Webber, Ian and Marshall Dish on Grease
by James Sims
After last week’s taping of NBC’s “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” I had the opportunity to sit down with judges David Ian, Kathleen Marshall and Andrew Lloyd Webber to get the dish on the casting series and what the future holds for this Broadway-bound production.
They discussed their reservations about bringing legitimate theatre to the somewhat controversial world of reality television, what the Danny and Sandy hopefuls need to bring to the stage in the coming weeks and they also tried to pinpoint what it is about Grease that makes it such a timeless tale. James Sims:
Having done a similar show in the United Kingdom, casting the lead role of Maria on BBC’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” what made you decide to bring it across the pond to America? David Ian:
It was pretty much the BBC that thought it was going to work in the U.S. I will give them the credit for that one. I think Grease is a fantastic piece of classic Americana at the end of the day, and when this idea works best is when the public have a real genuine knowledge of the character or characters that are being cast. And I think Danny and Sandy in Grease, because of the phenomenal success of that movie… everybody has got a justifiable opinion. And I think that is why we are seeing that the voting figures on this are phenomenal. People have a real opinion and know who those characters are, which is why I think that it was a good idea. Andrew Lloyd Webber:
The “Maria” program in Britain has just won the Broadcast award for best light entertainment show. It's beyond anything we could have thought. And the girl has just won the London's Critic Award and the People's Choice Award. It's the first time any girl or artist, as far as we can remember, has won the critic's award, which is like the intellectual end of everything and the people's award is the popular end of everything. Nobody can remember this. So that shows how well the show worked. Sims:
What do you make of the criticism aimed at your using a vehicle like reality television to cast a Broadway production? Ian:
I can speak with experience from the UK at the moment, and the answer is it started off negatively. And I think it is fair to say that Equity and the industry people didn't think it was a great thing. Now Andrew and I have a phenomenal hit show at the London Palladium, The Sound of Music. We've discovered a wonderful new artist, Connie Fisher. You've got hundreds of Equity and musician union members employed and a full theatre. And what really excites me for my industry is that we've got an audience in the Palladium every night, three quarters of whom have never been to the theatre. Now that's exciting. I think if we can do that with a Broadway audience and get a new Broadway audience to come, then hopefully the industry here will see some positives in it. All we are looking for here is new fresh talent and an audience to fill the theatre. I can only see good in that. Kathleen Marshall:
I think it is an interesting thing to experiment with, and I think this is the show to do it with because it is such a well-known show. And even if we weren't doing a reality show, we'd be scouring the country to find new talent anyway, because Grease has always been a show that launches new talent. So I think this is a good show to try it with, and see if we can get the rest of America to pay attention to Broadway.
I hear from people back in New York, because Sunday night is a night off for a lot of shows. They are having Grease parties. They come home from their matinees Sunday and gathering and people's houses to watch the show, and they are into it. I think some people might be a little skeptical about it, but quite honestly, you are always trying to find a way to bring attention to your production. Whether it is casting a star or somebody from the recording industry who hasn't been on stage before. You are always trying to find a way... you are not necessarily casting the best person out of drama school for a musical, you are casting who can bring attention to your production. And what's great is, all of these people have the skill to do it. We are not taking a pop star or a TV star with limited musical theatre skills and trying to turn them into a musical theatre performer. We are taking young musical theatre performers and trying to turn them into Broadway stars. Sims:
As you have now seen some of what these performers have to offer, what are you now looking for as you try to find Danny and Sandy? Marshall:
It's interesting, because as we go along and we get to know these people very well, they are all skilled and talented. And there is a certain degree when you can't just have technical ability. You have to have a true and real and emotional life that we can connect to. That's what I'm looking for now. They all can sing, all can dance. There's nobody who doesn't deserve to be here. There's nobody who can't handle playing these parts. And it's who are we going to fall in love with, who do we want to see fall in love with each other? And that's a tall order. I think a lot of people just try to get things technically correct and they are not necessarily living in the moment. Ian:
What it will be about now, I think, is who jumps out and grabs the part. I think we are down now, after tonight, to a group of 12 people who can all sing, dance and act to a standard. Now it is going to be, who emerges with that real charisma and star quality that it takes to get that Broadway lead. Who is really special to stand out and who just fades into the background. Webber:
Of course, the great thing with [“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria] was, I was working with the kids every week in considerable depth. What was interesting tonight, is that I did have one day with the kids here, and I did what I do, which is what I am on this planet to do, which is to try and get performances out of them. And all of the panel was saying that, for instance, that Laura girl was able to do "Jesus Christ Superstar" like she did. So I kind of feel like an outsider that actually created it. But anyway, I think they are very talented, and if they can get to work with the right people, there are careers for them. I know I will certainly keep tabs on a couple of them. Sims:
Have you had much of a chance to figure out which actors have the right kind of chemistry with each other? After all, these two are going to have to play love birds every night on stage. Ian:
Not really at this stage, because at this point they are singing individually. They haven't yet sung to each other. I hope that is something we are going to start to see with duets and what have you, because it is the most crucial part between Danny and Sandy. So we are starting to see great individual performances. We haven't yet seen who works with who, so I hope as we go through the process we will get to see some of that. Marshall:
That's the good thing is, being involved in staging some of the numbers, because I have been staging the Grease numbers with them... that's an element that as a director you never get to see. You never get to rehearse with people before you cast them usually. So now I am getting to see who brings what into the room with them. There are some people who just do what they are told and there are other people who take what you give them and make it their own. That's what you really want. Sims:
How has the casting of the supporting roles been without knowing who will be in the leads? I could imagine not knowing how they play off of each other might prove somewhat difficult. Ian:
That's a very good point. One of the things Kathleen, Jim and I, when we've been doing the rest of the auditions, is saying they would be great with so and so because he is so tall but it might be a little difficult if it was such and such because they are a little bit shorter. So, we have cast the rest of the parts, we are cast, and the honest answer is we just cast the best Rizzo we saw, the best Kenickie, and our Danny and Sandy will just have to fit in. We cast the best we can on Broadway for the other parts because we couldn't allow for who the others were. Sims:
Andrew, you seem to really have a bubbly personality when on camera. Do you enjoy stepping out from behind the scenes a bit to act as a judge on television? Webber:
I love it. I loved doing “Maria” and I've been offered several programs here now. Probably after tonight they will probably all recede, but I got to look at them quite seriously. I am doing another program in England this summer, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. NBC would like to do “Maria” ending on Christmas day, but there is a problem with that, because right now I couldn't commit to it because we couldn't commit to a theatre on Broadway right now. I won't know until June or July. And it may be that the answer is to do one of my own here and do that a little later. From my point of view, to maybe to find an Evita or cast Jesus Christ Superstar or something again would in many ways be a bit more rewarding, although I have got a bit of an affection because of what happened with “Maria” in London. But it isn't my show at the end of the day. Sims:
What can we expect to see different about this revival of Grease when it opens on Broadway? Marshall:
What's fun about this is that this is going to be the first Broadway production to use the songs from the movie. So we are going to use the title song, and we get to use "Hopelessly Devoted" and "Sandy" and "You're the One That I Want." So that is going to make this really unique and different. And I think what I want to do is... Grease is such a popular show and a lot of people know it from the movie, but a lot of people also know it from the original stage production and the production they have done in their high schools and colleges around the country. So I want to blend them both, best of both. It's a tricky thing with a show that is so well known like this one. You want to deliver and meet people's expectations, but you also want to exceed and surprise them. What I want to do is also just have all the fun and the party atmosphere of Grease, and at the same time find the truthfulness in these characters. When you play these scenes for real, and it's life and death for them, the relationships and who goes with who to the dance, when you are that age it is everything. So, I want to play it for emotional truth. That doesn't mean serious and dark, it just means play it for real and you can still have the fun fantasy element of it all.