Friday, July 31, 2009

Sing Along With GREASE: A '70's version of the '50's

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The thought of a large group of people getting together in a major downtown theatre venue to sing along with Grease is a bit disturbing to me. I’m not even sure why. Prior to things getting complicated, tonight and tomorrow night, The Skylight Opera Theatre was planning on presenting the next in its series of cinematic sing alongs in the spacious Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre complex. $25 would've gotten you in to a pre-show event as well as the actual film. $15 of that is a tax-deductible donation to the Skylight. Prizes would've been awarded to attendees for the best costumes.

After the pre-show event, the evening would've started with a chance to harmonize with the Skylight’s own Ray Jivoff. Anyone who is a big enough fan of the film to shell out $25 to see it will know it in intimate detail, but the real appeal here would've been getting to harmonize with a group of people every bit as into the musical as they are. And there would've been sing along subtitles for anyone who might not be that confident that they know every single word. Precisely why the event was canceled is unclear, but it udnoubtedly has something to do with teh Skylight's current financial situation.

I remember being a very young kid in 1980 and ’81 and knowing kids in my neighborhood who could recite every line from the film even back then. The 1979 retro musical was a huge hit. Being a late ‘70’s musical film set in the 1950’s, it’s a definite contender for one of the earliest bits of retro pop ever to make it big. Starring a very young John Travolta not more than one year after Saturday Night Fever and Olivia Newton-John, Grease was based on a 1971 stage musical that was part of a much larger trend. While it’s difficult to find a comprehensive history of retro fashion, it’s not unlikely that it may have started on Broadway in 1972, when a reasonably grittier play with the same title had been softened for its big premiere.

It’s pointless to argue about how the success of the musical might’ve been different had other cultural factors not occurred, but not more than ten days after grease opened on Broadway, five men were arrested for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office complex in Washington, D.C. Between the horror of Viet Nam and the troubling revelations of Watergate, the US was ready to go back to what it saw as a simpler time two decades earlier. True, there it was only really a simpler time for white men who weren’t affected by alcoholism in the family, but the perception was that the ‘50’s were a simpler, more innocent time for EVERYBODY, prompting a flood of nostalgia that could be seen as the first real era of retro. Grease the musical (1971) was followed by the insanely popular George Lucas film American Graffiti (1972,) and Happy Days (1974)—the Gary Marshall sitcom that attempted to capitalize on its success.

And then there was Sha Na Na—a retro ‘50’s musical act that I remember being a TV series (from ’77-’81—some of my earliest TV memories) that had been around since Woodstock and had, arguably, inspired the riginal stage musical Grease to begin with . . . so maybe Watergate was only a catalyst for retro culture. The confusion of the late ‘60’s brought about by Viet Nam and civil rights . . . and everyone needed a simpler time. And so those looking to escape the current problems facing the world have perhaps narrowly missde the opportunity to settle into an idealized, sentimental simplicity of a ‘70’s version of the ‘50’s for a couple of hours July 31st and August 1st. Yes there's the unemployment rate and all sorts of other indicators that things are not well, but when what is almost certainly the brutal crushing force of Economic Reality collapsing so big an opportunity to escape it--even for just a couple of hours with a large group of other people . . . things have gotten to be pretty bad.

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