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Reality TV’s slick idea: ‘Grease’ talent search

When “Grease” is revived on Broadway this summer, lead characters Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko will be played by the winners of the new TV reality show, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

Slick on the hair gel, break out the pink poodle skirts and black leather jackets, rev up that T-Bird.

America’s original high-school musical is looking for two new stars.

When “Grease” is revived on Broadway this summer, lead characters Sandy Dumbrowski and Danny Zuko (Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in the movie version) will be played by the winners of the new TV reality show, “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” The series debuts Sunday, 8 p.m. EST on NBC.

Titled after one of the movie version’s more memorable songs, this talent competition follows the audition process for the roles of the naive good girl and the slick cool greaser in the 1970s musical, which led to a wave of nostalgia for the teen culture of the ’50s.

“The idea of this is that Broadway traditionally is a pretty closed shop, and this is the biggest open casting call in Broadway history,” says Al Edgington, the co-executive producer of the series, which is produced by BBC Worldwide Productions.

“You don’t have to know anyone, you don’t have to be connected, you don’t have to be born into it,” Edgington adds. “Anyone who thinks they’ve got what it takes can come along.”

He acknowledged, with a laugh, that there were a few hopefuls who “clearly had been practicing in front of the mirror singing into a hairbrush,” but that most of the applicants had some musical training.

“One thing I think the producers of the TV show are realizing is that there are theater skills you can refine and finesse, but musical theater skills take a long time to develop,” says Kathleen Marshall, who will direct and choreograph the Broadway production.

Pressure beyond the TV show
Marshall thinks the show is unique because “there is a real prize at the end of it. Whoever wins is going to star on Broadway. It’s not just ‘Oh, thank you very much, here’s your trophy, and your check’ and then you’re sent on your way with a pat on the head. You have to deliver beyond that. So it’s a lot of pressure.”

The BBC also created “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” a very successful British talent series that discovered Connie Fisher (who had studied musical theater, but had been working in telemarketing) to play the lead role of Maria von Trapp in the current London revival of “The Sound of Music.” Fisher confounded skeptics by earning rave reviews.

Edgington is hoping to have the same sort of luck with the casting call for “Grease,” a show he calls “so iconic for everyone in this country.”

“Access Hollywood” co-anchor Billy Bush shares host duties on the reality show, along with British TV personality and musical star Denise Van Outen. Newton-John will make guest appearances the first two shows.

Bush notes that “Grease” is “the original high-school musical, a story that’s endured forever. ... It’s just a classic and I knew with a prize this big, people to win the lead roles on Broadway, it had to be a hit, and it had to be a lot of fun! ... I think it could be really, really, really, really exciting.”

The first episode will be a collection of auditions held in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, which led to about 55 performers going to a “Grease Academy,” where they trained for a week with Marshall. That group was cut to 24, who performed in a showcase in front of an invited audience, which included some performers connected with the show on stage and screen over the years.

The 12 finalists — split evenly between guys and gals — will then compete during six live episodes to become the winning duo.

Director is one of three judgesMarshall, who won a Tony last year for her choreography of “The Pajama Game,” is also one of the three judges on the TV series, whose opinions will count alongside audience votes. The other judges are theatrical producer David Ian and co-creator of the musical, Jim Jacobs.

“Hopefully, we are trying to be honest, but also encouraging,” says Marshall of the judges’ duties. But she stresses the panel must be realistic about performers’ talents because, “We are all, of course, heavily invested in the outcome. Once the TV show goes off the air, that’s just the beginning for us. We have to turn around and create a Broadway show.”

So does Marshall worry that no one will make the grade?

“It’s always a little bit of a gamble at any Broadway audition that, ‘Gee, I hope that spark of what I saw at their audition is just the tip of the iceberg and that there’s more there,”’ she explains.

“Grease” already has had two marathon runs on Broadway. The original production arrived in 1972, closing in 1980 after more than 3,000 performances. The revival, starring Rosie O’Donnell as Betty Rizzo, opened in 1994 and ran for more than 1,500 performances.

Ironically, neither featured the song “You’re the One That I Want,” which was written for the enormously successful 1978 film version. The song later topped the pop charts. One question to be answered: Will it be included in the new version of the show?