Grease: Can 'gritty' musical attract new theatre audiences?

By Helen Bushby
Entertainment and arts reporter

Published
Image source, Craig Sugden
Image caption,
Jocasta Almgill [far right] pictured with fellow Pink Ladies [L-R] Mary Moore, Jessica Croll, Eliose Davies and Lizzy-Rose Esin-Kelly

Jocasta Almgill, who has a lead role as Rizzo in London's revamped stage return of Grease, is fiercely proud to be one of its "three black Pink Ladies".

The original 1978 hit film, starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, definitely did not have a diverse cast.

And Almgill tells BBC News: "We have three black Pink Ladies, which is the first time ever - that's iconic."

The musical, back in the West End after 15 years, has also been updated to include same-sex dancing and "empowered" female characters.

Grease is about US teenagers in the 1950s, with a summer romance between "good girl Sandy and greaser Danny" becoming complicated when they end up in the same high school.

Image source, Fotos International/Getty
Image caption,
Jeff Conaway, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta and Stockard Channing in the original film

It is based on a 1971 rock'n'roll show, which went on to receive seven Tony Award nominations on Broadway.

The Wrap wrote, last year: "Though its box-office total is inflated somewhat by a re-release, Grease still holds up not just as one of the best musicals of the last 40 years but also the most successful (certainly given inflation)."

Almgill's role, played by Stockard Channing in the film, involves some pretty emotionally charged scenes.

Being a bit older than some of the cast helps her give Rizzo "gravitas and strength", she says.

But aside from age and experience, the actress is very clear about what else she is bringing to this role.

Image source, Craig Sugden
Image caption,
Jocasta Almgill and Paul French portray Rizzo and Kenickie's turbulent relationship

"I'm a black woman - so it's important to use that in the play," she says.

"As an actor, you use your traits, the things you can harness, and you can sprinkle them in when necessary.

"But my blackness is something that we can't just sprinkle in and out - it is there, present.

"It is important that it's acknowledged."

But since our interview, reports have emerged of online trolls commenting on the show's casting.

Peter Andre, who plays Vince Fontaine, shared a post from the show's producers and hit back at the "ignorant person".

Almgill responded: "Love you Pete" and shared a screenshot on her Instagram stories from & Juliet performer Alex Thomas-Smith, saying: "It is absolutely about reinserting people of colour into the retelling of stories, thus into the history that we were forcibly removed from.

"If your brain can stretch to a green ogre singing a love song [in Shrek], I surely hope it can stretch to black people being alive in the 50s."

The show's choreographer, former Strictly judge Dame Arlene Phillips, said: "Our beautiful and brilliant performers being hurt in this despicable way is sickening.

"We stand together, we go together.

"Come and see for yourselves."

Image source, Paramount Pictures/Getty
Image caption,
Stockard Channing played Rizzo in the 1978 film

London Theatre editor Suzy Evans told BBC News: "It's very important to prioritise diverse casting for new and existing shows.

"Creating space and opportunities for performers from different backgrounds lets audiences see shows in a new way and relate to varied experiences and perspectives.

"The world has changed significantly since shows like Grease premiered and revivals should be updated to reflect the present day, as Grease has done.

"Representation and inclusion are pillars of the theatre community and art is fundamental to social change."

Dame Arlene, who appeared on ITV's I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here last year, is clearly back in her comfort zone with the show and is keen to highlight how it has evolved.

Last year, the Mirror reported when the film was shown on the BBC, some viewers "cringed" and called it "sexist", noting its lack of diversity.

WhatCulture.com called it a"horribly sexist movie".

Image source, Ant Robling
Image caption,
Dame Arlene Phillips likens Grease's characters to youngsters doing hip-hop and breakdancing from the streets

Sandy's transformation - from wallflower to vamp, to win her man - may not appeal to audiences the way it once did.

But Dame Arlene says: "Our version is a very diverse, very real Grease for today.

"It's different from the film."

Much of the work on rethinking it was done three years ago, she says, when it was picked up by director Nikolai Foster, initially for Leicester's Curve theatre.

Image source, Hugo Glendinning
Image caption,
Olivia Moore as Sandy, Dan Partridge as Danny and Peter Andre as Vince Fontaine

It is now set in Chicago rather than California, harking back to the original stage play by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, with producers calling it "grittier" than the film.

Dame Arlene says Foster "went right back to the original story and songs", reshaping it to "empower" the women.

"Sandy is empowered because she absolutely makes a choice to become who she wants to be - and decides if Danny is the one she wants," she tells BBC News.

But some aspects of the show have arguably aged less well.

In the song Summer Nights, Danny's friends ask him about his affair with Sandy, saying: "Did she put up a fight?"

The men's lines in Summer Nights are "totally blokey", Dame Arlene says.

But "within the piece, our guys realise they're not running the show".

Image source, Craig Sugden
Image caption,
Dan Partridge is pictured with the gang the T-Birds

Dan Partridge, who plays Danny, says: "We still wanted to show the toxic masculinity of these guys.

"These boys are growing up.

"We haven't wanted to completely whitewash it and soften it all."

And when audiences hear the lyrics, they will "leave the theatre talking about it", a "good thing".

'Worked hard'

Dame Arlene is also keen to stress the musical's social context.

Most of the characters were "sons and daughters of blue-collar workers", expected to start a job as soon as they left school, she says.

Many would "hide their intelligence", putting their energies into rockabilly and entering dance competitions to win vouchers for food and drinks.

"They worked hard, like the younger generation with hip-hop, and breakdancing from the streets," Dame Arlene says.

Image source, Craig Sugden
Image caption,
Paul French, who plays Kenickie, and cast mid-way through a rehearsal

Almgill calls aspects of the storyline "quite misogynistic" but says the cast talked "a lot about how to navigate Sandy's transformation".

And Olivia Moore, who plays Sandy, does a "really good job of showing Danny that if he wants her, he's going to have to work for it".

Moore tells BBC News Sandy becomes "a goddess who has so much confidence".

"We're highlighting you can be who you want to be," she says.

Image source, Craig Sugden
Image caption,
Olivia Moore says Sandy becomes "a goddess"

But why would people want to come and see Grease, instead of a new show?

"London is ready to spend a night in the theatre," Dame Arlene says.

"People have been isolated, so coming together and watching something that is possibly familiar is like a warm blanket."

Almgill says: "People love it because of relatability - we've all been teenagers and had that first crush or felt ostracised - and the songs are great, with some real, emotional moments."

Evans says: "The reason to produce a revival is because that particular show has something to say about our current moment.

"Grease is being updated to give the women more agency and make the story more relevant for today's audiences.

"There are so many great revivals to see in London right now - and productions of Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady also shine a new light on a classic work."

Image source, Hugo Glendinning
Image caption,
Dan Partridge and Olivia Moore say Sandy is in charge in their relationship

Despite her long and successful career, Dame Arlene is still delighted to be learning new skills.

Her time in the cold, Welsh I'm a Celebrity castle was "really interesting because of how much I found out about myself", she says.

She also discovered a surprise benefit, which went down well with the Grease cast.

"The other day, there was a huge spider walking on the wall and everyone was screaming and I went [she makes a grabbing movement with her hand] and picked it up," Dame Arlene says.

"I could never have done that before.

"But learning about myself isn't what I was supposed to be doing - I was supposed to be entertaining," she says of her time in the castle.

"I just hope I didn't fail the show in the entertainment stakes."

Grease is playing at The Dominion Theatre, London.