Grease is the Word (Again!)

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Quick — What do Diane DeGarmo, Josh Strickland and Frenchie Davis all have in common? Aside, of course, from the fact that all three have used 14 of their alloted 15 minutes of fame, the trio of former AMERICAN IDOL contestants currently are all appearing on Broadway (in Hairspray, Tarzan and Rent, respectively).  
And while IDOL wasn’t designed to find the next star of the Great White Way, the same can’t be said of GREASE: YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT, in which viewers will pick the actor and actress who will star in a revival of that old warhorse GREASE. The series — debuting Sunday, January 7 at 8 p.m. on NBC — follows a slew of no-doubt attractive wannabes hoping to be cast in the roles made famous on the big screen by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The winners — to be selected by viewers – will star in the revival of GREASE scheduled to open in June of this year.
Although the whole production – what with singing stars, a trio of judges (including one whose British and, if we’re lucky, surly) – sounds more then a little familiar, the stakes are high for not only NBC, but also the producers who’ll be trusting America to cast the leading rolls in a multi-million dollar Broadway production with the potential to be a long-running cash cow like Cats… or a short-lived, bloodless money pit like Rosie’s TABOO. With so much riding on the final casting, the role of the judges — Grease creator Jim Jacobs, producer (and obligatory Brit) David Ian and Tony-award winning director Kathleen Marshall — to try and make sure America doesn’t screw things up too badly. “It’s part of our job to guide the public,” says Kathleen Marshall. “Someone may look great on TV, but if they can’t project to the back of a Broadway [theater], that’s going to be a problem.”

Having already held open auditions in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Ian is looking forward to helping America decide who exactly it is that they want. ”We could cast in the normal way,” he concedes. ”But isn’t this far more exciting? The American public has a very strong opinion as to who Danny and Sandy should be. Involving them in the project adds to the excitement. We as producers spend most of our time trying to cast people the public adores. Why not just ask them in the first place?”

Confident that the auditions attracted a strong group of contenders, Jacobs isn’t worried that the Grease marquee will wind up saying “starring William Hung”. ”We had people audition who were currently in a Broadway show. We had kids in Chicago who were literally from the original Rydell High [in which the play is set], and we also had our share of sword swallowers!”

Adds Marshall, “You definitely get the GONG SHOW aspect. People who just show up to be on TV, and people who have no right to be there. But honestly, you get that with Broadway auditions, too.”
As unusual as the casting process has been for the contenders, Marshall points out that it’s not exactly business as usual for the judges, either. “It was weird telling people in front of them what you think,” she admits. ”In a Broadway show, we talk about the actors after they leave the room. Saying to someone why you think they’re not right for the part is very difficult.”

Jacobs – who began his career as an actor – concurs. ”Luckily for NBC, all three of us [judges] started out as performers. So we’ve suffered the slings and arrows of getting rejected. We’re not trying to be nasty, because we’ve all been there and felt the rejection for ourselves”

Which isn’t to say everyone’s going to walk away from the audition with smiles on their faces. ”According to Jim, I’m the Simon.” says Ian. “I’m not a character though, at least I certainly hope I’m not.” But never fear, because he follows that statement up with words that would make Simon Cowell himself proud. “I’m brutally honest and truthful.”

Yet one nagging question remains: What if the one that America wants isn’t at all whom the producers have in mind? “The three judges are equally confident America won’t let them down,” says Marshall. “It’s our job to make sure [the actors] are ready and they deliver”
As Jacobs concludes, even if the new Sandy and Danny prove to be less talented than, say, K-Fed, it may not matter in the end. “I must say, I’ve seen productions of Grease that wouldn’t last a day on Broadway,” he admits. “Community theater productions that were just dreadful. But people still love the show. It’s amazing. Grease is indestructible.” 

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