Grease: Two ProductionS, 30 Years Apart
This past season, Wildwood produced Grease for the second time in its history after first putting it on in 1987. Though these two productions were put on in different eras, the sentiments that come out of this show are still the same. I had the opportunity to interview actors from both the 1987 production and 2016 production as well as both directors. Their insights to the characters, productions, and eras were unique yet similar; one could say their thoughts really “go together.”
I started my interviews with the directors, Bruce Dworkin from the 1987 production and Jake Young from the 2016 production. My questions had an overarching theme—how is Grease significant to its audiences and Wildwood as a company? Both directors started by discussing Grease’s main idea: empowerment and “coming of age” through 50’s rock n’ roll music. Why does this show always draw audiences? “Grandparents are nostalgic for the 50’s, parents are nostalgic for the time they did Grease, and teenagers today enjoy putting on the classic musical,” explains Jake, “it’s an energetic show full of youthful optimism!” In Bruce’s Director’s Note, he describes Grease as “a piece of American musical theatre…that builds a refreshing merriment around a simple story.” Audiences want an escape from their reality, something simple and catchy, when they come to the theatre and Grease is the perfect show for that.
Moving away from the audience appeal, Bruce talked about the production’s significance to WST at the time; “in the years surrounding Grease, WST went from more leather jackets and cigarettes to letterman sweaters unstained by ‘Sneaky Pete.’” Well-known traditions, such as the chicken and pranks were modified or stopped to fit the new reputation Wildwood was trying to build for itself. The live chicken was replaced with a rubber one two years prior to Grease and there was less of a need for the ‘particular skills’ of ‘Begg, Burroughs, and Steele’ thanks to better fundraising. Wildwood was entering into a new era of musical theatre with a raised production value in comparison to the past years where the productions had been small-scale. Bruce continued by praising his many technicians and designers for all the “high-tech” effects they had in the show. For example, the costumers and lighting designer worked together to isolate the actors’ hands and feet during “Hand Jive” by using white gloves and socks and only lighting the stage with black lights. They even had a real car for Greased Lightening! In comparison to this season’s production, we did not have the same production value because of the space limitations of the Arts Barn, but what was lacking in special effects and set was made up for in the acting. “The cast really took effort to understand and develop these characters with accuracy dramaturgically…I truly believe that we tell some really incredible stories through these characters and their struggles,” comments Jake on the way his actors took their characters a step further than what is just written in the script. Both directors made strong choices in their respective productions – be it more complex characters or advanced technical work, resulting in wonderfully successful productions.
Next I spoke with the actresses, Pamela Boland (1987) and Emma Higgins (2016), who played different interpretations of Marty. Pamela saw Marty as vapid. “She loved that she had the attention of the boys, but thought she was really too good for most of them,” explained Pamela. Contrary to Pamela’s interpretation of Marty, Emma saw her character as much more complex. “Marty is a young woman trying to find her voice and individuality during a time when many teenagers felt
conflicted about how much they could rebel against social expectations.” As someone who has no fear in rebelling against social norms and expectations, Emma incorporated her own rebellious spunk into her performance of Marty. She continued our conversation with advice to any future actors that take on the role of Marty; dive deeper into the character because “[Marty’s] story is strong enough to carry whatever amount of complexity you wish to communicate.” Pamela’s advice to future actors falls along a similar line; have fun with your role! Though Pamela and Emma had different interpretations of Marty, though both agreed that Grease continues to excite and draw audiences because it represents a “simple and fun” time of our lives. Emma elaborated this opinion in saying, “at some point in time, we’ve all been or known characters just like the ones in Grease.” Grease is familiar, Grease is nostalgic.
The second actor pair that I interviewed was Amy Delouse (1987) and Michelle Schrier (2016), who played Jan. Just as Jan is short sweet, both actors gave short and sweet responses in their interviews. They agree that Jan is a silly, gluttonous character whom they both enjoyed playing. However, Amy described Jan as “the always-eating-slightly-stupid-often-hilarious-always-loyal-Pink-Lady” while Michelle saw her as more of a sweet girl “with a bite to her.” It is always wonderful to see different, and even new, interpretations of characters that audiences are so familiar with.
I thoroughly enjoyed talking to our Grease alums and hearing their stories from the production “back in the day.” It was exciting to hear about the similarities between the two productions and how our company has evolved; even with the different interpretations of a period musical such as Grease! It was even more exciting to hear how Grease appeared at Wildwood during it’s “growing up” years, when the administration of the company was steering towards a more professional atmosphere. (Almost) gone were the days of drunk crew members, live chickens, and wild cast parties. It should be a comfort to those alums to know that we, the current company members, still hold their crazy, fun-loving values close to our hearts.
- Elisabeth Bragale