The air-conditioning inside the rehearsal studio has been cranked to near-Arctic levels, but no matter how many times Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, the stars of the new Broadway revival of Grease, gyrate against each other to the tune of “You’re the One That I Want,” the chills still don’t seem to be multiplying. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies have “Ooh-hoo-hoo”-ed energetically through the Burger Palace a half-dozen times. Each time, Crumm and Osnes have mounted the soda counter and taken hold of each other—so far, so good. But just as Osnes tells Crumm that he’d better shape up, the scene starts to wobble from overexuberance. Rizzo and Kenickie share a knowing glance as they lean against the jukebox. “It’s easy to jump around,” says director Kathleen Marshall, prodding her young actors in a less Footloose, more Fosse direction. “We need tension, like pulled taffy.”
Grease, for anyone unfamiliar with high-school theater or afternoon cable programming, is the love story of vulnerable tough guy Danny Zuko and new-girl-in-town Sandy Dumbrowski. This is the third Broadway production—the original ran for eight years; the second for four. What makes this revival, which begins previews July 24, of extreme interest to the New York theater world, however, is that the pair of actors standing atop the soda counter with their limbs awkwardly entwined are new to Broadway. In fact, they’re new in town. Crumm and Osnes, a couple of unknown 21-year-olds, were chosen as the stars of this $10 million production not through a massive casting call but by amassing toll-free calls. They were the winners of a particularly bad reality-TV show called Grease: You’re the One That I Want. And because of that, not everyone on the Great White Way would be devastated if they fell on their bright young faces.
Last July, a few months before she’d ever heard of Max Crumm or Laura Osnes, Kathleen Marshall was in Chicago doing some last-minute creative spackling on Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. She’d just directed the sold-out run of the Tony-winning revival The Pajama Game, so the call she received from her agent was unexpected: Would she consider signing on as director of Grease? And would she mind choosing Sandy and Danny on a reality-TV show? After checking with David Ian, who would be producing both the show and the musical, that it would be the type of program where “nobody has to eat a bug,” she decided to go for it.
The news that the lead roles in Grease would be filled in the same manner as America’s Next Top Model was not received enthusiastically in the West Forties. It didn’t help that the idea had originated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, who’d created a hit U.K. program last year titled How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, in order to cast his West End revival of The Sound of Music. Casting directors grumbled. Actors who were called in to read for other roles had reservations. “I’ll confess that my initial response was that I didn’t want to be involved,” says Matthew Saldivar, who later signed on as Kenickie.
Osnes was playing Sandy in a Chanhassen, Minnesota, dinner-theater production of Grease last October when she heard about the auditions scheduled in Los Angeles. Crumm was living in L.A., a struggling young actor whose biggest role had been in a 30-second spot for a cellular carrier as “a robot kid whose head explodes because of all the great deals.” His hopes for the tryouts were modest: “I was like, I’m not gonna win this but maybe someone will discover me and put me in another commercial.”
Osnes and Crumm happened to land ten spots apart in a line of thousands. (Crumm recalls spotting her because “she was the only girl who was dressed up in, like, a poodle skirt.” Osnes insists it was merely knee-length.) He asked to borrow her ChapStick, and they struck up a conversation. She said she was from Minnesota. He asked if she knew his pal Dave. Know him? Why, he was the best friend of one of her friends. A connection was made.
Grease: You’re the One That I Want (a title nearly impossible to shorten gracefully; let’s just call it GTO) started out strong, with 11.5 million viewers its first week. Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s Tom Shales quite rightly called it “a cheaply made and shriekingly tedious imitation of … American Idol.” The judges, Marshall, Ian, and Grease co-author Jim Jacobs, were not nearly as wacky or nasty as their Idol counterparts, and by the end of its run, GTO’s viewership had fallen to just over 6 million viewers per week. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel wrote that GTO “has left everybody—producers, chorus kids, critics, Tony voters, ushers, and columnists—so disgusted, we’re going to be gunning for the production.”