When Grease first appeared at the Kingston Mines Theater in 1971, it was a Chicagocentric musical about foulmouthed working-class kids. Since then, the rough edges and local flavor have been smoothed away by Broadway, Hollywood, and countless high-school productions. In May, a refashioned original that outraunches the sanitized 1978 film opens at American Theater Company. Here, writer Jim Jacobs and ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli walk us through their reconstruction of a classic.
1. Hire the original writer. Jacobs, a native of Norwood Park who now lives on the West Coast, wrote the show’s dialogue and songs (and later rewrote them for Broadway) with the late Warren Casey. He based it on the hard-core greasers he knew at his alma mater, Taft High School. Over time, he says, the show “lost a lot of its soul, a lot of the nitty-gritty reality of what these kids were like. It became a world of Necco wafers and pastel colors. Instead of making the characters terrifying to an audience, which is how our Broadway director viewed them, we had to turn them into these lovable characters.”
2. Add back the phrase “fart blossom” and other crude teen lingo. “These guys are raunchy,” Jacobs says. “There’s a barrage of language throughout the show, sayings and terms that no one had heard in years.”
3. Return the show to its Chicago origins. When the musical went to New York City in 1973, Jacobs explains, “we had to take away references to various places in Chicago”—such as the now-defunct Polk Brothers appliance stores, where the greaser Kenickie lugs boxes. “The forest preserve became the park, and Foster Beach became the lake. It lost the magic of being a purely Chicago show.”
4. Raid the archives. Paparelli sifted through Casey’s archives at the Harold Washington Library and found lyrics and chords for a new solo, “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” intended for Danny, the lead greaser. It will join a dozen songs, many unheard until now, that were cut throughout the years.
5. Ditch the cheesy ending and restore the bawdier climax. Don’t expect to hear “You’re the One That I Want,” the song at the end of the movie. Instead, the restored musical swaps in a song called “Kiss It,” in which Sandy, the ingénue, sings, “If you want my love ever true again, you’ve got to get down on your knees and kiss it.” Her risqué pronouncement of what she expects from her boyfriend, Danny, reflects the adolescent sexual energy in the show. Explains Paparelli: “They’re teenagers—they’re thinking about sex all the time.”
GO Grease opens May 2nd at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.; atcweb.org, 773-409-4125.
Photograph: Token Photo/istockphoto