A successful theatre musical went from stage to big screen in the late ’70s, creating a whole new audience obsessed with the songs and characters of Grease.
Created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey in 1971 in Chicago, the play went on to be one of the most successful musicals of New York City’s Broadway and London’s West End.
And then Hollywood came knocking, with Robert Stigwood and Alan Carr producing the film for Paramount Pictures.
Filmed in Los Angeles, Travolta was chosen for the lead after Henry Winkler turned it down.
He had just finished Saturday Night Fever and was eager to continue working in film. He encouraged the producers to hire Olivia Newton-John, despite her lack of acting experience, because of her voice.
Several veteran actors were cast in the film – Sid Caesar, Eve Arden, Frankie Avalon, Alice Ghostley – while Jeff Conaway and Stockard Channing came from theatre for their roles of Kenickie and Rizzo.
And the premise – two young ’50s teens, Danny and Sandy, meet in the summer, spending idyllic days at the beach, with the young woman thinking she will have to return to Australia at the end. But she doesn’t and enrolls in the same high school unknowingly as her summer boyfriend.
Travolta plays the egocentric Danny Zuko, head of the T-Birds while Newton-John plays Sandy, the innocent young woman who considers becoming one of the girls, the Pink Ladies.
They try to continue their relationship, but friends, stories and another women get in the way, conspiring to break them up because they are too different. The series of stylized dance and music numbers are key to the film’s distinct style, with songs such as Summer Nights, Hopelessly Devoted to You, Greased Lightin’ and Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee.
Performances by Sha Na Na and Johnny Casino and the Gamblers add to the 1950s sound and style and with the culmination at the end of year school fair, the duo realize they want to be together, and would both change to make each other happy. And of course, dance and sing their way into a happy ending.
Released in June 1978, the buzz made this film and its soundtrack album big sellers. The film made for $6 million went on to earn almost $400 million at the box office worldwide, while the soundtrack was the second best-selling soundtrack of the year, second to Saturday Night Fever.
You’re the One that I Want, the finale single, was released prior to the film release, getting regular radio airplay and strong chart numbers, despite not being in the original theatre soundtrack.
And considered a hit of 1978, Grease was also the film that confirmed the success of both John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as movie stars.