In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
While the movie musical has made of a bit of a comeback in recent years—especially if dance flicks like the Step Up series are included—it’s still very much on life support. Shifting generational tastes are one issue, but that can’t be the whole story, since musicals still clean up on Broadway and there are only so many geezers. Emphasis has merely shifted to the “jukebox musical,” which derives a thin story from the existing catalog of a pop artist (or genre); Mamma Mia!, the most notable of these, was made into a hit movie, but other attempts, like Rock Of Ages, have stiffed. The real problem, to which Mamma Mia! was hardly immune, is that America no longer has a stable of movie stars who were extensively trained in musical theater and vaudeville. This means that the few we do have, like Hugh Jackman, wind up being pressed into service for roles that are well out of their vocal range, like Jean Valjean. (Let’s not even talk about Russell Crowe.) The fine art of tailoring talent for parts has been lost.
As recently as 1978—when the genre’s decline was already in full swing—it was a different story. Nowadays, adaptations of musicals virtually always add at least one new song, in a blatant bid for an Oscar nomination. (Songs not written expressly for the movie are ineligible.) Even the sung-through, plot-heavy Les Misérables tossed one in, though I’ve got a shiny new quarter here for anyone who doesn’t own the film soundtrack and can still hum a few bars of that tune. The film version of Grease, however, took that concept much further, completely revamping the hugely successful stage musical to accommodate stars Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta—one a chart-topping pop singer with almost no acting experience, the other a newly minted dancing heartthrob (Saturday Night Fever came out the previous year) with a limited voice. Many of the original songs were tossed altogether, and several completely new ones were written. In one case, the movie simply substitutes a new song for an old one, while keeping the circumstances exactly the same. So anyone who happened to have seen the stage version first, then sat down with the movie eager to see Travolta sing “Alone At A Drive-In Movie,” was sorely disappointed. What they got instead was this:
The eagle-eyed will have already observed that Travolta’s character, Danny Zuko, is still alone at a drive-in movie during this number. Indeed, the opening words of the song are “Stranded at the drive-in.” But the replacement song, “Sandy”—co-written by Sha Na Na’s Screamin’ Scott Simon—is much easier to sing than “Alone At A Drive-In Movie,” which demands sustained notes at the end of multiple phrases. Travolta was a mildly successful pop singer at the time, having released two albums even before Saturday Night Fever made him a superstar; his voice was more pleasant than powerful, though, and “Sandy” gives him two sections (at the beginning and toward the end) that are essentially spoken-word, plus helpful repeat syllables like “why-aye-aye-oh-why,” which even I can handle. Don’t get me wrong—he still has to belt a little bit, even hit a falsetto at one point, and he does a creditable job. But it’s easy to see why the filmmakers felt that it might be a good idea to create something a bit less taxing for his big solo number.
My single-scene format is tripping me up a bit here, because the phenomenon I’m discussing applies even more strongly to Newton-John's big solo number, “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” (Ah, hell, I'll discuss it anyway.) “Hopelessly Devoted To You” was also written for the movie—Sandy’s equivalent in the stage version is “It’s Raining On Prom Night,” a song that occurs much later in the story and was omitted from the film, in which Sandy does in fact attend the big dance with Danny. But the producers cannily farmed out penning of the tune to John Farrar, the guy who produced all of Newton-John’s early albums and wrote some of her biggest hits (“Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Magic”). That explains why it sounds exactly like an Olivia Newton-John single embedded in the middle of the movie. I have no idea whether there are Grease purists out there who resent the changes that were made on the singer's behalf (which include making Sandy Australian), but I’d argue that this is how modern-day movie musicals ought to be (re)conceived: as vehicles for talented stars. If you’ve chosen to cast a pop singer with a particular style, and there are no tunes in the source material that take advantage of her gifts, go ahead and write her some. Admittedly, that’s a bit tricky if your source material is all ABBA hits. But who wouldn’t rather have heard Pierce Brosnan croak some unfamiliar new song, tailored to his severe limitations, rather than strangle on “SOS”?
Having no existing choreography to either borrow or deviate from, director Randal Kleiser keeps the staging of both solo numbers relatively simple, mostly just following the actors as they walk slowly through the location, crooning. “Sandy” benefits from being set at the drive-in, which allows Kleiser to employ car headlights as spotlights and the movie screen as a backdrop. Earlier, we see that the kids are watching The Blob, but by the time Danny starts singing, it’s apparently intermission at a double feature. (Either that or there’s more than one screen—I don't know how commonplace that was in the ’50s.) The “go buy refreshments, please” animation visible behind Travolta was presumably in actual use at some point—though the film’s opening credits are animated, so I suppose the same team could have created it from scratch—but it’s still pretty hilarious to see Danny taunted by the sight of a hot dog suddenly leaping into a bun as he sits there, dejected, his own wiener decidedly unsheathed. And this after having been previously slammed in (or at least whacked by) the passenger door of his “sin wagon.”
(As an aside that can’t fit elegantly anywhere else, but also can’t go unmentioned: My favorite moment in this scene is when Travolta, singing the line “In heaven, forever and ever we will be,” helpfully points to heaven’s location, which is apparently not directly above, but at a slightly elevated position to his right. Travolta makes the gesture as if he’s just noticed heaven in the night sky and the sight of its splendor inspired the lyric, which is kind of adorable. “Look Sandy, heaven! We could be there in half an hour!”)
Of the three original songs written for the movie, only “Sandy” didn’t become a hit single. (The third, also written by Farrar, is “You’re The One That I Want,” which somehow topped Billboard’s Hot 100 before the movie was even released.) But it’s still a sterling example of how an adaptation can break free from its source material and create something equally enduring, simply by considering the needs of new actors and a new medium. Ironically, all three songs are now frequently added to onstage revivals of Grease, as audiences raised on the movie have come to expect them. The moral: Fidelity is overrated. Use what you’ve got.