Featuring a young ensemble cast, Grease: Live reintroduced and reimagined some of the most memorable moments, great music and timeless love story to an entirely new generation, and earned 10 Emmy nominations including: Outstanding Special Class Program; Outstanding Directing For A Variety Special; Outstanding Costumes For A Variety, Nonfiction or Reality Program; Outstanding Casting For A Limited series, Movie or Special; Outstanding Production Design For A Variety, Nonfiction, Event or Award Special; Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction For A Variety Special; Outstanding Hairstyling for a Multi-camera Series or Special; Outstanding Makeup for a Multi-camera Series or Special (non-prosthetic); Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety Series or Special; and Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video Control for a Limited Series, Movie or Special.
Read highlights from the event below:
Moderator: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Direcor: Thomas Kail, Director: Alex Rudzinski, Costume Designer: William Ivey Long, Casting Director: Bernard Telsey, Actor (Danny): Aaron Tveit
Moderator Lin-Manuel Miranda (M): Hi, the face on the screen is Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m famous from the show a block away, and we are here to talk about Grease Live. I, along with many of you, experienced this live on Twitter. I freaked out in real time, and the bar of what could be done with a movie musical, live on screen, was raised over night. So I’m thrilled to get to talk to the people who made that happen, tonight, and we will talk about everything that went into it. So I would like to introduce them, quickly, please. Also, you have to know, that full disclosure, this show was directed by Mr. Tom Kail.
[Kail comes out]
And here he is.
Thomas Kail (TK): I just heard my name. Sorry.
M: He is joined by the live television director for Grease Live: Alex Rudzinski.
[Rudzinski comes out]
M: There were so many quick changes, and you’ve wondered how they did it in real time, we’ll get to the bottom of it tonight. Here’s William Ivey Long.
[Long comes out]
M: If you are an actor in New York, you hope and pray that this guy is sitting in on your session, because that means it’s serious, from Telsey & Co, the casting director: Bernie Telsey.
[Telsey comes out]
M: And last, but certainly not least, our Danny Zuko, and someone who sort of seemed to get all of the internet pregnant at the same time: Aaron Tveit.
[Aaron comes out]
M: So Tom Kail, you go to the people that are making Grease happen. What is your pitch? How do you get into the room and say: “here is what I would like to do, and the reasons why”. What does that look like?
TK: I have two more extra seats to Lin’s last show. You know, the very early conversations for the show were realized by many of the people that you’re seeing up here, along with some others. So, one of the very early conversations I had with the folks at Paramount really was a very simple premise. If we are going to put the word ‘Live’ in the title, lets embrace it, let’s wrap our arms around the idea, and lets show the joy of making this thing in front of all of these people. Lets celebrate all of the people that we see on screen, and the people that we don’t get to see, by the nature of this movie. So that was really very early on in the process.
M: And then they ask you: How are you going to deal with the racecar scene?
TK: They did, and I said: Have you met Alex? There are a couple of things we started talking about early. So, one of the first conversations I had was, I think, because you have a live audience, I think the musical comedy elements of Grease would really benefit from that, and that back and forth. I did want them to do a sort of opening number that showed the wiring, and that was an important conversation that we worked out with the team, and of course with our producer. We also really enjoyed the idea of what is the act of showing something magical, embracing the theatricality of it, embracing the cinematic nature of it, really early conversations with John Tolins and Rob Cary, the writers, were about that, as well as making total sense too.
M: At what point do you sign on, and when you sign on, what do you circle as: ‘okay, this is going to be the hardest part of the night’? What are the challenges?
Alex Rudzinski (AR): The car scene definitely. It was something that we talked about when we met, and I had almost a small interview with you [TK], where we were worried as co-directors, how the synergy would work. Because there aren’t that many shows that have worked, where you get to work with another director. And that was a fantastic experience where both of us got to share a world that we are not familiar with, to share each other’s experceinces, and to kind of meld those two together. But from the get-go, with the racecar, the thing that stood out was, how are we going to do it? We through a couple of ideas out, some were more lavish than others. I remember at one point I was speaking to Tom, getting really excited, going: “okay, we could potentially shut off a couple streets we were looking to shoot in around Paramount, and around Paramount and LA, and hopefully LAPD would allow us to do it – so we could shoot the actual race, for real, on the streets of LA!” He said: “it’s exciting, but it might cost a lot of money”.
TK: And we’re worried about Aaron’s hair.
AR: So I said, okay, maybe miniature, we could go with little matchbox cars, and do it with hands.
TK: It was ideal conversation guys, we can’t really share them.
AR: To be honest, I don’t think we came to the final racing creation for a good couple of months.
M: So cut to the day of the worst thunderstorm in the history of Los Angeles.
AR: I would like to preface this by saying, the eight days leading up to the transmission, its was a barmy, kind of mid-80s, perfect weather. The following eight days after that it was lovely weather.
TK: I would say, more or less, from the day we started shooting in Los Angeles, six months before, I started sending emails about Godzilla. And they were like: “alright grandma, we get it”. I kept sending these things, and then he looked at the weather forecast on the day of. It wasn’t like a 20 percent change of rain, it was a 100 percent, and we were stood on the streets of New York during a hurricane, and it was 80 percent. When we woke up that morning, and this is something that affects all departments immediately, the rain was sideways at 8am, and one of the things we got to do with the choreographer of over the previous couple weeks was just make our rain plan, and rehearse it as if. And so the umbrellas were things that we discussed very early on, and obviously what I think it did was serve as a very magical reminder that we were talking about in early meetings; that this is happening right now, in front of you, and our reaction to it also has to be immediate.
M: Aaron, how do you prep for something that is only going to happen once? You prep for Broadway shows, there’s five week rehearsals, and there’s tech. How is that magnified, or different, from this experience?
Aaron Tveit (AT): Half of it was very similar to getting ready to do eight shows a week on Broadway, and then we stepped onstage at Warner Brothers, and it all came to a crashing halt, and we were in tech for a month. I prepped very much the same way, except it’s this really fine line that, opening nights on Broadway usually aren’t the best shows. So it was a really hard thing to get ready for opening night, and to have it be a show that you would get six weeks into a run. It was very difficult, but I think the fact that we started it in the rehearsal room, with tape on the floor, it just felt very similar. And for me personally, I really leaned on the Les Mis movie experience a little bit, because that was the only thing that I – in a similar way – had prepped for a movie in the same way that I would prep for being on stage, and totally turning everything to camera. So just in my own head, I had something to kind of gage against. But I don’t know, with the rain that day, I woke up, and the rain was coming sideways, and I was like: “Eh, it’s going to be fine”. And then the funny thing was – I don’t know if you realized – I mean 15 minutes before we went live, we had rehearsed, basically, the B version of the opening, and we thought we were going to go with that. And then 2 minutes before the show started, they were like: “No, we’re going with A!” It was very exciting, but also it made for a beautiful experience.
M: So Bernie, when you are casting this movie, it’s a mixture of movie vets and TV vets. What’s your guidance to casting this very unique experience? You need to have a very deep skill set.
Bernard Telsey (BT): I mean it was great, because Tommy was so wonderful about it, right from the beginning. In the sense that, no matter how many questions there have been about Grease, there is going to be diversity in this Grease, we are not going to worry about the time frame. You know what I mean? Everybody know story, and we’re going to know it, as you both know so well with your show. So that was exciting, to have a wider net, and a wider freedom, which you don’t normally get to do. But it’s tricky, because it’s still a television show, and it’s all about ratings, and the studios point of view, and then the networks point of view, and then you have the creative teams point of view. And the biggest thing, not from Tommy, but from everyone else, was trying to get them to realize it’s a live musical, and these people have to sing. And there’s only been three of them, right, it’s not like movies, where you can get a little help with the sound, you can’t do that with this. You might not have to do 8 shows a week, but you have to really sing. And that became the biggest education lesson – just getting everyone to understand that that’s what we’re here for. At the same time, how wonderful, because it opens the doors to so many people who don’t have the time to commit to a Broadway show. You know, who can’t commit to a year of rehearsals, and performances, and can do this for three months, and who are really, really good at it. I mean a lot of those women, who are not from a Broadway world, were fantastic, and this gave them that opportunity.
TK: And working with Bernie, Tiffany, Justin, and Thomas, something that was really important for us, and this was from early days, is I would like to find people, and put them in a position to succeed. And what I was very aware of, is that the red light that says ‘on air’, is an x-ray vision for confidence, and if I haven’t prepared them for anything that happened – if we hadn’t prepared them for anything that happened – then we haven’t done our jobs. So there is a certain kind of person who wants to run toward that. Everyone in our show came to us, and we met them halfway. This was not about chasing; this was about people who wanted that challenge. And really we had to find performers, and crew, who would say “yes, let’s see if we can make that happen”. Then it started to come together. It’s slow and fast, when you think about casting, there is nothing, and all the sudden someone walks into the room, and there’s the answer.
M: I wonder how that extends to these amazing cameos. Like Boys II Men? Again, I was live tweeting the whole thing, and I watched everyone go: “Oh my god! What is happening? And then Mario Lopez, who is great, but suddenly creepy when he needs to be.
TK: I’ve said this many times; my job is to try to identify with the best ideas.
Tom goes on to explain that Mario Lopez helped bridge the gap between show, performance, and TV.
Conversation moves on to the opening shot, and Alex explains how they would consciously break the forth wall. They knew what they were doing, and wanted the audience to be aware of that also.
Aaron then explains how during dress rehearsals, he almost torched his voice when he was getting the audience riled up, which gave him more of an awareness of what he could and could not get away with during the live production.
M: William, lets talk about Keke Palmer’s quick change into the USO.
William Ivey Long (WL): Well I love magical transformations in life, in people’s lives, in my life, in everybody’s life. I love bringing it about, in Broadway stage, in actual time, with no smoke and no mirrors. So, when I read the script, and saw in there, she goes to the ball, and she’s all dressed up, and then comes back, and resumes rolling up her hair. And I thought, that’s even better than a commercial break, I can’t tell you. I’m happy I managed that, with no commercial break. But the most brilliant thing of all that you all did, and I just couldn’t believe it, I just started crying when I saw it, was we did our thing that we do on the Broadway, she changed herself all by herself, no one touched her, she was totally self compliant.
Lin-Manuel, the moderator goes on to explain what the audience saw during this quick and magical change: Keke is wearing one costume, the camera zooms into her face, and then when it zooms out we see an entirely new set and costume. William gushes that after this trick, the camera zooms out, and lets people in on the joke, and allowed them to “see the magic”, which he loved. He said it was so brilliant that he started crying. It frustrates William that people think it was edited, because some of the performers were dancing in three layers of overalls during the Grease Lightning song – even the car had a costume change.
Following on from this, Lin-Manuel got tech to run the hand-jive sequence, for people to get an idea of just how much was going on, yet how much story telling there was, at every point. The choreography and cinematography was so intricate, that people believed it was fake. They would cut from shot to shot to shot, yet not once did you see a camera in frame (other than the one that was part of the show).
Tom emphasizes what a testament that flawless outcome was to the team – not one person dropped the ball, and if one person did, everything else would have failed. It was all executed to perfection. Alex explains how in that scene alone, there were 150 shots.
For Aaron, it’s very emotional to watch, because there are 400 people, all committed to this scene, and the fact that no one messed up, was the only way a scene like that could be pulled off. He said he had never been part of anything like it – there was no acting involved, it truly felt like they were truly the kids in that high school.
Tom goes on to talk about other sequences, and how the simplest looking shots were make in the most complex way. While the shot looked serene, behind the camera it was mayhem.
Lin-Manuel moved to the final sequence, and says how touching he thought it was that everybody got recognition during the bows – like they do in Broadway. That it was an explosion of energy, where everyone is there, the set gets shown for what it really is, any everybody gets their bow. He also points out that the golf-cart almost tipping over was a nice reminder that we were watching a live show. Aaron said that they all knew that if they made it to the carnival – they did it, so it truly was a celebration. It was the first time they all finally realized that they had really made it through the production after running around for three hours.
Tom explains how at the end sequence, they are standing on the back of a truck waving their arms around, and encouraging everyone to have a blast.
Lin-Manuel then asked some questions from the social media. One of which was to Aaron, asking if there were any funny moments on set. Aaron said it was hard to choose, because he felt like they were all having a little too much fun on set, and they were constantly goofing around with each other. Another question was how long the rehearsal process was, and how long it took to learn everything. Apparently they had the ensemble for two weeks, the pink ladies for three after that, and then they added on the rest of the ensemble, which amounted to five weeks in the studio. Then they were on set for about a month. They ran the show about six or seven times in the rehearsal room, and the show that aired was only the third show with an audience, and the fifth show. Aaron said that was what he would say to people who were nervous, they had the luxury of four runs of the show before the live air.