Arts & Entertainment
How the team behind 'Hamilton' brought 'Grease: Live' to a modern TV audience
If you take all the people who have seen “Hamilton” on Broadway, it would only be a fraction of the more than 12 million people who saw director Tommy Kail's production of “Grease: Live” on Fox last January.
David Korins, who did production design for "Hamilton," also joined Kail on the design for "Grease: Live," which is also streaming on Netflix.
The broadcast was shot on multiple stages in front of an audience, with an all-star cast that included Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens.
Unlike a Broadway show, there were not weeks and weeks of previews to fine-tune “Grease: Live.” Kail and co-director Alex Rudzinski had just one shot to get the show right, meaning the tension in the mobile control room was high.
The Frame's host, John Horn, was in New York recently where he spoke with Kail and Korins about how they prepared to get "Grease: Live" perfect on the first try.
How did you structure the rehearsals for "Grease: Live" in order to film it perfectly in one take?
Kail: My feeling going in was, if we didn't put our cast and our crew through the most rigorous possible rehearsal so that anything could happen — and they actually already had experience with anything happening — we haven't done our job. We had done two full runs without an audience on Thursday, we had done a full run with an audience on Friday, a full run with an audience on Saturday, so that what we actually broadcast [on Sunday] was our third time through with an audience. The job of a director in theater is to get the show ready for the first audience because there's always a first audience. There's always a first preview. We just happened to be broadcasting across the country on ours.
The other thing that's different with something like this is that you're trying to put on the best show that you can and also avoid an epic fail.
Kail: That's why you have a David Korins. If you have a David Korins, that's not going to happen.
But truly, you don't have a lot of workarounds. You have to have it honed so closely that there isn't the possibility of something going wrong.
Korins: Yeah, you try your best. No one has a crystal ball and I think you just try and stay away from things like motors.
To move scenery you mean?
Korins: Yeah. In that way, we always had some sort of redundancy built into everything that we were going to do, whether that was camera covering or there were stage hands at the ready. As I said, no one has a crystal ball, but we like to think of ourselves as a very ready army in that way. You try and arm yourself the best way that you can.
Kail: And to David's point, one of the things that we found was that what we knew and what we could bring to it was a certain kind of theatricality that was hand-made and driven by people. Our costume changes by William Ivey Long used magnets.
You mean no zippers or velcro?
Kail: Yes. Or just things that could have a fail-safe. When Keke Palmer walked through the wall — Jonathan Tolins and Robert Cary wrote the script — that was one of the first things they put in the script. You have a three wall set there, she walks through the wall, there's an audience of a 150 people and she walked through a door that was just on a hinge. When we did the very quick change for "Greased Lightning," there were seven stage hands who ran out. and David built something where it could be applied physically by hand, so as long as you could routine it, you weren't worried about electricity. You weren't worried about the things that you can't control on machines.
Korins: I think that what theater does better than any other medium is the scene changes. You get to see how the sausage gets made. The theater magic is there. It's a thing that we shy away from in film and television often because it just feels like a different crayon that you're coloring with. This was one that Tommy said, You know what, one of the things we're going to have is a live audience. Another thing we're going to do is use real theater scenery and not apologize for it and not use a lot of technical things. We're going to use real theater scenery and show the world what that is. Now, the other thing that television does better than anything is a cathartic revelation of space. You can never have a 300 foot-deep set in a traditional theater presentation, but you can in television. You can go outside and show off in that way.
The other thing you're doing very intentionally is making sure that the audience never sees a camera. There are some prop cameras that are part of the dance competition. But I was looking and I couldn't see a real camera. That requires a lot of work in terms of scenery, staging and blocking. Why was that so important that those cameras were never visible?
Korins: We wanted to be immersive. It starts with Jessie J. She walks out and you see the cast of characters and the last thing that you see is a tableau. You see everybody frozen in place in front of a real school that we had built, but it's a real facade with brick. Then we push in and all of a sudden we're in the world. When we went into the gym we wanted you to feel like you could be completely immersive in that. The other thing we did though, we did "Summer Nights." They're all there and you see Danny [Zuko] and Sandy [Olsson] and they hit that last note and then we actually, on the live broadcast, popped to a totally different camera with Mario Lopez. You saw the cameras, you saw the cast, and you saw them sprint off stage to go get ready for the next change. What it did in that moment was say, By the way, we said "Grease: Live" and we're going to really focus on the "live." So we really wanted to design all of that and bake it into it.
I want to talk about some contingencies. Vanessa Hudgens' father died the day before production...
Kail: Yes, it was on that Saturday night. Sunday we were live.
And obviously she did the show. But do you even have a contingency for something like that?
Kail: No. There's no understudy in this. It rained on that day. Obviously we know that it was sunny for 30 days before and sunny for 30 days after, but all of that is contextualized very quickly when someone is really grappling with the part of life that doesn't care about live television. She walked in that morning, we all got in and it was pouring rain. She had the most horrible night imaginable. She said, "I'm here and this is where I want to be." So the company and everybody — the 500 people that work there — said, Alright then, we'll lift her up. That's what it was. It became this relay race of who could grab the baton and do their part. We did the show and David and I were watching in the truck. We were sitting behind [co-director] Alex [Rudzinski] and we would go out during the commercials. There was this incredibly intense crucible and then you walk outside and there's the sun and it was getting dark. It really put it in perspective. We finished the show at 7 p.m. with that scene outside with a thousand people, and at 7:01 we were all standing in front of Rydell. The only way I can describe it is that the cast finally looked down and they saw how high they had been. Everybody started crying. It was a release for all of those feelings. But it put everything right where it needed to be for us to go do what we needed to do which is, celebrate the work. Celebrate [Hudgens] and celebrate the work.
"Grease" is a show that people know. How do you make sure that you preserve the things that people love but also add new songs and lines of dialogue?
Kail: Well, it was a real balance. We were trying to take everything that we knew from the movie that had been imprinted on us and try to preserve that as best we could. But also, the nature of "Grease" is that the stage version is quite different from the film version. In a way, we grabbed what we loved from each and tried to create our own spine. There were characters that were new like the Stan Weaver that they added. But also, Eugene's role in this is quite different. Eugene actually provides something to the T-Birds' take. Doing a story about bullying now didn't feel quite like something that we wanted to highlight, even if we were setting it in 1958 and being period specific. Obviously we wanted to cast the show in a way that reflected the world now in a way that also could embrace the spirit of that show.
Korins: I love the fact that Tommy is not talking about the fact that there's a car race in the film and not in the stage show. All we've been doing is talking about this theatrical presentation and yet, how do you do a car race?
Wind machines right?
Korins: Well, I was terrified. We went through every single thing and I said, oh I understand how to do all of this, except for the car race. The interesting thing about it is, we put a pin in it and Tommy kept on saying, when we unlock that we're going to know how to tell the rest of the story. In a way, figuring out the theatricality of that car race, with just a little bit of movement and really cutting those camera's together, making it very theatrical and heightened again casted a much hotter spotlight on all of the other theatrical presentations in the show.
Commercial breaks for scripted television are something that writers hate because you have to get to your act break and you have a certain minute that you have to hit. For you guys doing live theater, you must love the commercial breaks because you can reset and do your costume changes and move everything around. Were they really a blessing?
Kail: Yes. The thing about them that's challenging though is that you're also resetting the energy. What theater allows you to do is tell a story that [starts] when the curtain goes up and ends in act one or either goes straight through. You want to continue to build it throughout and keep it arcing upward. But when you have a set amount of commercial breaks -- you have twelve or eleven acts or thirteen and twelve -- we also needed to then build each of the acts of the show to have its own mini arc to contribute to a larger arc. What we wanted to do was make one moment in each of those acts intensely theatrical and really heightened. The "Magic Changes" moment was a very early idea we had... there's a great sequence in the film where you see Danny trying out for the different athletic teams with Sid Caesar. It's a great moment on film because you can cut. You see him try to play basketball, then you cut. Then you see baseball and you cut. Then he ends up with track. We thought, here's a chance to make it one continuous shot to celebrate Jordan Fisher, who is this glorious young actor, and let the story continue. So we put those two things together and when Jonathan Tolins, Robert Cary and I started talking about that, they suggested a way to have a number called "Magic Changes" that ... would fit into the ethos that we'd established and that David was trying to make with his work.
Tommy, given that it's probably easier to travel to Mars, colonize the planet and come home than it is to get into "Hamilton," is there a possibility of doing "Hamilton" as a live theater production on television?
Kail: Maybe in like the year 2073. Right now, the show was designed to fit into the theater and our job over the next year is for David and I to come together again with our collaborators and put the show up in Chicago. In Chicago there will be 1,800 people a night watching it, plus the 1,300 a night here. Then we go to San Francisco with a different company and then there's another 2,000. More people will see it on the road than will see it on Broadway very soon. I love the way that feels. To me that feels really connected to what "Grease: Live" did. What I said to the company many times when we were making "Grease" was that we have a chance to go to them... That was such an important idea and the reality is, with "Hamilton," I love the idea that we take our show to your town. You wake up in your bed, live in your apartment or your house and come see us. Let us bring this to you. That's why this next year is going to be really fun.
Korins: With Tommy, for as artistic as his mind works, he's also one of the great statisticians of the world. He said to me in that very first meeting, you do realize that more people will see "Grease: Live" in this one day than will see "Hamilton" for like seven years. It's interesting because the medium is totally different. Relative to the whole world, no one has seen "Hamilton."
"Grease: Live" was seen by over twelve million people in the US.
Kail: If 'Hamilton" sells out every seat on Broadway, it's 550,000 seats. There's a line from "Being There" where Chauncey goes on this talk show and the guy says to him, you realize that more people will see you on this than if you sold out a broadway theater for the last [forty years]. That never left me. I'm a populist and I want to make theater part of the cultural conversation. I think there's something about Broadway not being a bad word that's really important to me. I want it to be celebrated.
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