The Failure That Could Have Been ‘Grease’ Without John Travolta And Olivia Newton-John

Since the unexpected upsurge of drive-ins in the US in the midst of the coronavirus crisis brought to mind the mythical drive-in scene in Grease, fans of this iconic 1978 musical can’t shake a shocking thought from the mind: the movie. it was about to not be what it is, since its main protagonists, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, were far from being the first options to interpret their respective roles. How? Grease without Travolta and Newton-John? Yes, as you are reading it. The highest-grossing American musical of the s. XX –whose soundtrack was also the second best-selling album of its year, only behind another hit by Travolta, Saturday Night Fever– was about to have very different faces from the ones we now associate with Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson. And last but not least, the filming was carried out under very difficult conditions, several musical numbers were added and others were removed from the film in full production, and the emotions of its managers collided until it was almost impossible to bring the project to fruition. Although it may surprise fans today, John Travolta was not even a contemplated option for the role of Danny Zuko. Instead, a young Henry Winkler (who already had experience playing a gang member thanks to Happy Days) received the coveted offer – as Vanity Fair recalls. Only after Winkler rejected the proposal would the name Travolta be shuffled, who had previously worked with producer Robert Stigwood on Saturday Night Fever and had even portrayed Doody in a montage of the Grease stage musical created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. . In addition, it would be Travolta himself who would recommend director Randal Kleiser (The Flight of the Navigator), who, although he had no film experience at the time, had already directed him in the 1976 telefilm The Boy with the Plastic Bubble. half of his starring partner and a director to take charge of the filming. But who would play the lovable Sandy Olsson? Assigned the role of biker Zuko, producer Allan Carr toyed with the names of Carrie Fisher (who had by then played Leia in the first installment of Star Wars), Ann-Margret ( A kiss for Birdie), Susan Dey (Mom and her amazing children) and singer Marie Osmond for the role of student Sandy Olsson. However, Travolta went ahead to make a new high-risk proposal that would end up being completely lucky: a multiple Grammy award-winning country singer … but with little experience as an actress. Indeed, Olivia Newton-John had only faced the cameras in the Australian-New Zealand musical Funny Things Happen Down Under (1965) and the British Toomorrow – both premiered with little success before his discovery as a singer. Still, the biggest obstacle was undoubtedly his age. As he confessed to Entertainment Weekly, “I was already 29 years old and I was concerned that I didn’t look young enough to play high school student Sandy.” However, Travolta was determined to count on her for the film. “There is only one person who should play this role and it is Olivia Newton-John … It is the dream of any boy,” he recalled saying at the time – as revealed in a 2018 interview for People magazine. Despite Travolta’s insistence, Newton-John was very reticent to take the step and accept the role, fearing a new misstep that would definitely condemn his career. Finally, the young woman asked to carry out a screen test, in which she and Travolta would test their chemistry by recreating the famous drive-in scene we mentioned at the beginning. Unfortunately, Newton-John’s British-Australian origins – and her poor acting experience – kept her from performing with a convincing American accent. But the strong connection between the two interpreters had convinced everyone who watched the test, she reminded Entertainment Weekly herself: “John and I had great chemistry from the first time we met.” Consequently, Sandy’s character was rewritten to make him an Australian exchange student. Feeling free to use her own accent and convinced of the project’s viability, Newton-John agreed to charge a reduced salary (who was going to tell him that it was a fundamental piece of the mythical puzzle that would end up being Grease?) And signed to play Sandy , whose last name was changed from the one the character had in the theatrical musical (from Dumbrowski to Olsson). However, there were still other important roles to be signed from Grease’s extensive cast … singing … but it ended up assuming a complicated bobbin lace. Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, was weighed up as a candidate to play Rizzo – the leader of the Pink Ladies or Ladies in Pink – but as she herself confessed to the Austin Chronicle, she failed to sign the contract on time opting for an apparently safer but ultimately much less profitable job: “I quit Grease to do A Kiss for Birdie at the Melody Top Theater in Milwaukee.” In her place, Stockard Channing was nominated as a candidate – despite the general concern that this 33-year-old actress could play the student Rizzo. According to Vanity Fair, director Kleiser himself decided to personally check all possible cast members (including Channing) to try to locate wrinkles on his face – and only when they passed the so-called “crow’s feet test” did they officially get the job Other roles turned out to be equally troublesome. Without going any further, producer Carr chose porn star Harry Reems to play Zuko’s coach and mentor Vince Calhoun. However, Paramount executives vetoed this option, worried that Reems’ reputation would harm revenue in the southern states. Instead, the producers chose Sid Caesar – who along with Eve Arden, Frankie Avalon, Joan Blondell, Edd Byrnes, Alice Ghostley and Dody Goodman went on to swell the long list of 1950s television stars who played supporting roles in Grease: There were also signings in extremis such as that of the famous Lorenzo Lamas, who replaced Steven Ford at the last minute when he developed stage fright shortly before filming began and had to give it up (and that the role did not have dialogues! ). On the other hand, Jamie Donnelly managed to be the only actress from the original Broadway production to play the same role in the film – despite the fact that her hair had already started to gray, so she had to dye it for the shoot … Despite all Due to these difficulties, the cast of Grease was able to consolidate and production started… towards a filming of the most infernal. ROLLING UNDER A BURNING SUN Although the play was set in Chicago, the film adaptation of Grease was shot in California during the hot summer 1977. In exchange for an outdoor shoot that was guaranteed sunlight, the team agreed to work under very high temperatures. So much so, that during the filming of the dance scene in high school, the gym became an absolutely stifling environment for the cast… they couldn’t even ventilate, as a nearby pig processing plant emitted foul smells that infiltrated the set! As director Kleiser told Los Angeles Magazine: “People threw themselves on the gym floor to fight exhaustion.” Something similar happened during the filming of the final scene – the number “We Go Together” – which took place on the football field of a school. Kelly Ward, the actor who played T-Birds gang member Putzie, revealed to Yahoo Entertainment in 2018: “There were people passing out from dehydration and heat exhaustion during that sequence. It was an oppressively warm setting because there was no place to hide. There was not a shadow. It was midsummer, we were outdoors and it was very hot. ” One day, the actors who played several of the T-Birds – Barry Pearl (Doody), Michael Tucci (Sonny), Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) and Ward himself – decided to take advantage of the location in Southern California and go out to surf for a day off on the set. Although they had to be back that night to shoot a scene, they felt they had enough time – until the wind died down completely and their sailboat was adrift. The group managed to arrive in time for the nightly shoot after the captain performed a wind summoning dance that, according to those present, worked. In Ward’s words, that was “a whole moment of union for the T-Birds.” THE MARIANT SWING OF THE MUSICAL NUMBERS Although, as we have already said, Stockard Channing got the role of Rizzo, the thirty-year-old almost had no opportunity to interpret the great song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, in which Rizzo takes control of his own sexuality. According to the actress told Vanity Fair, the producer Carr considered the song “depressing”, and she herself had to convince him that it was necessary to include it, saying: “Only then we know what is inside this little person. Otherwise, she’s just mere surface. ”On the other hand, Newton-John’s romantic lament for“ Hopelessly Devoted to You ”wasn’t included in the film until after the main shoot was completed. Also the final duet performed by the two protagonists, “You´re the One That I Want”, was a last minute addition. And as Yahoo Entertainment collects, their choreography was designed on site during filming, and the members of the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies ended up doubling their own phrases in post-production. Barry Pearl, the actor who portrays Doody, confessed to Yahoo: “It was a song we had never heard before.” Also, many of the themes of the stage set were removed from the film. “Greased Lightnin” was included, but after undergoing major changes: in the original version, Kenickie is the one who sings about his car, while in the film he is replaced by Zuko – an alteration for which Travolta was primarily responsible. As the actor told Vanity Fair: “I will be completely honest. I wanted that number. And because I had influence, I was able to get the number. ” This “theft” would not go unnoticed, as we will see shortly. And yet, things could have been worse, since among the production plans was to incorporate the Beach Boys to interpret the theme … A CAROUSEL OF EMOTIONS To make matters worse, the production of Grease was marked by emotional turmoil that involved several of its main managers. As we have said, Jeff Conaway, the actor who played the T-Bird Kenickie and who consequently should have interpreted the song “Greased Lightnin”, was very upset when Travolta decided to take his place in front of the musical number. But Travolta was still out of mourning over the death of his girlfriend, Diana Hyland, in March 1977. In turn, Conaway would start a relationship with Olivia Newton-John’s older sister after meeting her at a party, while the actress who She played Sandy underwent a real personal transformation when her character changed from a good girl to a tempting biker at the end of the film. As he revealed to Rolling Stone: “That opened me up. Thanks to this I felt that I wanted to try different things. Everything new was open. ”Between so much emotional convulsion, the actors ended up making pineapple. As Barry Pearl revealed to Yahoo Entertainment: “We all end up getting along. It was a 15-week labor of love. You perceive it when you see it ”. Didi Conn, the actress who played Frenchy, explained to the Daily Mail: “It was a lot of fun because most of us were older than the characters we played, so we stayed in character all day.” Grease’s cast had so much fun, that after filming was over they were more than willing to shoot the sequel proposal, Summer School. However, the producers did not know how to recognize the success they had in their hands, and the sequel project came to nothing – at least until in 1982 Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the infamous Grease 2, whose bad taste in the mouth can only be eliminated by Grease : Rydell High, the spin-off series currently being prepared by HBO Max. So the end of Grease’s production had a happy note… although perhaps too happy. And it is that before separating definitively, the members of the cast enjoyed an end-of-shooting party to which, according to Conn, Channing brought some “special brownies”. Without needing to clarify what peculiar ingredient these biscuits that all those present consumed could contain, Conn assured in the interview with the Daily Mail that his memory of the party is vague: “I really don’t remember much, just dancing and throwing myself on the floor with laughter with everyone. ”THE FORMULA OF SUCCESS? But it is no coincidence that we end up talking about magical ingredients: Grease’s recipe, like that of the best dishes, is as easy to recognize and praise as it is difficult to conceive. The well-known Hollywood saying – popularized by screenwriter William Goldman – that “nobody knows anything” fully applies to the unprecedented success of this unusual mix of musical and romantic comedy released 20 years after the decade it represents. And we are talking about more than 340 million euros (366 million dollars) raised worldwide, which make it the seventh highest grossing musical in history. In statements to Forbes magazine, Newton-John herself explained Better than anyone, the unpredictability of Grease’s success: “Making it was fun, but with movies you never know if viewers are going to connect or not, even if you love it.” “It’s incredible that I still like it today. But not only is that, it also shows no signs of stopping. You say “Sandy and Danny” and people immediately know what you are talking about. “More stories that may interest you: