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Grease is the word - interviews

It's the one that theatregoers and movie lovers have wanted since it first opened in the early 1970s. And as the acclaimed Curve production of Grease hits the road for a UK and Ireland tour, director Nikolai Foster promises: "It has all the moments you love from the film and the original but with some extra grit, guts, gravitas and spice! Audiences are in for an electrifying night of explosive choreography and incredible songs as they witness the raw talent of the greatest young performers working onstage today."

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Grease opened in Chicago in 1971 and played Broadway the following year, where it was nominated for seven Tony awards. It ran for eight years and featured such little-known (at the time at least!) performers as Patrick Swayze, John Travolta and Richard Gere.

Having understudied several roles on Broadway, Gere got to star as Danny Zuko when the show had its 1973 London premiere at the Dominion Theatre. Then, of course, Travolta played Danny in the 1978 blockbuster film version opposite Olivia Newton-John as Sandy Olsson. The name-change from Sandy Dumbrowski wasn't the only tweak; Sandy was now Australian to accommodate Newton-John's accent, the Burger Palace Boys were renamed the T-Birds, some songs were jettisoned, the story was relocated to sunny California and its harder edges were softened.

First helmed by Foster in 2016, the Curve production - which has since toured the country and enjoyed sold-out summer seasons at the Dominion - reinstates the names, the location, the toughness and some of the songs, alongside such favourites as Summer Nights, Hopelessly Devoted To You, You're the One That I Want and the title track.

Of the reinstated numbers, the director (whose extensive CV also includes White Christmas, Annie and Beautiful Thing) explains: "They really give us a key to the feeling of the original show and its genesis - the grit, viscera and real life that these working class kids from the South Side of Chicago experienced. I think the new-old songs are a nice surprise. They make you sit up and listen, hearing the whole show and something that is very familiar as if for the first time. It’s a terrific new flavour."

In all versions of the 1950s-set musical, Danny and Sandy enjoy a summer fling but he's too cool to continue the romance when she turns up at the same school. It's a narrative Nikolai believes resonates with everyone. "We’ve all been teenagers and experienced the elation of first love and the sense of heartbreak when the person you think you’re in love with doesn’t feel the same way. We’ve all experienced the highs and lows of school life, teachers who we feel don’t understand us, being bullied, that fumbling first kiss at a party or prom. Grease is about a group of teenagers going through the messy years of adolescence and as such it’s something we can all relate to."

The show is choreographed by Dame Arlene Phillips and designed by Colin Richmond, who help add to the realism as a contrast to the movie version. "The film was shot in sunny LA and is very much a candy floss vision of high school life," Foster says. "Our Grease sets the show in its original Chicago location, where it’s much closer to real life and not quite as sunny!" He laughs. "Although Arlene's astonishing choreography certainly has enough energy and verve to ignite a nuclear power reactor!" 


It boasts a diverse cast, with Nikolai explaining: "As with all our work at Curve, we want to ensure the work on our stages celebrates and reflects our diverse nation. It’s so important we see aspects of our own identity represented and one of the privileges of working on this production is that our casting has always celebrated the very best in new talent coming into the theatre." 

Heading the cast for the tour are Marley Fenton as Danny and Hope Dawe as Sandy. They're thrilled to be playing such iconic characters, with Marley saying: "It's such an iconic show and such an iconic love story, so for us it's about paying homage to a classic."

He agrees that the stage version is grittier than people might expect. "You've got all that great music but there are serious themes going on too. There are tensions within the Pink Ladies and the Burger Palace Boys but it's also a celebration of friendship, just as the song We Go Together proves. And ultimately it's so much fun and such a feel-good show."

Hope concurs. "By the end everyone is on their feet for the megamix and they go away humming all those brilliant songs. Everyone loves Grease, don't they?"

Fenton is a graduate of the Arts Educational School who has played The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and was in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends. He sees getting to play Danny as a career landmark, saying: "When I was growing up, I'd always kind of put myself in the position of playing either the black character or the character that is the best friend. But when I went through drama school training, I realised 'Why can't I be a Danny Zuko? Why can't I be the lead who has always been seen as a white person when there's nothing in the story to say that they have to be?' So this is such a cool moment for me."

Dawe trained at Mountview and Grease marks her professional debut. She sees Sandy as a role model for today's young theatregoers, pointing out: "Yes, she's lovely and sweet and she's in love with Danny. But she's not naive about the world that she finds herself in, at a new school, with kids that she's not been around before. She has a backbone and she sticks up for herself."

Hope grins. "To be making my professional debut in such a brilliant show is so exciting. I feel very lucky and grateful to be surrounded by so many people that I'm learning a lot from. It's amazing."

What challenges do these roles present? Marley notes: "Danny is this guy who doesn't care what anyone thinks of him and he's not always a nice person. The challenge is staying true to that but also tapping into the vulnerability of someone who is trying to be cool when he's really in love with Sandy."

For her part Hope says: "It's all about playing someone who goes from being a girl to a woman over the course of the show and someone who can put on a different outfit at the end but who is still true to herself and her morals. She's also a bit more fiery than she was in the film."

They're both huge fans of Arlene Phillips. Marley smiles at the mention of her name. "Every time she walks into the room, there's just this presence. She definitely puts us through our paces but the choreography is amazing." Hope smiles too. "She's very inspiring and she knows so much. She's wonderful to be around." 


Phillips herself says of the show: "It's like seeing the film come to life, only edgier. I love the film but it is a fantasy of what real life in Chicago was like in 1958."

The original stage version, on the other hand, was based on a real high school (the William Howard Taft School in Chicago) that Jacobs himself attended and many of the characters were inspired by his fellow pupils, with Phillips adding: "A lot of people don't know that this is a real story about real-life people. Only the names have been changed."

In the story that Jacobs and Casey fashioned, these are blue-collar kids who have low expectations about where life will take them once their school days are over. "Many of them are trying to work out who they are and what the future holds. So they live their lives through dance and through the rockabilly style which is exploding all around them. Like hip-hop kids creating their own moves today, it was very much like that in rockabilly."

Awarded a damehood in 2021 for her services to dance and charity, Arlene has been praised for her work on such shows as Starlight Express, Saturday Night Fever, We Will Rock You and Guys and Dolls. She is a two-time Olivier nominee and was presented with a Special Recognition Olivier award in 2023, along with a WhatsOnStage trophy for the revival of Grease at the Dominion.

"It's about releasing all your energy through your body and through dance," she says of the choreography that she devised for the Curve production in 2016 and has refined over subsequent years. "There are a lot of lifts and drops and spectacular moments." She smiles. "Then there's Beauty School Dropout, which is a hot-pink number that blows the audience away because it's so unexpected. It gets a lot of laughs."

Arlene is in awe of the young cast. "They all have to be brilliant and to be triple threats. They have to sing and dance and act, and they bring so much energy to it. It feels like a giant party because everyone in the company is so excited to be doing this show."

The excitement extends to the audience. "When they walk into the auditorium, they might have the weight of the world on their shoulders but as soon as the curtain goes up they're drawn into this story. By the time they've joined in the party for the finale, standing up and singing along, they are filled with joy and it's extraordinary to see the bounce in their steps as they leave the theatre."


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