‘Grease’ Reality TV: There Are Worse Things They Could Do

Photo: NBC.com

Grease is, of course, the word. It is also the raison d'être for a new reality show that premiered on NBC last night. In Grease: You're the One That I Want, we the people, American Idol–ly assisted by three judges — one a well-known professional, one an industry insider, and one a producer with a cold manner and a British accent — will cast the roles of Danny and Sandy for a new Broadway revival of the Travolta–Newton-John musical. After the premiere ended last night, New York's theater critic, Jeremy McCarter, and Daily Intel's Jesse Oxfeld fired up the Instant Messenger to discuss the show, its stars, and whether this can possibly be a good way to pick two Broadway leads. Here, their Angus McIndoe–ready post-show banter:

Oxfeld: Did you have chills?

Oxfeld: Are they multiplying?

Oxfeld: I presume, actually, that you're indignant — as you are wont to be — about the Hollywoodization/populist-ization/etc. of the Great White Way.

McCarter: Me, indignant?

McCarter: Actually, I'm not. Not as much as many seem to be, anyway.

Oxfeld: Do people seem to be?

Oxfeld: I mean, after all, it's, well, Grease.

Oxfeld: It's hard to get worked up about disrespecting its highbrow legacy.

McCarter: That's how I feel. But the general reaction seems to be that the Temple of the Muses is being desecrated by the barbarians, etc.

Oxfeld: So, having now seen the premiere, is it more or less desecrating than you were expecting?

McCarter: I don't think it desecrates it at all, actually. It's kind of tawdry and exhibitionistic, and I frequently wanted to look away. But, hey, it's Broadway.

Oxfeld: Well, hey, it's also reality TV.

Oxfeld: Of course it's tawdry, exhibitionist, etc.

McCarter: Exactly. People seem to be taking offense that a Broadway show is being cast this way. Not optimal, I agree. But look at the alternative.

McCarter: To put a musical revival on Broadway lately tends to mean stars.

McCarter: And stars are not exactly draping themselves in glory.

Oxfeld: Yes, yes, you hate that.

Oxfeld: So are they looking for the right things here, in the right way?

Oxfeld: Can you cast a Broadway musical with five minutes of singing and one hour of dance rehearsal?

McCarter: Five minutes? An hour? Are you kidding? In a real audition, the first round would have been more like sixteen bars and 30 seconds. And that's after a casting director had culled some of the more obvious, um, bad fits.

Oxfeld: But they also would have been looking at people they knew were competent and at least somewhat qualified.

Oxfeld: I mean, the 17-year-old girl in Chicago (the city with the audition in tonight's show, not the musical with Roxie and Velma), she may be pretty, but don't they have to consider formal training a bit more? Can she do eight shows a week?

McCarter: Yeah, that's one of the charming details they didn't really emphasize at the top. They started in L.A. and Chicago — i.e., not New York, where the level of polish would (I imagine) have been a lot higher. Around here, the adorable waitresses have Drama Desk awards.

McCarter: Plus, on one hand, I'd say you're taking this too seriously. It may be on TV, but this is still just a messy open call, and so much too soon to think about who actually gets the job …

McCarter: …on the other hand, if just one lonely TV viewer out there realizes, because of this show, that this performing-onstage business is hugely demanding, I'll be glad.

McCarter: Of course, they could also learn that from A Chorus Line.

Oxfeld: But on your just-TV point, I think that might be an issue for the series: Don't these things work best when it's some up-from-nowhere person who becomes the idol, as it were?

Oxfeld: The whole enterprise would seem a bit bait-and-switch if the winner ends up being someone who's already an Equity member.

Oxfeld: But I should say I'm excited about Grease Academy.

McCarter: I don't really understand the concept of Grease Academy.

Oxfeld: I imagine it as a Berkshires summer camp, with Guys and Dolls Institute across the lake.

Oxfeld: (And how do you get back and forth from Grease Academy to Guys and Dolls Institute? On the Show Boat, of course.)

Oxfeld: Anyway, I think it's just where they're actually going to train them how to do the show.

McCarter: Sure, sure, and summer stock is where you go "to refine your craft." My hunch is it's where the show goes for 22-year-old actors to hook up with each other with occasional pauses to sober up and try to impress Kathleen Marshall.

Oxfeld: They suggested that in the teasers.

McCarter: Yes. Also in the entire history of Western theater.

McCarter: So whose chances did you like?

Oxfeld: Well, you said the key thing: We haven't seen New York yet.

Oxfeld: I sort of liked that fitness-club receptionist in L.A. And the show was definitely building him as a character.

Oxfeld: There wasn't any Sandy I connected with, although I do remember someone in Chicago doing a nice "Good Morning, Baltimore."

Oxfeld: Then, the way it was structured, it was sort of hard to connect with anyone.

Oxfeld: What about you?

McCarter: As I'll have to review the thing I wouldn't want to say, even if I could remember any of them, which I can't. I'd like to see someone who's slogged through three national tours and every lousy downtown space get the role. But Broadway doesn't work that way. So I have to hope the show does what it claims and really does find a new talent.

McCarter: And while the show might not yield anyone really great and is from start to finish really a second-best way of casting people, there's something weirdly gladdening about hearing Billy Bush say that they're about to give out the biggest prize on TV and refer to a Broadway role.

Oxfeld: Yes. Though I also wondered why America wasn't allowed to vote on who would host this show.

Oxfeld: (Not that, of course, what America votes for historically matters much to Bushes.)

Oxfeld: But let's talk about the judges.

Oxfeld: Kathleen Marshall seemed to be the most reasonable and levelheaded.

McCarter: Marshall's expression had the eerie composure of one who has survived 100,000 auditions.

Oxfeld: Yes, she's the one real pro here, I guess.

McCarter: I will say for Marshall, I'm glad she insisted that the casting decisions be made on TV the way they're made for every Broadway musical: on a dark stage, over a fancy table, with spooky flute music in the background.

Oxfeld: Union rules, you know: Spooky flautists have to stay employed.

Oxfeld: Jacobs, the writer, was basically just comic relief.

Oxfeld: And what about this producer guy? Of course there must be the arch Brit first-among-equals judge, as is statutorily required for reality shows — even if in this case they had to import someone who, ibdb tells me, has never actually produced on Broadway before.

McCarter: I think he was one of the producers of the London Sound of Music that tried this casting-on-TV thing recently.

McCarter: (And with some success, I hear.)

McCarter: I could see getting worked up about casting Maria that way, actually. You're looking for somebody to step into Julie Andrews's shoes. That seems a trifle wrong.

McCarter: But looking for the next Newton-John? Break a leg, ladies.

Oxfeld: So have they hooked you? Will you be watching next week?

McCarter: No way. I'll be spending enough time with them if/when they hit Broadway.

Oxfeld: Not hopelessly devoted, eh?

McCarter: No. But not hopelessly disgusted, either. That's something.