A VALENTINE FOR “GREASE”

February 14, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Fifty-one years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1972, a little show called Grease slid its way into downtown's Eden Theatre. Located on Second Avenue and 12th Street, it was first built in 1925 as the Yiddish Arts Theatre and is still standing as the Village East Cinema. The makeshift musical was brought in from Chicago, where only a year earlier, two young New York producers, Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox came to see it at the suggestion of a college friend of Waissman’s. A play with some music, it was performed in a nightclub at a producing cost of $200. What they saw was something raw and energetic, but most importantly, a whole lot of fun. Though it needed work (a full musical score, for one), they were so enthused by the audience response, that Waissman and Fox grabbed the rights to produce it in New York, quickly lining up investors.

And what was the cost to bring Grease to the Eden in 1972? A mighty $100,000. In today's dollars that's about $700,000, but in those days it was manageable — especially in that its investors totaled ten. I’ll just let that statistic speak for itself for a moment, considering that in the current economic climate it takes a village to get a show produced. Ten!

Douglas W. Schmidt's design for the Broadway set for "Grease" (1972), now part of the McNay Museum art collection, San Antonio, Texas.

Although the Eden was on Second Avenue and far from Times Square, it had a seating capacity of over a thousand seats. And, due to union guidelines, its size forced it to operate under a Broadway contract. Two years prior, the raunchy revue Oh! Calcutta! had opened there and promptly moved uptown where, by the time Grease opened, it was still doing great business (mostly due to its full frontal nudity, a first for Broadway). A whole lot quainter, Grease was billed as “A New 50’s Rock ‘n Roll Musical.” Its mixture of raunchy innocence gave the show a winning quality that Waissman and Fox were hoping might catch on even without great reviews (Oh! Calcutta! didn't need any). Okay, it’s gimmick wasn't nearly as provocative as full-frontal nudity, but for $100,000 the producers played a hunch. Reviews were mixed, but the required pull quotes for ads were good ones, as demonstrated below in the New York Times a week after opening;

Top ticket price fifty-one years ago of $8.90 and a balcony seat on a matinee would only cost you $2.50.

Due to the Eden’s status as a Broadway house, Grease was eligible to compete at the 1971–72 Tonys and, a few weeks after opening, it was nominated in seven of 11 categories including Best Musical. Though it didn't win anything, this much hoped for shot in the arm of free publicity put it on audiences' radar. Emboldened, Waissman and Fox decided to move the show to Broadway June 7, 1972, less than two months after the Tonys ceremony.

However, it was summer. And this was in the years before Broadway tourism made those hot months a positive thing for the theatre. When its advance sales dwindled, the producing duo were in trouble. With nothing in the bank to pay for advertising, a closing notice was posted. An immediate influx of cash was the show’s only means of survival, which is when a miracle of sorts occurred in the person of Tony D’Amato, a Chicago businessman and investor, who offered to cover the deficit. However, it was on the condition that Waissman and Fox sign over their share of the profits to him. With the notion of profits but a dim hope for the future, Waissman and Fox agreed, thus making D’Amato the de facto producer. And though they retained their weekly producer royalties, Waissman and Fox lost out on all the future millions to come. D’Amato pulled off a shrewd business ploy that paid off royally — for him!

If D'Amato envisioned that the show was to become as wildly successful as it turned out, he might have been the only one. Shockingly, Grease would thrive for eight years and outnumber the runs of such record-breaking musicals as Oklahoma! My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof. Its sale to Paramount Pictures for $2 million was a heavenly windfall, followed by its surprising success at the 1978 box office. Domestically, it outgrossed two other smashes, Superman and National Lampoon's Animal House and would go on to become the highest earning movie musical of the 20th century (it took forty years for it to be eclipsed by Mamma Mia!). Throw in the monies earned from the film’s soundtrack album — a blockbuster — and subsequent stage productions that swiftly began cropping up all over the world resulting in additional record albums in dozens of languages, that initial $100,000 investment produced staggering returns.

Olivia Newton John and John Travolta as Sandy and Danny in the 1978 film version of "Grease."

To put it simply: Grease was (and continues to be) an audience show. People like it and pay money to see it whenever it comes around because it's a sugary treat. It's also brought people to Broadway who've never seen a play or musical. It has that power and shouldn't be looked down on if it isn't a piece of art. It never pretended to be one anyway.

When the New York Times marked the occasion of Grease passing Fiddler on the Roof to become the longest running show in Broadway history, it stated that every $10,000 invested in Grease paid off $400,000. For those lucky ten original backers, that meant a 400% profit over seven years on their initial investment (and that was only by 1979). But it was the two men who wrote Grease, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, who yielded the biggest pay days, sharing as they did in the profits from all productions since 1972, which have included — and this is just a partial list: its first West End London engagement, the film (of course), countless international productions, two popular Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007, numerous national tours, and its being a staple of regional theatre, summer stock, community theatre, and high school and middle school drama groups for close to fifty years. Add to that the income from the music rights and residuals off performances from the songs and it’s up in the rarified air alongside Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. Sadly, Casey died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of fifty-three. But Jacobs, now eighty, is hopefully living a life of rest and relaxation, courtesy of residuals that seemingly will never stop. He even served as a judge when the NBC reality series Grease: You’re the One that I Want! aired in 2006.

Proving there was still life in the old girl, Grease Live! aired on NBC in 2016 to impressive ratings. It featured Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepsen, Keke Palmer and Jordan Fisher. It was directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton), who received an Emmy, and the broadcast itself won as Outstanding Special Class Program.

Members of the cast of "Grease Live!" Julienne Hough and Aaron Tveit center in black (2016).

The cast of actors who populated Grease during its initial run and throughout the 1970s boasted major talent, many of whom became future stars. In addition to original cast members Barry Bostwick and Adrienne Barbeau, who both went on to long careers in film and television, Walter Bobbie played Roger, who though still occasionally an actor, is today best known as the director of what is now the second longest running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago. One of the Kenickes was another future director (with four Tony Awards), Jerry Zaks. Grease actors who were in either early tours, or came into the first Broadway production during its long run, include: John Travolta, who not only played Doody on tour and on Broadway, but would famously go on to play Danny in the film version; Jeff Conaway, cast as Kenickie in the film, had also understudied Danny in the original Broadway production; Marilu Henner, who was part of the very first Chicago version, had initially turned down coming to New York, but with no hard feelings, was invited to make her Broadway debut later on as Marty; Peter Gallagher, Ilene Graff, Judy Kaye, Patrick Swayze, David Paymer and Treat Williams all played it in New York, as did Richard Gere, who after understudying on Broadway and playing Sonny, was chosen to lead the London production as Danny (see photo below).

Richard Gere crooning in the West End in Grease (1973).

Of the two Broadway revivals of Grease (so far), members of its casts have gone onto greater heights as well. The 1994 revival featured the Broadway debuts of Megan Mullally and Sam Harris (with Billy Porter as Teen Angel, no less) and one of its replacements as Sandy was Sutton Foster. The 2007 revival was the result of the aforementioned NBC reality competition show and proved its viewers had taste voting for Laura Osnes (Sandy), Max Crumm (Danny) and future Tony winner Lindsay Mendez (Jan).

And for anyone who can't get enough on Grease's history, a memoir was published just last year for its 50th anniversary, edited by three original contributors to the 1972 Broadway production: producer Kenneth Waissman, director Tom Moore and actress Adrienne Barbeau (Rizzo).

Published just last year in 2022.

And in the tradition of Grease continuing to entertain, rehearsals begin in July for a production I'm directing at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Massachusetts. If you’re in New England and want to spend a fun night with a youthful cast in a very old barn, all are welcome. But advance tickets required... it's already 75% sold out.

If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org. 

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Ron Fassler

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Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."