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'Grease: Live' gets ready to dance

During a recent rehearsal for Fox's upcoming, live broadcast of the musical "Grease," Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough waited for their musical cue to jump in the fray and gambol alongside a troupe of frenetic dancers.

The number was "We Go Together," and during the rehearsal on a backlot in Burbank, the Broadway heartthrob and "Dancing With the Stars" alum tried their best to lock down those seemingly impossible shoo bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom foot movements as choreographer Zach Woodlee ("Glee," "Annie") hollered commands over the music.

The couple were dressed in comfy, casual workout clothing, but come Sunday they'll be doing these same moves during the live broadcast wearing black, body-hugging ensembles similar to those made famous by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the 1978 film rendition of the musical.

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"I used to steal the VHS tape from my parents' bedroom because I wasn't allowed to watch PG-13 movies," Hough said during a break from rehearsal. "I used to go down to the basement and mimic all the dances and sing the songs. And now look at me."

Three years after NBC returned to TV musical waters with live renditions of such stage productions as "The Sound of Music" "Peter Pan" and recent go-round "The Wiz," broadcast competitor Fox is diving in with "Grease: Live" on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.

As networks contend with shifting audience habits that increasingly favor time-delayed viewing, networks are scrambling to create events spectacular enough to battle the power of the DVR. Fox, perhaps of all the legacy networks, is a natural fit for a musical production because it's the home base for musical powerhouses of the present and recent past: "Empire," "Glee" and singing competition "American Idol."

"Any time that you can send a message to a broad audience that there is something special happening, like live sporting events, where people are flying without a net and bringing a level of showmanship that you can't have with a drama that's been highly edited, is a good thing," said Fox Television Group Co-Chairman Dana Walden, who noted her two daughters have done versions of "Grease" at school.

The revamped-for-live-TV event, a Paramount Television production, features well-known names among the millennial set.

In addition to Hough and Tveit as leads Sandy and Danny, others donning leather jackets and poodle skirts include Vanessa Hudgens (Disney's "High School Musical," Broadway's "Gigi") as tough girl Rizzo, singer Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, Keke Palmer as Marty, Kether Donohue as Jan, Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie, David Del Rio as Putzie, and more.

The elaborate NBC renderings rotated scenes on one New York soundstage; the Fox affair is even more ambitious. The production will unfold over two soundstages housing a number of sets on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Production will also take place on Midwest Street — i.e., a backlot that they'll use for exterior scenes of Rydell High and the carnival grounds (during rehearsals, however, the lot was still the town of Rosewood seen in "Pretty Little Liars").

"Ask me after it's all over if I think the multiple soundstages was a good idea," joked stage director Thomas Kail, known most recently for his celebrated stage work with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the smash "Hamilton."

"I wanted it to feel vibrant and vital the way the film did," he said. "I wanted locations that felt like real places that could ground us so when we lift off and go to the fantasy of 'Greased Lightnin'' or the Teen Angel arrives, you have something to depart from."

The musical delves into the lives of working-class teenagers during the early 1950s rock 'n' roll era. Originally a 1971 theater production in Chicago, the musical became a cultural touchstone when it was adapted for the big screen in 1978 with Travolta and Newton-John as its leads.

"When we first got together to do the photo shoot, I remember thinking, 'Are we actually doing this?'" Hudgens said. "It's sort of surreal to be a part of introducing this iconic musical to a new generation."

Playwrights-screenwriters Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins were charged with writing the three-hour production, using the familiar Paramount Pictures film as a starting point. But they also worked in elements from the stage show — particularly since the film's run time is 1 hour, 50 minutes.

"We had to figure out how to expand the show without it feeling drawn out and padded," Tolins said. "And, of course, the other job was coming up with where to put 11 commercial breaks."

Two songs from the original stage show — "Freddy My Love" and "Those Magic Changes" — made their way into the Fox production. Cary and Tolins also found ways to play up Hough's background by having Sandy dance more than she usually does — including in a scene in which she's auditioning to be a cheerleader.

The show also will feature an original song, "All I Need Is an Angel," written specifically for Jepsen's Frenchy by "If/Then" duo Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. And given the show's 7 p.m. start time, adjustments were made to some of the more suggestive lyrics in the soundtrack (in those cases, the school-sanctioned production versions of the lyrics were used).

"I think we're very much doing our own slant on it," said the show's live director, Alex Rudzinski, who has directed more than 500 hours of live broadcasts on "Dancing With the Stars." "It would be fickle to try to do a copycat live broadcast. This is a live TV production. If you get too close then all people will do all night is just compare take for take and you open yourself up for problems."

The NBC productions were big ratings draws, but they also proved fodder for plenty of snark of social media. And if "grease" is the word, "Grease: Live" will surely be a conversation on Twitter. Good or bad, the cast say they're ready for it.

"Sing along and enjoy it and maybe introduce it to someone new," Hough said. "It's inevitable that people are going to say stupid…. But I've had the best experience of my life doing this, and I don't give a crap."

Helping to make the production as seamless as possible is a crew of about 400 people and about 20 cameras. There will also be a second-screen element in which viewers can get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action during commercial breaks.

"Of course there's going to be snafus or people tripping up," Rudzinski said. "But you try and step back from that and you try to be reactive to the problems we're going to have."

Since the live broadcast will be filmed partly outdoors, a 40-foot-tall, tent-like shield was recently erected to cover the exterior of Rydell High as a safeguard against an unpredictable El Niño strike.

The show will also have a more interactive element than its NBC counterparts. It will feature a live audience that will play a role in the production at various moments (e.g. seat fillers in bleachers during gym scenes, etc.).

In a passing of the "Grease" baton, Barry Pearl and Didi Conn (who played Doody and Frenchy, respectively, in the film) will make cameos in Fox's live production.

As the new generation of Pink Ladies and T-Birds rehearsed the scene in which Danny and Sandy's date at the Frosty Palace gets crashed by friends, Conn was off to the side observing with an ear-to-ear grin.

She'll be playing Viola, the waitress at the diner. But as rehearsal wound down and Jepsen was the only one left at a table, she turned to Conn with her eyes beaming: "It's so nice to meet you!" Jepsen said to her Frenchy forebear.

Conn, who still revels in her "Grease" days by hosting singalongs of the film at the Hollywood Bowl, said being on set was almost like traveling back in time.

"The little Didi wants to come out and play Frenchy. But I'm a big Didi now," Conn said. "It's just so exciting. They really captured the DNA of the show — the friendship, the love. It touches the kid in everybody. I hope people just get up and dance along."

Cue the music.

Twitter: @villarrealy

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Grease' gets in gear for TV - A rock 'n' roll musical beloved by generations is readied for a live broadcast to a new era" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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