TV audiences help Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall find the stars of a major new Broadway revival in "Grease: You're the One That I Want," a talent competition series premiering Sunday, Jan. 7, on NBC.
Hosted by Billy Bush and built around Marshall's upcoming New York revival of "Grease," which is scheduled to open in June, this new series starts with what executive producer Al Edgington calls "the biggest open casting call in Broadway history," with auditions held in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
"We open the doors for the whole of America," Edgington says. "You didn't need to know anyone or to be friends with a producer or have any family ties, that kind of thing.
"Our little panel then narrowed that down to 55 people and invited them all to Grease Academy, where they had a team of crack choreographers and acting coaches and vocal coaches, who taught these diamonds in the rough how to sing and dance and act. The judges then chose the final 12 people, who will go on to live shows in Los Angeles, when America will vote on who gets to become the final Danny and Sandy."
Marshall, who sits on the judging panel with "Grease" co-creator Jim Jacobs and David Ian, who is producing this revival of "Grease," says she is totally gung-ho about this unconventional casting process.
"I think it's a wonderful adventure," she says. "People have been trying to figure out for a while now how to blend this phenomenon of reality television and Broadway, to find a way of harnessing that energy. It makes wonderful sense to do that with 'Grease,' because I think 'Grease' is the most popular musical in America, certainly one of the most performed shows.
"Also, 'Grease' has always been a launching pad for young talent, from the original cast with Barry Bostwick and Adrienne Barbeau, and Richard Gere played Danny in the original London company. I think it's a great way to try to create two new Broadway stars."
Most people know "Grease" from the blockbuster 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as Danny and Sandy, but both Edgington and Marshall say they aren't looking for clones of those two performers.
"We're looking for a thoroughly modern Danny and Sandy," Edgington says, although the new revival still is set in the 1950s. "We obviously saw a lot of people who turned up dressed and looking like [Travolta and Newton-John], but the idea of our show is to cast a net as wide as we can, to find a Danny and a Sandy for 2007."
"You do have to remember that this is a classic 1950s good girl and a classic 1950s bad boy, kind of the Sandra Dee and James Dean model," Marshall says. "But what's interesting is that they are complex characters: Sandy can't just be wholesome and fresh, because she has this fiery side that comes out at the end of the show, and Danny needs to be the confident, cool leader of the pack, but on the other hand, he has to have a sensitive, romantic side, because he also falls in love with Sandy. I love it, because 'Grease' really is about young people sort of stumbling their way into adulthood."
Beyond that, however, Marshall isn't keen on giving away any explicit details of her upcoming Broadway production of the show.
"I've been starting to work with my designers as far as putting the show together, but I don't really think that's for me to define," she says. "I approach every show in a fresh way, and I do all sorts of research into the time and the period and the place and learn everything I can about the history of the show itself and the history of the time in which the show is set. I just don't want to label what I think my take on 'Grease' is."
Edgington says that the applicants who made it as far as Grease Academy got an eye-opening lesson in just how much energy and effort goes into sustaining a long run on Broadway.
"These kids basically began to understand that winning a role where you are going to be performing eight shows a week on Broadway is no walk in the park," he says. "This was hard work, and every day they would have classes from dawn to dusk, taught to sing different vocal ranges from '50s rock and roll to modern pop. They were taught to act with some professional actors, celebrities who came in to teach. And, of course, they had to learn to dance. You know what they say: Most people can sing, some people can dance, and some people can act, but trying to do all three at the same time is incredibly difficult."
If a show like this seems a lunatic way to cast the two starring roles in a big-ticket revival, it isn't unprecedented. This NBC series is in many respects an adaptation of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" -- a U.K. TV competition built around a search for a new actress to star in a revival of "The Sound of Music." The winner, Connie Fisher, reportedly is enjoying great success in that show, which opened last fall at the London Palladium.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times