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'Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies' revisits the iconic '50s-set musical from a bold, offbeat modern perspective
When Minx and Transparent producer Annabel Oakes was asked if she would be interested in rebooting Grease as a TV show, her intended answer was a polite pass. Nobody needs another Grease. Grease is absolutely perfect. It’s an important part of my and so many other people’s childhoods. I am not interested in dragging this down, she thought.
But as she started to type out her refusal, Oakes pondered the unanswered questions she had from the original film. Sandy and Danny (famously played by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta) tied up nicely, but I always did love those Pink Ladies, and I really wanted to live in that sleepover in Frenchy’s bedroom, says Oakes. I wondered if that girl gang was a real thing or if it was just something they made up for the musical and for TV.
The showrunner for the film’s prequel, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, soon discovered the group was based on real girls that attended the high school of the musical’s creator, Jim Jacobs, who had banded together for being different from their classmates. This gave Oakes an idea to explore the genesis of the famous Pink Ladies while bringing to the screen the diversity that the original productions lacked. Latin people were here. Ambitious women were here. Queer people were here. Asian people were here in the ’50s. Let’s show what they went through, says Oakes.
To get a sense of what high school was like in the ’50s and ’60s, Oakes reached out to her mother and her high school friends for their perspectives. I started to get these amazing, beautiful, interesting, unexpected stories from people of all different walks of life, she says. I talked to popular girls. I talked to a woman who later became a radical lesbian feminist. I talked to people of all races. As part of her research, Oakes even paid a visit to James Marshall High, where the carnival scene for the film took place, and borrowed one of their year books. 1954 was actually pretty diverse, she says. I don’t think we are pushing forward some narrative or trying to do important work. We are just looking at what a Southern California high school actually looked like and telling some of those stories that didn’t have a chance to be told in a technicolor, musical way.
Much like the 1971 stage musical and 1978 film looked at the 1950s through a 1970s lens, the 10-episode series, which is set four years prior to Sandy’s arrival at Rydell High, adds another contemporary layer to the storytelling. They were telling really subversive, funny stories about the ’50s from a ’70s point of view, and now we are in the 2020s, and we get to comment on what they said in the ’70s and the ’50s, which is a cool experience, says Oakes.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Grease if there weren’t epic musical numbers. But how does one live up to the music by Jacobs and Warren Casey? When I was trying so hard to get this job, I was, like, ‘Why am I fighting so hard for something that people are going to be very, very precious over? Like, am I asking for trouble?’ muses music producer and songwriter Justin Tranter. But I thought, what an amazing challenge to push myself to dig deeper and explore music I never have before.
The scope of the series is something that has taken both Tranter and Oakes by surprise. I kept writing the script, like, ‘Are you sure this is the plan? We are going to make a musical with 30 original songs on TV, which has never, ever, ever been done?’ And they kept saying, ‘Write it big. Write it cinematic,’ recalls Oakes. In fact, the only song from the original that appears in the series is Grease Is the Word, written by Barry Gibb for the motion picture. It was this whole journey of paying respect to something that was very much of the time, which was a beautiful challenge to try to figure out, says Tranter. ‘Grease Is the Word’ is a straight-up disco song. [This is] our ’50s version of ‘Grease Is the Word.’
While telling new stories within this iconic framework, it was vital to everyone involved that the spirit of the original remained intact. This show is a love letter to all the women of the ’50s. It’s a love letter to the women in Grease. And I think it’s also a love letter to all the people who were not given screen time in the 1950s or the original Grease, says cast member Ari Notartomaso, who plays Cynthia. And something really beautiful about it is that—because it is Grease—you can see the joy that each of our characters experience, even through the different struggles they face. Her castmate Tricia Fukuhara concurs: That’s why they all come together.
Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies premieres Thursday, April 6 on Paramount+