Saturday, August 11, 2018

Theatre Thoughts - An Analysis: Grease: Pretty Music Disguised as a Good Musical

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By: Emma B.
Before there was Hamilton, before there was Wicked & Book of Mormon, even before Phantom of the Opera, there was Grease.
Grease was a stepping stone of 1970s culture and a musical that continues to be discussed and parodied to this day. It’s often called a lovely look back with fantastic music and most memories of it are very fond. However, I ask is the musical really that good?
Now let it be known there are quite a lot of things I enjoy about Grease. I think its music and dance numbers are amazing. I think writers and directors of musicals can learn something from Grease. However, I also think that Grease is far more flawed than most people remember, specifically in the way it handles its plot and characters.

The Basic Story (Literally):
The plot of Grease is, ultimately, exceedingly simple. Yes, there are subplots that happen but they don’t add much to the basic story and therefore will be looked at in further detail later.
The main storyline of Grease is this: A new girl named Sandy meets and falls in love with a boy named Danny. They separate at the end of the summer, having no idea that they will soon go to the same high school. Once, they discover that they go to the same high school, Danny immediately ignores Sandy for the sake of being cool. From that moment it is a struggle for both of them to figure out their relationship. 

Now on the surface this sounds like a decent enough plot to a show. But when you stop and ignore the flashy set pieces, Grease, in my opinion, is actually kind of boring. However, it’s not because of the concept but rather because of the lead characters and their personality or more accurately, lack thereof.

Our Main Characters:
Sandy is sweet and innocent. She’s a new girl. Not that any of these character traits are bad, just that they are Sandy’s only traits. The audience doesn’t know much more about her. The audience also knows little about Danny. His only character traits are that he’s chill and wants to be cool. The only other thing we know about him is that he likes cars and that’s only because of the race he does against the rival group of teens.
Plus Sandy has little agency and doesn’t really do much to win back Danny until the end when she has to change her entire personality which doesn’t sit well character wise. Danny has a little more agency but his flip-flopping motivations don’t help his character.
Now many people say that because Grease borrows immensely from 1950s culture, the characters are simple as a way of satirizing 50s television and movies with far more simple writing. But I think there is one huge hole in this theory, that being the serious issues the musical tackles.
This brings us to the subplots of Grease and in turn, the biggest problem, I have with Grease.

The Elephant in the Room:
The biggest and probably most well-known subplot of Grease is the subplot between Rizzo and Kenickie, specifically if Rizzo may or may not be pregnant. Is she or isn’t she? Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you here.
Teen pregnancy is a serious issue that even other movies and musicals don’t tackle and for a light comedy about teens racing cars, it seems almost out of place. Now granted, Grease is filled with innuendos and lots of adult comedy. But the comedy is just that, comedy. The sub-plot with Rizzo by comparison takes up a fair chunk of the film and is played straight.
Now one could argue the storyline about Rizzo’s possible pregnancy was about Rizzo learning to grow as a person but here’s the thing, as an audience, we don’t see that. It’s only implied and weakly implied at that. Furthermore, I think it is a weak subplot for someone that isn’t the main character. But then again this begs the question, why in the world was the audience not allowed to really see the sub-plot with Rizzo? Simply put, it’s because character development isn’t the priority of Grease.
It was all about the aesthetics for the musical. And by that I mean the songs and the dance numbers. These elements are given the most focus and time throughout the movie, even when the elements do not move the plot forward. Therefore, the characters and story, which were already really weak, aren’t allowed to grow. And this is said even though Grease was somewhat ahead of its time by talking about issues like teen pregnancy.
So...is there anything good about Grease?
Despite the flaws in the places where it counts, I would say there are things to be learned from Grease and in a way most people know, the aesthetic of the show. As I said earlier, the songs and dance numbers are amazing and are something that people remember and love.

The Verdict:
At its core, Grease is a show that pleases not because it’s super deep and complex but rather because it’s good at holding the audience’s attention.
Overall, Grease’s story and characters are weak but when you enjoy the pure visual spectacle of Grease, it is enjoyable.  
Plus, let’s face it, you’re never going to get Summer Nights out of your head.


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