No, I didn’t watch the debut of Grease: You’re the One That I Want–I was otherwise occupied–but I wrote a “Sightings” column about it for The Wall Street Journal last fall. In case you didn’t see that piece, here are some pertinent excerpts:
It was inevitable: “American Idol” is coming to Broadway. Not literally, of course, but “You’re the One That I Want,” the reality TV series in production at NBC, is the next best thing, a program whose viewers will pick a pair of unknowns to star in a Broadway musical. The musical in question is “Grease,” the rock-and-roll romp that ran from 1972 to 1980, then returned to the Great White Way in 1994 and played for four more years. It might actually be good–Kathleen Marshall, the director, staged the brilliant Broadway revivals of “The Pajama Game” and “Wonderful Town”–but even if it’s bad, it’ll be big. Six million Brits watched the BBC series on which “You’re the One That I Want” is based, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” If the NBC version is comparably popular in this country, it will be seen by 30 million Americans. That’s a whole lot of potential ticket-buyers.
Is “Grease” the future of Broadway? If so, it’s a “future” that to some extent has already happened. Many theatrical producers are using focus groups, tracking polls, and other sophisticated research tools to make marketing decisions about the shows they present. In the past, such information has only been used to develop ad campaigns–but as the public response to “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” made clear, it can also be used to make artistic decisions….
Is that such a bad thing? After all, “Grease” isn’t Shakespeare, or even Neil Simon. It’s an innocuous confection whose sole purpose is to amuse, and I won’t get even slightly bent out of shape if 30 million TV viewers should suddenly take an interest in the burning question of who will play Sandy and Danny in the Broadway revival. As Samuel Johnson told us long ago, “The Stage but echoes back the publick Voice./The Drama’s Laws the Drama’s Patrons give,/For we that live to please, must please to live.” In any case, there are better places than Broadway to see serious theater, not only in New York but in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and the countless other American cities where first-rate regional companies can be found. Anyone who looks to Broadway for creative leadership is looking under the wrong bushel.
I’m not a cultural relativist. I believe devoutly in the superiority of Shakespeare to Neil Simon. But I’m also a realist, and I keep a close eye on the myriad ways in which information-age capitalism is transforming American life by maximizing consumer choice. That’s why I’m interested in “You’re the One That I Want.” I don’t know whether “Grease” will be better or worse for having been cast by popular demand–but I have no doubt that its opening night will mark a sea change in the culture of commercial theater in America.
Needless to say, I’ll be there.