificial in the extreme, creating a freakish – and clueless – adult imitation of the teen world, a kind of cultural Frankenstein, that teens could see right through. To savvy teenagers, Sandra Dee was a teen sellout, and in a world where authenticity was the goal, there was nothing worse. She was a fake – in her life, in her acting style, and in her onscreen emotions. Teen audiences didn’t want that; they wanted High School Hellcats and Teenage Doll. But adults loved Sandra Dee; she reassured them that their teen was a "good girl."
And many American girls took Sandra Dee as a role model – but not the real Sandra Dee, the cheery public character Sandra Dee, confusing her onscreen persona with her real life. Millions of Americans in postwar America were trying to live an American Dream that was pure fiction, particularly for the working class; and that fiction is symbolized by Sandra Dee, a fiction at the heart of Sandy’s arc in Grease. But on another level, the metaphor gets even deeper – and this demonstrates the craftsmanship of this script – because Sandy’s relationship with Danny mirrors Sandra Dee’s difficult real life relationship with Bobby Darin. As Rizzo taunts Sandy with "Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee," she doesn’t really know how dark that dark underbelly really is…
Darphne Merkin wrote in The New York Times in 2005 at the time of Sandra Dee’s death:
…the "darling, pink world," as she herself characterized it, that Sandra Dee was thought to inhabit by her fans had always been a grotesque mockery, plagued not by an overripened case of virginity but by childhood incest. The girl with brimming brown eyes and a fizzy lilt to her voice was born Alexandria Zuck in Bayonne, New Jersey. Her parents divorced when she was five; her father, a bus driver, disappeared from her life shortly thereafter, and her mother, Mary, married a much-older real-estate entrepreneur named Eugene Duvan within a few years. . . Worse yet, Dee's devoted but manipulative mother turned a conveniently blind eye to the defiled sexual appetites of her new husband. Duvan, who liked to tease his wife that he married her "just to get Sandy," started having sex with his beautiful stepdaughter when she was 8 and continued doing so almost until his death when she was 12.
As a result, Sandra Dee later suffered from anorexia, depression, and alcoholism throughout her life. All this made her cynically manufactured façade of sweetness even darker and more complex. This was the conventional, repressed, hypocritical, manufactured life from which Sandy Dumbrowski must escape.
The thing is, [her career] happened so fast, was over practically before it began, that we can almost be forgiven for misconstruing her as a cultural simulacrum: a blip on the monitor, a media invention, an adorable incarnation of a feminine ideal of the reluctant or unwitting nymphet, rather than a flesh-and-blood creature with needs and wishes (not to mention raging demons) of her own.
Grease looks at the fifties with twenty-twenty hindsight and it sees the darkness and deception of the decade’s role models and authority figures. Sandra Dee wasn’t happy in her real life because she was never allowed to be herself – to be authentic – and Sandy Dumbrowski suffers the same problem. Sandra Dee represents not just strict morality and virginity in Grease, but the entire manufactured mainstream culture of 1950s America, a culture the kids of Grease reject.
Rizzo’s pretty great at choosing metaphors…
Still, for most kids, the fifties were a time when America caught its breath. After decades of upheaval – World War I, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, and the Korean War – suddenly times weren’t so hard and the world didn’t seem as dangerous. (Kids were told about the threat of a Cold War nuclear attack, but it didn’t mean much to them and didn’t really affect their lives.) Before the 50s, if kids worked it was for the family’s survival. During the 50s, if kids worked it was because they were saving up to buy a car or buy parts for the car they had. It was a happy, playful decade for many (white) Americans, even those in the working class, as family cars transformed adult culture and rock and roll transformed teen culture. And one of the points of Grease is that kids of the 50s could afford to worry only about their own trivial problems; there was no world war, no Hitler to fear anymore. Though Grease implies many complex things, it is actually about the ordinary, everyday lives of a group of teenagers. Their chief worries are whether or not they’ll have a date to the dance and can they get the car.
But the fifties were only a brief window of respite before the dark, dangerous times would return, with Vietnam, race riots, the anti-war movement, Watergate, and recession. Today, some conservatives idealize the 1950s as a time of moral clarity, patriotism, family stability, and traditional values, a time to which America should return. But that 1950s never actually existed. What looks to them like moral clarity was actually well-masked racism, sexism, and economic oppression. The only people who were safe and comfortable were middle class and upper class white men (the only demographics that still idealize that time). What they see as patriotism was more like nationalistic terrorism, demagoguery, witch hunts. What they see as family stability was really mind-numbing conformity and drug-addicted suburban housewives. What they label "traditional values" were nothing short of race, class, and gender warfare. And it all boiled down to two central bogeymen, inextricably linked in the minds of the mainstream: sex and rock and roll. The Twin Gods of Grease.
As Grace Palladino asks in Teenagers: An American History, "Did the world really work better when girls had no choice in life but to get married, blacks knew their servile place, and kids who lived outside the charmed circle of upper-middle class life were invisible?"
The story of Grease is set during the 1958-59 school year, at exactly the same time that America was facing the preliminary rumblings of the Sexual Revolution that would arrive in the mid-1960s and blossom in the 70s, only to be ended by AIDS in the early 80s. And like The Rocky Horror Show did later, Grease shows us how America reacted to this tumultuous time though two of its main characters. Danny Zuko (along with Rizzo and Kenickie) represents that segment of American teens already sexually active in the 1940s and 50s, who ultimately frees the conforming Sandy to express her sexuality without fear or shame, leading her into a new life and a new decade of sexual freedom – a theme also at the heart, though far more cautiously, of the 1959 film A Summer Place, starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Sandy Dumbrowski (notice how ethnic all the character names are, to suggest that they are working class) is mainstream America, reluctant to throw off the sexual repression of the conforming 1950s for the sexual adventuring of the 1960s. That is the story of Grease –and the story of America – the way sex was changing and the part rock and roll and cars and drive-ins played in that transformation. In the movie, the central love story may be the point, but on stage the romance is just a device for making a larger, more interesting point. Grease isn’t about Danny and Sandy (which is why fifteen of the show’s twenty songs have nothing at all to do with them); Grease is about how rock and roll changed sex in America. And those who criticize Grease for its "immoral" ending don’t understand what this show is really about – and they really haven’t paid attention to the lyric of "All Choked Up."
The "Word" Made Flesh
Grease first opened in Chicago, where its story is set, in 1971. To a large extent, the 1970s marked the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution. It was the decade that gave permanent berth to both the concept musical and the rock musical, both explored during the sixties but now taking their rightful place in mainstream musical theatre. These were shows that rejected the sunny optimism of earlier decades and instead revealed the feelings of rage and loss that pervaded America in this era of Vietnam and Watergate. The concept musical had been germinating since Marc Blitzstein’s very political, very angry The Cradle Will Rock in 1937, but it wasn’t until Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince’s Company in 1970 that the concept musical was in a position to change everything. The rock musical had been born with Expresso Bongo in 1958 and became mainstream with Hair in 1968, but it became a fixture on Broadway during the seventies, partly because the definition of rock was so pliable, so inclusive by then. A rock musical could be Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Rocky Horror Show, or Grease, none of which sounded anything like the others; and yet they all shared a disdain for authority, a taste for rebellion, and a sexual frankness to which only the language of rock and roll could give full voice.
The phenomenon that was Grease began its long life in the summer of 1971 at Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theatre, in which its authors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey were acting ensemble members. The show opened February 5, 1971, in a basement theatre where an audience of a hundred sat on the floor on newspaper. The set consisted of backdrops painted on brown paper. At that time the show had far less music, far less plot, and no central characters. But it did have infectious songs like "Greased Lightning," "Beauty School Dropout," "Those Magic Changes," and "We Go Together," and a solo for Patty Simcox that was later cut, "Yuck." New York producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox saw the show and recognized its surprising honesty and the appeal of its rough edges. Two of the Chicago cast members, Dinah Manoff (Marty) and James Canning (Doody) would play those roles on Broadway. Manoff would continue her role in the film.
Once the producers decided to bring Grease to New York, they set about finding a production staff. One agent tried to sell them on hiring the bright young director-choreographer Michael Bennett, but they didn’t think he was right for Grease. They were probably right. They asked Gerald Freedman to direct, since he had helmed the original off Broadway production of Hair, but Freedman turned them down without even reading the script. They finally settled on director Tom Moore and choreographer Patricia Birch who had created such interesting, real staging and choreography for The Me Nobody Knows¸ a show about homeless kids. The producers wanted everything about the show to feel rough, unpolished, de-glamorized – honest and authentic, like Hair – a concept the subsequent film and revivals did not understand. According to Adrienne Barbeau’s autobiography There Are Worse Things I Could Do, the producers hired Moore to direct because "Tom's strength was getting performances that were so realistic the audience didn't believe they were watching actors. That's what Ken [Waissman] and Maxine [Fox] wanted for Grease. What they didn't want was a cotton-candy musical."
It’s easy to hear on the original 1972 Grease cast album the raw, pure, untrained sound of 1950s rock and roll. Grease knows that sound because its creators lived it, the sound of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley. The earliest rock and roll was never about polish or precision; this was the punk rock of the fifties, purposefully rejecting mainstream necessities like playing in tune, singing on pitch, keeping the tempo, staying together. It was a wholesale rejection of the values of their parents and their parents’ culture, an aggressive fuck you to Pat Boone and the like. Three decades later, American kids in the Reagan Era (The Neo-50s) would rebel in much the same way with the creation of punk rock. Just as the greasers sported leather jackets, engineer boots, crazy hairstyles, and other rebellious fashions, so did their descendants, the punks, have their rebellious fashion statements in tattoos, piercings, and occult symbols. And now, so does the hip-hop community. Critic Michael Feingold wrote in his introduction to the 1972 published Grease script:
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 – 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 – 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 didn’t go to those films to see that part.
After only three and a half weeks of rehearsal (again, in an effort to keep it from looking too polished), Grease opened off Broadway at the Eden Theatre on Valentine’s Day 1972. The reviews were negative to mixed. One hapless television reviewer said, "The worst thing I’ve ever seen opened tonight at the Eden Theatre." It ran 128 performances anyway. And then the show moved uptown in June 1972 to the Broadhurst Theatre. In December 1979, Grease broke Broadway’s long-run record. It made several moves during its Broadway run and finally closed April 13, 1980, after a total run of 3,388 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards but won none. The original production paid back its investors four thousand percent. The show also ran for over two years in Mexico under the title Vaselina, becoming the longest-running musical there. The watered-down 1978 film version starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and Stockard Channing became one of the most successful movie musicals of all time.
After fifteen years of declining numbers, the teenage population in America began to grow again in the early 1990s – "They’re Back," said one Business Week cover – and so a glitzy, brainless, neon-scorched revival of Grease opened on Broadway in May 1994, painfully misdirected and misunderstood by Tommy Tune’s protégé, director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun (who would years later direct a brilliant revival of Big River for Deaf West Theatre). Completely ignoring (or just missing) Grease’s agenda as social commentary, this terrible revival decked out its set in bright, neon colors, making it into a simple-minded cartoon, and it added an actual 50s song, "Since I Don’t Have You," a song completely without the irony of the rest of the score and therefore completely out of synch with the rest of the show. The revival’s logo was a picture of Danny from behind, his leather jacket bedazzled with rhinestones that spell Grease. Could they have misunderstood the Burger Palace Boys any more? But despite the lack of taste or honesty, it was apparently perfect for the theme park Broadway had become by that point and it ran 1,503 performances. It was not, however, Grease.
Over its life, Grease gave starts to many now well-known actors, including John Travolta (who had begun as Doody in the first national tour), Richard Gere, Treat Williams, Patrick Swayze, Adrienne Barbeau, Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway, Greg Evigan, Marilu Henner, and Judy Kaye, among others. In 2003 the British television network Channel 4 held a poll to determine the greatest musicals of all time. Grease won the top honor. In 2007, NBC created a reality show through which to choose the two leads for a new Broadway revival helmed by Kathleen Marshall, though any hopes of authenticity from a new Broadway Grease were slight.
But perhaps it’s time for Grease in its original form to return at last, in this new Age of Ironic Detachment. In 2005, Norman Lebrecht wrote about the new postmodern musicals (Urinetown, Bat Boy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spelling Bee) in his online column: "The music in each of these shows amplifies this element of separation, licensing us to stand apart from what we are seeing and enter a third dimension where each of us can individually decide whether to take the plot literally or sardonically, whether to take offense or simply collapse in giggles. This degree of Ironic Detachment is the very making of the postmodern hit musical. Ironic Detachment would be unattainable in a Tom Stoppard play because I.D. requires musical inflexion; it is impossible in opera and ballet, which are stiffened by tradition against self-mockery. Its application is unique to the musical comedy, an ephemeral entertainment which has found new relevance through its philosophical engagement with 21st century concepts of irony and alienation." Still, Ironic Detachment isn’t entirely new in musical theatre – we’ve seen it before, periodically over the twentieth century, in The Threepenny Opera (1928), Of Thee I Sing (1931), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Fantasticks (1959), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), Promenade (1965), Cabaret (1966), Promises, Promises (1969), Company (1970), The Rocky Horror Show (1973), The Robber Bridegroom (1974), and yes, Grease.
Sock Hop Baby, Roll Up Your Crazy Jeans!
Almost every American musical sets up the same challenge for the protagonist – assimilate or be removed. These central characters must make a choice to either change in certain ways in order to join the existing community or they must be removed from that community either by leaving or by dying. In The Music Man, Harold Hill turns legit in order to join the River City community. In Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, Bat Boy, and Evita, the main characters will not (or cannot) change so they must be removed by death. In Brigadoon, Tommy decides he must reject his previous life and change everything in order to stay in Brigadoon and become part of the community. In Show Boat, Julie and Steve will not play by mainstream society’s rules, so they must be removed, and they leave the Cotton Blossom. In Man of La Mancha, Quixote/Quijana refuses to live by conventional rules of behavior, so he must die. In Grease, Sandy ultimately assimilates into the greaser community, rejecting her parents’ world view.
Many people are uncomfortable with the show’s ending because they miss the fact that Sandy doesn’t actually become a slut in the finale; she just learns how to dress like one, finally letting go of the tendency of too many Americans to stigmatize sexuality as dirty and shameful. She gives up the desexualizing poodle skirt that hid away her female form and replaces it with clothing that reveals and celebrates – and takes ownership of – her body and its adult curves. This is not a descent into decadence for Sandy; it is a throwing open of the doors of her moral prison. The authors’ intentions are clear in a stage direction in the final scene. After describing Sandy’s new hypersexual look – the tight pants, leather jacket, earrings, wild new hair – the script says, "Yet she actually looks prettier and more alive than she ever has."
Teenagers’ clothing was a major source of contention at the time. Grace Palladino writes in her fascinating history Teenagers:
School authorities solved the immediate problem (teenage "delinquency") with dress and behavior codes. Tight blue jeans, ducktail haircuts, and excessive makeup were prohibited in school. "Dress Right" campaigns set appropriate high school styles that drew national attention in the late 1950s. Boys were required to wear shirts and ties, standard trousers (or neatly pressed khakis), and polished shoes (or clean white bucks). Girls were required to wear dresses or shirts and forgo pincurls, dungarees, and slacks. As an article in Newsweek explained the theory: "Bejeaned girls behave better when they’re in ladylike dress."
Sandy’s clothing in "All Choked Up" is extraordinarily subversive. The end of Grease suggests that a lasting, healthy relationship is only possible when both partners are openly and completely themselves, without regard for other people’s opinions, social conventions, or personal insecurities – and also when neither of them are afraid of their sexuality. This was not the message of the conforming adult world; this was a uniquely teen perspective. Both Sandy and Danny have to learn to be themselves, to shake off the masks of "cool" and "respectable." If there is any question about who the protagonist of the show is, Sandy is primary; she’s the one who has changed, who has learned something significant. The same may be true of Danny, but to a much lesser extent.
But the ending of Grease isn’t a "moral" and shouldn’t be read that way. It doesn’t declare what we should or shouldn't do; it's an objective and accurate description of America in 1959. Sandy is America in its progression from puritanical repression in the 50s to sexual freedom in the Sexual Revolution of the 60s. (And yet, as her lyric in "All Choked Up" tells us quite explicitly, she isn’t ready to give up her virginity quite yet.) In 1959 America was about to "grow up" sexually, into adolescence in the 60s (Hair), and into full sexual adulthood in the 70s (Rocky Horror). Too many people believe that the message of Grease is that to win the man you love, you have to be a slut. But there's not a single line or lyric anywhere in the show to suggest Sandy has changed anything but her looks. Like Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, Sandy learns The Secret, that anyone can Fit In just by talking and looking the right way (and don’t we all do that to some extent?), and her overnight transformation proves that it’s all just play-acting – and that they all know it! She has learned what Rizzo and the girls have known all along. Sandy has become one of them just by changing her clothes! She throws off the weight and triviality of 1950s conformity and allows herself the freedom of the coming 1960s, a refusal to fear her own sexuality, to see sex as dirty, the freedom to be able to talk and laugh openly about sex. But behind all the rest, there’s a simpler, more subversive message. Sandy isn’t just saved by how she dresses; she’s saved by singing rock and roll. It isn’t until she can achieve the authenticity and sexual frankness of rock and roll, that she can be healed.
Grease doesn’t moralize; it just reports. Grease is set in 1958 and 1959 for a good reason – it’s not just about the changing of decades but also the changing of eras. Sandy’s triumphant line late in the show, "Goodbye to Sandra Dee," puts away not only Sandy’s false good-girl persona, but also the 1950s as a whole, a world in which the goody-goody Sandra Dee can be a role model, in which facades were cracking. We were moving on…
Fabulous Fractious Fifties<
The Fabulous Fifties. The Decade Deluxe. The Ike Age. These were the good old days, the happy days, the source of many an American’s earliest, fondest memories and many of our postwar institutions. For the past two decades Americans had lived in the grip of poverty and war. Now they were ready for some giddy, goofy fun. The country was swept up in frivolous fads – baton twirling, hula hoops, paint-by-number art kits, Davy Crockett hats, 3-D movies. Life seemed a wide-screen, stereophonic special effect.
Culture popped – in shades of turquoise, pink, salmon, and, if one color wasn’t enough, delicious two-tones. Madison Avenue created an unlikely world of perfect appliances and perfect families, of highballs and hi-fis, Bermuda shorts and backyard barbecues. In the ads, the wives are beautiful (mowing the lawn in peasant blouses and a hint of lingerie); the children above average (exuberantly joining in the Saturday morning car wash). Over the clink of ice cubes, Americans mingled and misbehaved.
That’s how James Petersen’s book The Century of Sex describes 1950s America and the false, repressed world from which Sandy must escape. There were three distinct cultures in America during the 1950s – mainstream middle-America, New York City (including the Beat writers), and teenagers – and they rarely intersected each other, so none of them spoke the others’ languages or shared their morality. Most of mainstream adult America lived a life of complete ignorance, happily watching safely artificial television sitcoms and carefully censored studio films, having little or no idea what was going on in teen America, in teen music, movies, magazines, social life, and most significantly, teen sexuality.
After World War II, most adult women had been expected to leave behind the independence of their lives on the home front during the war and return to a life of near complete dependence again – no more job, no more money, no more sexual control or choice. Betty Friedan wrote of the times, "It was fun at first, shopping in those new supermarkets. And we bought barbecue grills and made dips out of sour cream and dried onion soup to serve with potato chips, while our husbands made the martinis as dry as in the city and cooked hamburgers on the charcoal, and we sat in canvas chairs on our terrace and thought how beautiful our children looked, playing in the twilight, and how lucky we all were, and that it would last forever." These were the real people behind the metaphor of the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As The Century of Sex says, "Conformity became a national passion, part of a return to sexual and political conservatism."
The Battle Over Sex has always been waged between the Haves and the Have-Nots in America. Throughout history, there has been great sexual freedom and little shame among the Have-Nots, since they have nothing which can be imperiled. But the Haves are always terrified of any kind of cultural change, especially sexual, because the fallout could always endanger their position as Haves. Sandy is a Have, Danny is a Have-Not. The sparks are bound to fly.
All in all, the 1950s was one of the most interesting decades of the twentieth century – so much wealth, so much repression, so many massive changes in the culture, perhaps most significantly the invention of the suburbs, in which middle-class wives would be forever isolated and tranquilized. The characters in Grease were born around 1942, the last generation born before the Baby Boomers, and they went to high school from fall 1955 to summer 1959. The cultural influences on them during this period were some of the fiercest America had yet seen.
In 1951, J.D. Salinger’s controversial Catcher in the Rye had been published and became an instant, lasting hit among teenagers, with its profanity and frank discussions of teenage angst and sexuality. Then, just as these kids were hitting puberty, America was hit with The Wild One in 1953, starring Marlon Brando, the movie that started the whole leather jacket "greaser" thing as well as the "teen exploitation" film genre. The central relationship in Grease between Danny and Sandy is a goofier imitation of the central relationship in The Wild One between Johnny and Kathie.
Exactly like the teen market they were targeting, teen exploitation films were full of sex and sin and booze and cars, but many of them also had a sanctimonious "moral" laid out explicitly, at the beginning or end of the film, often by a nameless authority figure behind a desk or podium, sometimes by a "survivor" of the "tragedy." These fake morals gave the raunchy stories the patina of respectability to placate parents and would-be censors. But for the kids, these movies mirrored the real world, in which teenagers were discovering they had a certain kind of power, a kind of power that just might be able to challenge the power of their parents. And the teen rebel was born. In 1954, just a year before the Grease kids would start high school, Elvis Presley burst upon the American scene with his first hit, forever changing notions of gender and sexuality, rebelling against the "strong, silent type" model of previous generations of men like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, in favor of a remarkably sexual, nakedly emotional new model of maleness embodied by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. John Waters documented this cultural shift in his film Cry-Baby, set just a few years before Grease.
While the Grease kids – and the show’s authors – were in high school, the movies Rock Around the Clock and Rock, Rock, Rock were released in 1956 (the same year the mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey, banned all rock and roll within the city limits), giving some teens their first chance to actually see Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, The Platters, and many others performing their songs. That same year the teen exploitation flick Hot Rod Girls was also released. In 1957, Roger Corman’s daring Teenage Doll (which still holds up pretty well) and Eighteen and Anxious were released. Teenage Doll was about a girl gang out for revenge after one of their members is murdered by a rival gang. The film ended with a giant rumble with girl and boy gangs fighting in an auto salvage yard. This was not their parents’ kind of movie. That same year saw Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a much more serious film than it sounds, about a damaged, "misunderstood" teen and about American teenagers’ feelings (reinforced by rock and roll) of "us vs. them." Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking, anti-authoritarian On the Road was published that year too, the inevitable follow-up to Catcher in the Rye. In 1958, two more teen movies were released that showed us the underbelly of American teenage life (real or imagined), High School Confidential and the girl-gang High School Hellcats. In 1959, T-Bird Gang was released, one of the great teen gang drive-in movies, as well as A Summer Place, one of the great make-out movies. The 1928 sexually charged novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally released in America in 1959 and sold six million copies the first year.
Just after these kids graduated, in 1960, The Wild Ride was released, starring Jack Nicholson as the kind of cocky, smartass rebel that the Burger Palace Boys in Grease wish they could be. But 1960 also brought us that moment toward which everything had been leading and from which everything would flow. Dick Clark saw some kids doing a sexually suggestive dance called The Twist in his studio, inspired by a year-old record. Clark called the record label and asked for a new recording of "The Twist." It caught on like wildfire and convinced the adult population of America that the world was coming to an end. Sex was no longer subtle or implied. Sex had broken free of the bedroom and the 1960s were coming. These kids in Grease are on the cusp of that moment, just as they are on the cusp of adulthood.
Michael Feingold wrote:
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 labor’s 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 decade’s 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…
During the Greasers’ senior year at Rydell High, in February 1959, another epoch changing event took place, the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper – "the day the music died." The 1950s were coming to a close, and a decade full of chaos and controversy was coming fast, with a whole new kind of rock and a whole new kind of American sexuality. Grease is a prequel to Hair, every bit as well crafted, every bit as authentic, every bit as insightful, and just as truth about an incredibly volatile, fascinating moment in American history.
Rock and Roll Party Queen
In the book Fever: How Rock’n’Roll Transformed Gender in America, author Tim Riley writes, "The boomers born after World War II, both men and women" – the characters in Grease were all born around 1942 – "learned much of what they know about how to be young, how to seek and earn love, and how to struggle toward adulthood from the popular music they listened to." As it would be for decades to come, rock music was more of an authority figure than any adult could ever be. "Rock stars helped their young fans grow from boys to men and girls to women," Riley writes, "by exploring and celebrating the nature of that struggle – the full range of sexual bewilderment, frustration, and longing." Grease chronicles exactly that phenomenon. The kids in Grease may well have seen their rock heroes in person, since DJs like Alan Freed (a likely inspiration for Vince Fontaine) frequently hosted live rock and roll concerts in Cleveland, Chicago and elsewhere. Howard Miller, known as "Uncle Moo Moo," was the number one morning DJ in Chicago from 1947-1968, on WIND, where the Grease kids would no doubt listen to him every morning before school. In 1957, Miller produced the first live rock show in Chicago, featuring Tab Hunter, Charlie Gracie, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, and the Everly Brothers. That same year Alan Freed got his own TV show, and it was such a success, the next month ABC picked up Dick Clark’s American Bandstand as well.
In The Century of Sex, Petersen writes, "Previously, teenagers had shared their parents’ world – watching the same movies, listening to the same songs on the radio. Now they had their own teenage idols, their own films, music, fads, and fashions." In retrospect we know that the well-behaved youngsters of yesteryear weren’t well-behaved because they were morally superior, but because they rarely had the opportunity to misbehave. In the 1950s – and even more so in the decades to come – those opportunities would be almost without limit. Adults were no longer sources of wisdom; adults were now outsiders. Teenagers had power and, more important, they had their own culture.
Palladino writes in Teenagers:
By the mid-1950s, however, Seventeen [magazine]’s respectable brand of adolescent culture had real competition – white, middle-class teenagers were not the only high school students with money to spend! Postwar prosperity had opened the door to an entirely different teenage world, one that was populated by working-class and black teenagers who had never participated in high school social life before. This demographic shift changed the nature – and the appeal – of the teenage market.
These two worlds are represented in Grease by Sandy and Danny. Rock and roll was the first music ever created specifically for teenagers, and many adults literally predicted the apocalypse when they heard it. Now all American teens would lose their moral compass, they wailed, they would abandon all ambition and drive, and drown in a morass of juvenile delinquency. (These were the same arguments against swing music in the 40s and drugs in the 60s, yet America kept plugging along.) Sure, there were occasionally riots at rock concerts, but there had also been a riot at a Guy Lombardo concert in 1944.
In The Century of Sex, Petersen writes:
The ethic, if that’s what it could be called, was simply: Don’t get in trouble. The sexually active lived in fear of pregnancy. The Kinsey Report had revealed that a large number of women were having premarital sex. A third Kinsey Institute report on Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion, which was published in 1958, would reveal that one out of every five women who had premarital sex became pregnant. Of those, one in five would be forced into marriage. The other four women had their pregnancies terminated by abortion.
Grease’s subplot with Rizzo and her fear of pregnancy was a real part of life in the 50s for many unmarried, sexually active women.
Unlike their parents, rock and roll took teenagers seriously. It took teenage sex and teenage love seriously. It put teenage emotions on a level with adult emotions, and it made teenagers feel like adults. And the best part for the kids was that parents hated rock and roll. (A 1957 article in Cosmopolitan asked "Are You Afraid of Your Teenager?") Much of the authenticity of Grease lies in its songs, a virtual catalog of 1950s styles, structures, chord progressions, lyrical themes, distinctive bass lines, and unforgettable guitar licks, all as authentic as a 1954 Fender Stratocaster. By opening the show with the old-fashioned "Alma Mater," followed by the explosion of the hard rocking "Alma Mater Parody," the kids of Grease literally rebel against their older selves (at the reunion), the past assaulting the present, reminding the adults in the audience that most of them have become what they once hated most: The Establishment. The "Alma Mater Parody," blasts off with one of the most famous guitar licks of all time, created by Chuck Berry for the hit "Johnny B. Goode." Berry was one of the fathers of rock and roll, and so in this first scene, Grease instantly establishes its authenticity and its street cred as a rock and roll document.
The third song in the show "Those Magic Changes" comments on rock’s most important characteristic – aside from the beat – the treatment of teenage love and emotion as serious and legitimate. The lyric starts off as a classic 50s teen lament, but it quickly becomes self-referential, a postmodern 50s song. It’s a song about falling in love but also about chord changes, about the comfort and familiarity of those four simple chords that undergirded the majority of early rock and roll. And those four chords open "Magic Changes"—C, A minor, F, and G7 ,or I, vi, IV, V7. The singer here is a boy lamenting lost love but finding safety and happy memories in those same four chords that he hears in every song:
I have never heard that song before,
But if I don’t hear it anymore,
It’s still familiar to me,
Sends a thrill right through me,
‘Cause those chords remind me of
The night that I first feel in love
To those magic changes.
(And notice the internal rhyming that gives the song such momentum: before/anymore, to me/through me, of/love…) But Doody goes even further with the metaphor, now suggesting that it’s actually teenage emotion that creates, that incarnates rock and roll. He sings:
My heart arranges
A melody that’s never the same,
A melody that’s calling your name
And begs you, please, come back to me.
Rock gives him those four never-changing chords, and his heart supplies the always-changing melody. This ever-present chord progression wasn’t simple because songwriters were untalented; it was simple to get out of the way of the emotions of the songs, just like the best of rhythm and blues did. Unlike other musical forms – and this was something the adults just couldn’t get – chords weren’t the point here. The point is the emotion. This boy has been jilted, but he’s not in love with her anymore; now the object of his love is rock and roll itself. Rock and roll understood teenagers. It wanted what they wanted.
The fact that Doody plays the guitar is very significant. The guitar was the symbol of rock and roll, and by extension, of teenage rebellion. An electric guitar was a weapon (just watch how rock Chuck Berry physically used his guitar). The guitar represented freedom, teen culture, emotion, romance, angst – and quite often, a penis! The guitar instilled confidence! That also explains Johnny Casino and the Gamblers in Grease’s prom scene – every boy wanted to be a rock and roll star. 1959 was a pivotal moment for rock and roll. Up to that time, rock and roll addressed teen angst and misfired romance; but once the sixties arrived, rock songs would tackle war, injustice, sexual oppression, drugs, hypocrisy and authority, religion, and politics. The songs in Grease straddle those two worlds, posing as the simpler songs of the fifties while subtextually delivering potent social commentary and satire.
Feingold wrote in his Grease introduction:
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 ‘n 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 "It’s Raining on Prom Night" – 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 – not a report of something that actually happens to our heroine, just a convenient index to her momentary emotions.
Jazz was made for the brain. It was about detachment, bemusement, coolness. But rock and roll came straight for the heart and the groin. It was about primal feelings and desires. It stripped its sound of precision, elegance, finesse, training (just like Punk). Real rock and roll was animal, outlaw. It was sweaty. It didn’t float like jazz. It exploded. It pounded. Rock and roll was banned in major cities across America. It terrified white adult America. Listening to rock became the ultimate rebellion for white kids especially. Their parents saw it as the biggest danger to all that’s decent since ragtime in the 1910s… or alcohol in the 1920s… or marijuana in the 1930s… or swing in the 1940s…
Rock and roll was responsible for an "emotional revolution" in America. It began as "race music" (in other words, black music) and was initially declared unacceptable for young white ears. But it fast became the first truly racially integrated American art form, coming from equal parts black rhythm & blues and white country music. (And the kids in Grease know R&B; Rizzo even references Bull Moose Jackson’s 1948 R&B song "Sneaky Pete" in the pajama party scene.) This was the first time in America that blacks and whites shared in the same culture, both consuming and creating it. And once Elvis appeared, rock and roll finally became (marginally) acceptable for white kids. For the first time in American history, white (young) people were being open and honest – even inappropriate – about their emotions. This was the most nakedly emotional music most white Americans had ever heard. And it changed everything.
Soon after, in the 1960s, rock and roll would morph into Pop and Top 40, and it would no longer be the exclusive domain of the young. The adult world could finally got a grip on it. Elvis had been sent overseas. Chuck Berry was sent to prison for sexual misconduct. Congress held "payola" hearings to ruin DJs like Alan Freed, who broadcast his last live radio show in November 1957. Now, rock and roll would become commercialized and forget its roots. This would continue to happen to rock every decade or so. But Grease is about the beginning, when rock and roll was still pure, still naked, still dangerous, and America was still terrified of it.
The Stacks of Wax
The score of Grease is remarkable in its craft and authenticity, even referencing actual songs of the period. Many of the actual period songs that influenced the Grease score were not chart toppers, because the Grease kids didn’t always listen to the most popular music; they were more musically and culturally adventurous than that. They listened to songs you could only hear late night on Alan Freed’s radio show, "race songs," dirty songs, songs that scared adults.
But it’s important to note that the songs of Grease differ from real rock and roll songs in one significant way. The lyrics to real 50s rock and roll songs were the least important element of the song, often just dummy lyrics used as a vehicle for the artists’ personal vocal stylings, or for sophisticated harmonies or melodic ornaments. As in rhythm and blues, one of rock and roll’s parents, a song didn’t have to convey information, just style and emotion, most of which was delivered through the abstract language of music. But theatre songs have to convey a lot of information or the show won’t work (which is why it was such a mistake to put a real 50s song into the 1994 revival). Because sung lyrics take more time than spoken dialogue, musicals have to do a lot of storytelling in fewer words than a play. So in Grease, "Summer Nights" lays out the central backstory, as well as characterizing most of the two gangs through their pointed questions. "Magic Changes" and "Rock and Roll Party Queen" lay out and explore the show’s central themes. Most of the girls’ songs provide psychological character details – Marty and Rizzo’s cynical view of love in "Freddy My Love" and "Worse Things;" the friction between Rizzo and Sandy in "Sandra Dee" – but we also find commentary on 50s sexuality in "Greased Lightning," "Mooning," "Drive-In Movie," and of course "Worse Things." Every lyric contributes to the agenda of this deceptively sophisticated concept musical.
Grease opens with an authentically bland and properly pious "Alma Mater," the sound of the adult world, of authority, complete with archaic language (like foretell, hovel, and thou shalt) which then is ripped apart, deconstructed, unexpectedly exploding into (a close facsimile of) that famous Chuck Berry electric guitar riff, invoking "Johnny B. Goode," as well as that audacious rejection of adult culture, "Roll Over Beethoven." Like Berry’s "School Day (Ring, Ring Goes the Bell)," this parody "Alma Mater" is an assault, a declaration of culture war, a defiant fuck you to the adult world, as they literally steal away the adult’s anthem, give it a driving beat, and twist it to suit their own purposes. And so Grease is off and running. This will not be a nice show, a tame show, a traditional show, the music tells us. This will be aggressive, even obnoxious. This will be rock and roll theatre.
We move into the second scene and "Summer Nights," the introduction of two of the leads and their central plotline, inspired by real rock songs like Huey "Piano" Smith’s "Don’t You Just Know It?", a song released in 1958 as these kids were starting their senior year. "Summer Nights" introduces the ten main characters, allowing each of them to ask questions that reveal their characters. Marty wants to know if this guy has a car, while Frenchy only wants to know if Sandy’s in love. Kenickie wants to know if the sex was rough, while Sonny only wants to know if the girl could fix him up with a friend. We see here and in the scene leading up to the song who each of the ten leads are – Kenickie and Rizzo, both damaged, beaten down, angry young adults; Roger, the clown; Jan, the cynic; Doody and Frenchy, the innocents; Sonny, the "dangerous" one; and Marty, the Material Girl. And the song also establishes the central conflict of Grease and of the 1950s, that Danny is comfortable with sexuality while Sandy is lost – trapped? – in the fantasy of perfect love, thanks to the likes of Sandra Dee, her handlers, and the movie studios (which were losing all their pervious power, due in part to the burgeoning teen market).
Some sources report that Rizzo’s dismissal of Sandy’s tale, "Cause he sounds like a drag," was originally written, "Cause he sounds like a fag." It’s certainly plausible, since Sandy describes a boy who barely touches her all summer, and in Rizzo’s world, that might well mean the boy is gay (or at least it would be a solid, cynical put-down of Sandy’s romantic story). After the song, Rizzo suggests Sandy’s summer lover may be "a fairy."
Now that the characters are established and the plot is underway, Grease takes a moment with "Those Magic Changes" to explore the show’s central themes, to underline the importance and centrality of music in this story and also in the show’s social commentary. Closely based on Paul Anka’s "Diana" and its distinctive bass line (you can actually sing "Magic Changes" to "Diana"), it also includes those distinctive falsettos vocal ornaments that pay homage to songs like The Diamonds’ comic doo-wop hit, "Lil Darlin’." Doody starts off solo, then the girls join in, then the boys join in, then two of the boys take off on those falsetto riffs, giving the whole song the tang of improvisation, as if these kids are just fooling around between classes. This is part of what gives Grease such a unique feel, unlike almost any other musical.
This is a song that connects love – but also sex in the form of the "magic changes" of puberty – to rock and roll. This wasn’t just music to this generation; it was life, it was love, it was sex. This was their music. They charted their lives to the songs on the radio, the song they fell in love to, the song they first had sex to. And as "Magic Changes" reminds us, every song is every other song, since so many of them used those exact same chord changes, a chord progression seemingly invented just for them (though really coming from rhythm and blues). All of rock and roll is "those magic changes" that Doody dreams of returning to him every night. The idea that all you need is a guitar to be a rock and roll star (perhaps in tribute to Bobby Bare’s satirical 1958 Elvis song, "All-American Boy") was a deeply ingrained part of teen culture.
The next song, "Freddy My Love" is the show’s female doo-wop number, with a lead melody and rich harmonic back-up, closely based on "Eddie My Love" by The Tea Queens, while also slyly parodying The Shirelles’ "I Met Him on a Sunday" and Ronnie Spector’s "Be My Baby," reinforcing old female stereotypes while also undermining and revising them. The driving triplet accompaniment here was a common beat in early rock and roll, invented by Fats Domino for "Every Night About This Time." They’re living in the 1950s, but these are women of the 60s. The idea of the other girls becoming back up singers for Marty shows us how much they love the girl doo-wop groups, an entirely new phenomenon at that moment that would become huge in the 60s. The Ronettes were the first "slutty" girl group to make it big singing rock and roll. They were what the girls wanted to be (to get the guys) and what the guys dreamed about getting. "Freddy, My Love" is a song about early feminism, about women being sexual and aggressive. But it’s also about the materialism of the 1950s, a mindset in which money is better than sex, and gifts are the only true expression of love. And the idea of Marty singing to a guy stationed in Korea references the fact that Elvis was still in the Army overseas at this point, a sad fact for many teenagers.
"Greased Lightning" combines two of the three major cultural forces of the 50s, cars and rock and roll. Possibly inspired by The Cadillacs’ cocky "Speedo," or Chuck Berry’s "You Can’t Catch Me," this is a companion piece to "Freddy My Love." This is the guys’ perspective in the language of doo-wop: it’s all about sex, cars, and sex in cars. An article on Answers.com describes the provocative, lusty Chuck Berry, duckwalking through "You Can't Catch Me", in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock: "…his guitar as phallic looking a stage prop as anything seen on the screen this side of the bananas in a Carmen Miranda production number. Had a Black man ever before been permitted such a degree of sexual expression (and you can see the delightful, proud smugness on Berry's face, knowing what audience the movie was aimed at) in a movie intended for white audiences?" This is the unfettered sexuality that terrifies the adult world, and it does the same to Sandy.
"Greased Lightning" is about America’s love affair with cars and teenagers’ love of speed. According to Rolling Stones’ excellent history Rock of Ages, "American automakers were asserting their products’ virtues of speed and power, turning the 1957 models into rocketship fantasies with nose cones, chrome grills, and razor sharp fins." This song is not just a catalog of car accessories, but instead a real insight into the dreams of these guys. After all, this is not a real car Kenickie’s singing about, but an unreachable fantasy car (which is why it may be better if we don’t actually see it onstage), the ultimate, luxury, high-performance, drag racing car, with high-priced accessories for speed and performance (lifters, fins, fuel injection), and also for automotive sex appeal (palomino dashboard, purple frenched tail lights, twin tail pipes). And it’s clear from the details that this will be a car intended for drag racing, the gladiator sport of 1950s teenagers, an extreme and dangerous sport pitting one man against one man, in what was sometimes a battle to actual death. (Kenickie acknowledges this danger, and even knows how to diminish it with a fuel-injection cut-off, which stops the flow of gasoline in the event of a crash, in order to lower the danger of an explosion.) Drag racing was illegal, sometimes deadly… and really sexy! Skill and success in drag racing could always get a guy laid, as Kenickie well knows (or at least imagines): "You know that ain’t no shit; I’ll be gettin’ lots of tit in Greased Lightning. . . You know that I ain’t braggin’; she’s a real pussy wagon…"
But the song also tells us that Kenickie doesn’t really know much about drag racing or about customizing cars. A true drag racing enthusiast knows that the accessories Kenickie dreams of don’t all make sense together. For example, the "four-barrel quads" refers to a carburetor, but a car with fuel injection (as in his "fuel injection cut-off") doesn’t have a carburetor – those two things would not be on the same car. And no one would chrome-plate connecting rods; chrome-plating was just for show and nobody can see connecting rods on a car. And though palomino leather was popular for car interiors, no one would put palomino leather on a dashboard. Finally, a kid in 1959 would either make his car look good or go fast; no kid had the money to do both (although you could argue that this is just a fantasy). In fact, a drag car that looked too good was the sure sign of a driver who wasn’t really serious about racing. It’s safe to assume that Kenickie probably knows very little about cars or drag racing, which gives this lyric far more complexity, humor, and character detail than it seems.
The song "Mooning" may have been inspired by The Mello-Kings’ "Tonight, Tonight" or The Skyliners’ "Since I Don’t Have You," and though the other songs in Grease proclaim a new worldview of sex and love, this one also trashes the old worldview, reducing the tepid moon-spoon-June romance of the 30s and 40s to silly anachronism. It contrasts love today (1959) with love yesterday (their parents’), the physical versus the romantic, the play between the old definition of mooning as an over-sentimentalizing of young love, and the new definition of mooning as the act of baring one’s ass. Like "Summer Nights," this is a song about the difference between chaste love and carnal love, the love Sandra Dee falls into versus the more real, more carnal love of naked, sweaty bodies. But this song goes further, into wickedly funny social satire; "Summer Nights" is about two kids, but "Mooning" is about the whole generation.
This song is also a great example of the craftsmanship of the songs in this show. Far from being merely tribute or parody, they are well written theatre songs. The lyric for "Mooning" contains some smart, sly, internal rhymes:
Lyin’ by myself in bed, I
Cry an’ give myself the red eye…
They rhyme lyin’ with cry an’; and also bed, I with red eye, with the repetition of myself in the middle for structure. And in the couplet’s payoff, they also sneak in another rude "ass joke," playing with two meanings of red eye, referring to tear-reddened eyes but also that phrase’s 1950s slang definition, meaning the anus.
As a companion piece to "Mooning," Rizzo makes the comparison more personal with "Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee," an assault on Sandy’s false role models, a shot across the bow, making certain that Sandy knows that Rizzo knows that it’s all bullshit. The music is a classic, brilliantly imitative 1950s novelty song, with a meter and an introduction lovingly ripped off from David Seville’s "The Chipmunk Song," the surprise hit of the 1958 Christmas season. But the laughs get even darker when you realize that every male movie star mentioned in the lyric was a closeted gay man, forced to live a lie by his studio. This is a song about sexual repression, false lives, and false role models, and it’s proof that Rizzo knows more than we thought, that she has genuine insight into the world around her. And this peek into her mind allows her to carry the weighty "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" later in Act II.
The act ends with "We Go Together," an archetypal Happy Teenager song, very closely modeled on The Kodaks’ "Oh Gee, Oh Gosh" and Lewis Lyman’s "I’m So Happy," maybe with a little dash of Little Richard’s "Tutti Fruitti." (You can actually sing "We Go Together" to both "I’m So Happy" and "Oh Gee, Oh Gosh.") This is a song celebrating the nonsense syllables of early rock and roll, songs like "Gee" (The Crows), "Bip Bam" (The Drifters), "Oop Shoop," (The Queens), "Sh-Boom" and "Zippity Zum" (both by The Chords). Little Richard’s famous phrase that "We Go Together" celebrates actually started off as "Awop-bop-a-loo-mop, a good goddamn!", followed by "Tutti Fruiti, good booty…" It was later cleaned up.
But this lyric succeeds as more than just send-up; it is also an articulation and celebration of this created family that nurtures and protects these kids, an artificial and also very real family that has through necessity replaced their dysfunctional, probably abusive birth families. It is this family at the heart of the show’s surface plot which must survive the difficulties and obstacles of teenage life, and also which must be sustained even as its leader attempts to create a relationship outside the family for the first time. This lyric tells us – and these kids are telling each other – that these Ties That Bind are indeed strong enough to withstand the current conflicts, and the song’s reprise at the end of the show reminds us of the importance of that strength for these kids.
Shakin’ at the High School Hop
Act II picks up where Act I left off, with "Shakin’ at the High School Hop," a loving tribute to Little Richard’s "Ready Teddy," as well as many other legendary songs, like "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" (Big Joe Turner, then Elvis, and others), "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On" (Jerry Lee Lewis), "High School Confidential" (Jerry Lee Lewis), and "At the Hop" (Danny and the Juniors). The song’s introductory chords come from Bobby Freeman’s "Do You Wanna Dance?" In fact, "High School Confidential" actually contains the lyric, "Shakin’ at the high school hop…" There’s also be a touch of Bobby Darin’s "Splish Splash," a song which references other early rock and roll songs, just as "High School Hop" catalogues the dances of the time, including The Chicken, The Stroll, The Shimmy, The Cha-Cha, The Walk, The Hully-Gully, The Hand Jive, The Stomp, The Calypso, The Slop, and The Bop. It also names several songs of the period, including "Alley Oop" and "Mr. Lee," among others.
"It’s Raining on Prom Night" is a Connie Francis number, combining attributes from several of her "weeper" songs, including "Frankie" (with a spoken section), "Valentino," "Carolina Moon," and "Happy Days and Lonely Nights," among others. The Latin beat recalls her fondness for recording Italian language ballads like the hit "Mama," and "Frankie" even contains the idea of hiding tears, that later shows up in "Worse Things I Could Do." It also has echoes of The Diamonds’ "Little Darlin’," with its Latin beat and one spoken verse. According to some sources, this was the first Grease song Jacobs and Casey wrote, even before they had conceived the show, satirically putting the trivial and mundane at the center of a big, emotional lament. Far more than any other song in the score, this is parody more than tribute or invocation.
The Prom Scene is the centerpiece of Act II and, not surprisingly, almost the entire scene is accompanied by dance music. This is a scene that’s entirely about the rock and roll. And the centerpiece of the scene is "Born to Hand Jive," with its now universally famous choreography. The Hand Jive was invented for the Johnny Otis song, "Willie and the Hand Jive," which hit the charts in 1958 and stayed in the Top Ten for sixteen weeks. This "Hand Jive" also takes inspiration (and its bass line) from Bo Diddley’s self-titled song, "Bo Diddley," with its famous beat (the "hambone") that would accompany so many of Diddley’s songs. The beat is relentless, dangerous, wild abandon, the beat of sex. Once again, rock and roll is sex. Johnny Casino and the Gamblers are an example of the thousands of garage bands that appeared in the 50s. The lyric of "Hand Jive" clearly tells us that anyone can be a rock star if they’ve got the Beat in them, and the fact that everyone knows how to Hand Jive means everyone has the Beat. This was the beginning of the democratization of pop music that would continue into the 60s. Grace Palladino writes, "If unremarkable kids like Dion Di Mucci and his group, the Belmonts, who hailed from the Bronx, could make it on American Bandstand, [teenagers] reasoned, then anyone with talent and determination had the same chance to succeed."
"Beauty School Dropout," Frenchy’s wacky nightmare of the misogynist mainstream "real world," was inspired (musically) by songs like The Penguins’ classic "Earth Angel." But this scene also references the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor with Debbie Reynolds. Just before "Beauty School Dropout" starts, Frenchy wishes for a guardian angel "like in that Debbie Reynolds movie." In the film, Aunt Renie (Mildred Natwick) plays the role of Tammy's (metaphorical) fairy godmother, who transforms her into a captivating Southern belle, looking just like the portrait of an ancestor of this elite Southern family. She even gives Tammy the ancestor’s dress to wear, so she can win the heart of her love. This is the fantasy Frenchy wants. And of course, it’s what will eventually happen to Sandy, being taken under the wing of other women, given new clothes, and taught new manners, though all in a hard-core, rock-and-roll kinda way… And it’s also a smart parody of those psychological dream sequences in old-fashioned musical dramas like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Lady in the Dark, and others, in which the leading lady works through her dilemma in the form of a dream. The joke here is that Frenchy doesn’t get the answer she wants from her dream, because Grease isn’t an old-fashioned musical.
Danny’s big character song (sadly replaced in the film), "Alone at a Drive-In Movie," is a delicious tribute to and parody of the teen laments of early rock and roll, including The Penguins’ "Earth Angel" (you can sing "Drive-In Movie" to the original recording of "Earth Angel"), The Platters’ "The Great Pretender," The Flamingos’ "Would I Be Cryin’?", and Johnny Ray’s "Cry." It is a classic male doo-wop song, with its independent bass line and falsetto tenor floating up above the lead melody. The song works both as a musical theatre "I Want" character song, and also as an authentic 50s rock lament. This moment couldn’t be clearer: Sandy may want acceptance, (self-)love, self-knowledge, but Danny just wants sex. These two worlds have to find an accommodation, and they will in the show’s finale. (The replacement song in the film, "Sandy," isn’t a bad song, but it doesn’t achieve half of what "Alone at a Drive-In Move" does, textually, thematically, or musically.)
But this song also works on a second level, as a cultural commentary on the power of drive-in movies in teen culture in the 50s. Cars had been changing sex since the 1920s, but by the 50s, more teenagers had access to cars than ever before, giving them the privacy they craved on a regular basis. Drive-in movies had been created as family entertainment, and between 1943 and 1953, more than 2,900 drive-in theatres opened in America, the total reaching nearly 5,000 by 1958. And once television stole the family audience, drive-in owners targeted their marketing exclusively at teens, while small, low-budget studios started cranking out material specifically for this new niche market, creating "teen exploitation" films that drastically changed and radicalized teenagers’ perception of themselves and each other. Drive-ins became a place to cruise for girls, hang with the "wrong crowd," get drunk and get laid (awkwardly, in the back seat). These films opened teenaged eyes to sex, violence, and other various vices like never before, inadvertently creating a new, more sophisticated, more cynical teen market. The fake movie dialogue in the scene leading up to "Alone at the Drive-In Movie" lampoons the two most prevalent genres of drive-in films: horror movies (a comic mix of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and those paranoid 1950s "science run amok" flicks, like 1954’s Them!) and drag racing movies. Strangely enough, television had also come close to killing radio, in ratings and advertising revenue, until radio did what the drive-ins did by targeting teenagers.
"Rock and Roll Party Queen" is another song (like "Magic Changes" and "Hand Jive") that reminds us that Grease isn’t primarily about Danny and Sandy; it’s about rock and roll and how it impacted American sex. This is a tribute to the Everly Brothers and their perfect-thirds harmonies, modeled on "Wake Up, Little Susie" (a song about having sex at the drive-in) and other Everly Brothers hits, as well as songs like the Dell-Vikings’ "Come Go With Me." The lyric says more than it seems, describing a party girl that all the kids "know" (in the Biblical sense?), that they talk about, who stays out late with boys, and who will soon be seventeen (the age of sexual consent, which of course means she’s currently under the age of consent…). The Party Queen is the fully sexual girl that Rizzo is and Sandy may become. In context, the song both comments on Rizzo’s fears of pregnancy and foreshadows Sandy’s realization that she’s too repressed sexually.
This scene also shows us another aspect of 50s teen culture, the Basement Party. Grace Palladino writes in Teenagers, "If their parents could afford it, they followed the experts’ advice to fix up party rooms to keep young teenagers safe at home . . . complete with a television set, soft drink bar, and plenty of room for dancing." Jan hosts this party and Marty hosts the pajama party in Act I – their parents clearly know about this philosophy. But the scene is important dramatically because it’s the first time we see both Rizzo and Kenickie grapple with real, serious emotions, revealing a vulnerability that is uncomfortable for both of them.
Rizzo’s big Eleven O’Clock Number (the big character-revealing song just before the finale) is the now classic "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," possibly inspired by The Tune Weavers’ "Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby," a 50s song with a similar "broken heart" theme and beat. Rizzo is (spiritually if not actually) one of the Beats (commonly – and derisively – called Beatniks by the mainstream to suggest that they were Communists), a group most famously represented by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who in the 1950s rejected mainstream values, morality, and art, trying to break through the façade of polite society to a more honest, more authentic way of living. "Worse Things" contains the entirety of 1950s youth (and Beat) morality in its lyric. Like everything else in Grease, Rizzo represents that transition from the 50s to the 60s. She’d like us to think she’s as authentic as they come, but she hides Kenickie’s paternity from him and she hides her hurt from her friends. It’s only when Sandy calls Rizzo on her "mask" that Rizzo sings "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," beginning a two-song arc of revelation for Sandy.
Structurally, this song links these two women. In each of the three verses, Rizzo attacks Sandy for her perceived sins – being a tease (leading Danny on but not delivering), being self-pitying (most notably in "Raining on Prom Night"), and being judgmental (in the scene leading up to the song). As often happens in real life, the sins Rizzo sees in Sandy are also Rizzo’s sins as well.
"Worse Things" segues directly to its companion piece, Sandy's parallel self-evaluation, the reprise of "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," in which Sandy finally sees and accepts the truth in Rizzo’s metaphor, finally recognizing that she must reject artificial values imposed by othersand find her own way. But Sandy only comes to this realization because "Worse Things" opened her up to the idea of authenticity as a fundamental value; now she can act on that newfound wisdom in her reprise (just like in all the ancient hero myths).
Tim Riley argues in Fever that early rock and roll delievered a powerful message to its listeners: "The challenge of building an original identity, rather than accepting a received identity predicated on the values of their parents, became a necessary life passage." Like all the best theatre songs, Sandy makes a decision in the "Sandra Dee" reprise, and the plot takes a turn toward its final destination. Sandy must decide who she is herself and what she values; she must embrace all of who she is, including her sexuality. She now realizes that only when she is true to herself can she be happy with Danny, and this final revelation will lead us to the show’s rowdy, playful finale "All Choked Up" (sadly replaced in the film by the less carnal disco number "You're the One That I Want").
And again, we can see Jacobs and Casey’s lyric writing craft here, as they effortlessly spin out multiple internal rhymes without ever disrupting a line or thought:
Look at me,
There has to be
Something more than what they see.
Wholesome and pure,
Also scared and unsure,
A poor man’s Sandra Dee.
Poor even rhymes (unnoticed) with pure and unsure... The bridge is loaded with long e and long i sounds, in an ABCABC rhyme scheme, with a close interior rhyme at the end, in has and last:
When they criticize
And make fun of me,
Can’t they see the tears in my smile?
Don’t they realize
There’s just one of me,
And it has to last me a while?
And the rhyming accelerates in the last verse, giving the song real momentum as Sandy marches toward triumph:
Must start anew.
Don’t you know what you
Hold your head high,
Take a deep breath and sigh,
To Sandra Dee.
Here again, some usually unnoticed treasure, in the powerful alliteration of Hold your head high, as each successive line climbs musically higher and higher to the climax.
But this song isn’t just about Sandy saying goodbye to her false idols; it’s also about America saying goodbye to the false idols of the 1950s, saying goodbye to the turning of its collective blind eye away from the hidden horrors of the decade: rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, teen pregnancy and abortion, prescription drug abuse in the suburbs, and so much more. Sandy has to face herself and find her own authenticity, but so too does America.
The rowdy "All Choked Up," the show’s climax, is clearly inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis’ "Great Balls of Fire" and perhaps also by Little Willie John’s "Fever" (later recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958), not only paying tribute to the music but also to the content of "Great Balls of Fire," with the idea of love causing sickness. Here Grease shows us the turmoil ahead in the 1960s, as sexual roles are reversed. Now that Sandy is a sexual being, she can finally sing real rock and roll. Now Sandy is the aggressor, a lesson she learned from rock and roll, a social trend that would soon push boundaries further and further, from Tina Turner’s "A Fool in Love" well into the 1970s. This is the beginning of feminism. Now American women could be sexual too. Many of those who still object to the show’s ending miss the point of the show and may be unconsciously still caught up in gender stereotypes from the 50s that remain pervasive today. If a boy is sexually aggressive (as in "Greased Lightning") he’s just a Guy. If a girl is sexually aggressive, she’s a Slut.
Have we really come all that far since 1959?
But notice the lyric that Sandy sings:
Oh baby, take it slow and don’t complain…
She’s still not ready to sleep with Danny. And later in the song:
Danny: Oh baby, take my ring ‘cause you’re my match.
Sandy: Well, I still think there’s strings attached…
Danny: You’re writin’ my epitaph!
Sandy: Well, that’s just tough and a half.
Danny: You’re gonna make me die!
Sandy: Don’t make me laugh!
Sandy may have changed the way she looks, and she may now have a more progressive philosophy of sexuality, but no matter how dramatically Danny pleads, she’s still not "going all the way" just yet; that part of her has not changed fundamentally. She has not become a slut.
But perhaps even more significant than Sandy’s new sexualized rock and roll persona in "All Choked Up" is her line after the song: Danny asks her if she’s still mad at him and she answers, "Nah, fuck it." That this is the first time we’ve heard Sandy talk like that is certainly important, but even more so is what her answer means. The phrase is not just obscene; it’s also a universally recognized idiom with two related meanings. First, it says to the world that the speaker just doesn’t care anymore. Sandy’s not just cussing here; she’s publicly rejecting all the values of her past life, in particular the idea that sex is "dirty." She’s moving from the 50s to the 60s. The other parallel meaning is that regardless of the consequences, the speaker is charging ahead, and that’s part of this moment as well.
But it goes even deeper than that. Fuck is the granddaddy of all cuss words, the word that draws a line in the moral sand. Especially in 1959 – but even still today – fuck is a word that separates the "nice" (i.e., conforming) people from the "bad" (i.e., less repressed) people. Sandy has picked sides in one of America’s great Culture Wars, and so her journey moves out of the personal and into the political, as she utters this infamous word that will stand at the very center of the counterculture of the 1960s, a word Lenny Bruce will go to jail for. It’s a great way to end this story, and it’s also why a cleaned-up Grease is worse than no Grease at all…
Copyright 2006. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
, From Assassins to West Side Story
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR