Study Guide

Grease

Grease Introduction


Release Year: 1978

Genre: Musical, Romance

Director: Randal Kleiser

Writer: Alan Carr and Bronte Woodard (based on the playbook by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey)

Stars: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing


A lot of teen movies will try to convince you that all high school students are, deep down, basically the same—that each and every one of us contains a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.

And while that's a warm n' fuzzy sentiment, we know the truth. (We're a little cynical, a la Rizzo.) There are different groups. There are bad boys who drag race on Thunder Road. There are Australians who get on to the cheerleading squad without trying out. There are nerds who have weirdly strong pitching arms. There are girls who drop out of high school to go to beauty school…and then drop out of beauty school to go back to high school.

And in Grease, we get to see all these different groups in action—especially the T-Birds, leather-jacketed rebels without causes, and the Pink Ladies, pink-coated girls who sugarcoat nothing. These two groups sing dramatic, impeccably choreographed songs about teen love, fast cars, hormones, heartbreak, and hair dye.

In between songs, Grease tells the story of Sandy and Danny. Sandy's a wholesome girl from Australia, made of sugar, spice, and Vegemite (or whatever young women from Down Under are made of). Danny is a rough-and-tumble greaser, a young man who spends half his time thinking of his car engine and the other half thinking of girls.

Released in 1978, Grease is set in the 1950s, a time when thirty-year-olds went to high school and everyone spontaneously burst into song. It's a nostalgic look at this time, but it's not a hundred percent happy days. Grease is a bright, colorful musical, but it also tackles identity issues, sexual awakening, and car trouble.

Serious stuff for anyone in high school…even though these students look old enough to be principals.

The old people playing teenagers in Grease are John Travolta as Danny (then twenty-four years old), Olivia Newton-John as Sandy (then thirty years old), and Stockard Channing as bad girl Rizzo (then thirty-four years old). Travolta was still hot from his Saturday Night Fever. Newton-John was a pop star. Channing was a theater actor with a few TV roles, including the lead in the 1973 made-for-TV movie The Girl Most Likely To…, a film written by comedian Joan Rivers.

Travolta was already a star, but Grease greased the gears of Newton-John's and Channing's careers. Newton-John went on to record pop hit "Physical" (1981) and a few other steamy songs, perhaps inspired by her own character's makeover from goody-goody to sexpot. Channing continued acting, including roles on The West Wing and The Good Wife. She plays the good wife's mother. (Do we smell a spin-off: The Good Mother-in-Law?)

  

Director Randal Kleiser and screenwriters Alan Carr and Bronte Woodard adapted the original musical Grease for the screen. The stage show, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, was first performed in 1971 in Chicago. The film's most memorable songs, like "Summer Nights" and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," were in the original production. The film's title song, "Grease," was added for the movie. Wherever the songs originated, fans have been singing these tunes for around forty years, proving that Grease is one (of the musicals) that they want.

Following in the tradition of The Sound of Music Live! (2013), The Wiz Live! (2015), and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark Live! (TBD), Grease got the live (exclamation point) TV treatment in 2016. Airing on FOX, the film starred Dancing with the Stars star Julianne Hough as Sandy, Carly Rae Jepsen as the beauty school dropout Frenchy, and Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo.

The revival renewed interest in the original, and it reminded us that whether you identified as a geek, jock, or somewhere in between in high school, there are only two ultimate cliques: those who have seen Grease, and those who haven't.

What is Grease About and Why Should I Care?

From a distance, musicals seem like good, clean fun.

But while Grease is both good and fun, it's far from clean. Grease is full of risqué double entendres and unashamed to address risky (which is risqué without makeup) issues, like sex, pregnancy, drag racing, sex, and more sex.

Did we mention the sex part?

This movie pretty much shattered the idea—still kind of prevalent in 1978, when the movie was made—that the 1950s were a decade of long poodle skirts, tidy crew cuts, and nothing but a shared malted milkshake before marriage. Nope: hidden behind fear of nuclear Armageddon and whether or not Jell-O counted as a vegetable, the 1950s were full of sexuality.

Don't tell June and Ward Cleaver.

Grease remains a multi-part time capsule—a handy way to reference how sexuality is portrayed and understood throughout the ages. The original movie portrayed the 1950s with a liberated, post-Pill 1970s attitude (and 70s aesthetic: dig that groovy credits sequence).

And when Grease was updated for the 2016 production of Grease Live! some of the musical's more risqué lines got tweaked. For example, the line, "she's a really pussy wagon" in '78 became "she's a real dream wagon" in 2016. (Source)

Grease Live! also changed the line "the chicks'll cream" to "the chicks'll scream," and removed scenes of bullying and Marty's reference to almost being roofied by Vince Fontaine. (Source)

However, some fans were upset that other lines weren't changed. Danny still says, "Sloppy seconds aren't my style." The line "Did she put up a fight?" was left in "Summer Nights," prompting one critic to ask, "Why would the producers include a scene that makes light of an issue like sexual assault, while other aspects of the original film were revamped for a more modern, politically correct audience?" (Source)

This movie is about way more than just putting on a wig and singing about Sandra Dee. It prompted a dang nationwide conversation about sex and consent.

Sure, Grease is a musical that includes a flying car, a hallucinogenic dream sequence about beauty school, a discussion about what wine pairs best with Twinkies, and the super-weird assertion that parents would decide to make the move from Australia to Everytown, USA without telling their high school-aged daughter.

But it's also a movie that highlights how sexuality is viewed in America, both now and when our grandparents were wearing diapers.

And that, to quote Grease, is just shoobop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom chang chang changitty chang shoobop.

Trivia

Watch out, Sandy, Bowzer's at the dance! Okay, this isn't the same princess-kidnapping Bowser. This Bowzer is part of the classic rock band Sha Na Na, who stars in Grease as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. That's a good band name, but it doesn't roll off the tongue as well as Sha Na Na. (Source)

Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) wasn't always second banana. In the Broadway production of Grease he played the first banana, Danny Zuko. And while he may not have ended up with Sandy in the movie, he did end up with Sandy's sister. Conaway was married to Olivia Newton-John's sister, Rona, in the early 80s. (Source)

When Sandy and Tom dine at the diner, you might notice a blurry poster behind them. No, the producers didn't overlook some sexually explicit diner art. The poster is an ad for Coca-Cola. After agreeing to give product placement to Pepsi (see the case in the background of "Hopelessly Devoted to You"), the offensive Coke poster had to blurred out in post-production. (Source)

You've heard of waiting tables while trying to get a big break in Hollywood? John Travolta's sister, Ellen, is waiting tables as her big break. The star's sister is a diner waitress who watches National Bandstand on TV. (Source)

In the DVD commentary, Patricia Birch says that the "Hand Jive" originally had a more, um, risqué title and lyrics. If you can't catch our drift, put your mind in the gutter and consider this line: "I could barely walk when I milked a cow." (Source)

Matilda loves Grease. Mara Wilson, who played Matilda, wrote an essay about always seeing herself as "a Sandy in Rizzo's clothing." (Source)

Grease's director, Randal Kleiser didn't like the title song, "Grease," because it didn't "fit the fifties style musically or lyrically." We think he's right, but it's still an amazing song, and it reminds us that the movie has its feet in two decades—the 50s and the 70s. (Source)

One freaky fan theory surfaced that said maybe the whole car-flying-and-everything-is-perfect ending is a little too far-fetched to be real. And apparently that means they had to jump to this conclusion: Sandy was dead the whole time, and the movie is the dream she had in a coma before she died. Yeesh. But hey, Sarah Michelle Gellar believes it, so it must be true. (Source)

Grease Resources

Websites

Grease Stains
The Paramount store has mugs, stickers, and apparel. These are shirts you wouldn't mind having Grease all over.

Book or TV Adaptations

Grease: Live!
Grease: Live! was broadcast on FOX in January 2016, featuring Julianne Hough as Sandy and Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo. Whatever your opinion of the adaptation, we can all agree on one thing: it's better than Grease: Dead!

Articles and Interviews

Let's Get Chrisma-cal
Olivia Newton-John reunited with John Travolta and Grease songwriter John Farrar for a Christmas album in 2012. Have a greasy Christmas.

Sandy Strikes Back
Long thought pieces about celebrity image aren't exclusive to the 21st century. Rolling Stone wrote an epic analysis of Olivia Newton-John in 1978.

Video

Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease
Wheel of Fortune creator Merv Griffin interviews the two johns: Travolta, and Olivia Newton.

Christmas Quiz
John and Olivia answer questions in front of a Christmas tree.

Quiet Summer Nights
This YouTuber imagines "Summer Nights" without music.

Audio

Jessie is the Word
Jessie J covered "Grease" for Grease Live! Does she have groove? Does she have meaning?

Tell Us More
Are the summer nights the same when sung by a different cast?

Images

Live and Still Alive
These pics compare the cast of Grease with the new cast of Grease: Live! How do they stack up?

Hair Dos
We'd like this minimalist Grease poster better if we could figure out which one was Frenchy.

Smokin' Hot
This minimalist poster could also serve as a no-smoking ad.