How One Of The Best Movie Musicals In History Was Followed By One Of the Worst
The on-screen dynamic is tremendous between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease.
But not so much between Michelle Pfieffer and Maxwell Caufield in Grease 2.
How can that be? How could Grease, one of the best and most popular movie musicals in the history of entertainment, have been followed by Grease 2 — one of the worst and most unsuccessful movie musicals in the history of entertainment?
Originally released in 1978, Grease helped to catapult Travolta into motion picture superstardom, following his already-impressive big-screen debut that same year in Saturday Night Fever (Carrie, 1976, notwithstanding). It was all part of a meteoric rise that began on the small screen with his teen-idol interpretation of Vinnie Barbarino on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter (1975–1979). Travolta came to play that role (“I’m so confused!”), in part, due to the solid acting chops he showcased on stage, which included his secondary performance as Kenickie in an original live stage production of Grease (presented by the National Tour at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio — March 26, 1973, to April 2, 1973).
Ironically, Jeff Conaway, later of TV’s Taxi fame (ABC/NBC, 1978–1982), who would play Kenickie in the Grease film, had portrayed Zucko in the Cleveland show (which had also featured future-fellow-Taxi-co-star Marilu Henner).
But when it came to the big-screen edition of Grease, Travolta was the obvious choice and a better dance-shoe fit for Danny Zucko, who would romance Newton-John as the Sandra-Dee-like Sandy. Both Danny and Sandy were featured in the original stage version, intact, but Sandy was slightly altered on film with an Australian-culture to better fit Newton-John’s same heritage.
“Grease” Is The Word Among Many
Grease on-screen was directed by Randal Kleiser and produced by Saturday Night Fever’s Robert Stigwood and Alan Carr, the latter of whom had originally taken note of John Travolta’s charisma on Kotter and subsequently transformed him into a bonafide movie phenomenon.
Songbird Newton-John, meanwhile, was best known mostly for her mutually-satisfying blend of musical country/pop star, and enjoyed significant success with hits like “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” When later popped on-screen with Travolta in Grease, she performed the film’s lyrical numbers with the same kind of earnest and innocent sultriness that she honed since her first album in 1972.
And when Travolta’s little-bit Brooklyn-based rock-n-roll met Newton-John’s tamed country twang in Grease, there was no-stopping their terrific teaming. Newton-John’s ultimate on-screen transformation from “Naive Sandy” to “Hot-Sandy” — clad in leather-wear from near-head to toe to win Travolta as Zucko’s heart — may not have pleased some of the more conservative movie-goers. But it was their pre-High-School Musical chemistry explosion of cinematic proportions that mesmerized the mainstream audience, who went wild upon seeing Travolta and Newton-John perform, among other things, the mega-hit, “You’re The One That I Want,” at the close of the film. Although that titillating tune was not part of the original stage musical, others like it, including Newton-John’s sentimental rendering of “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” were added to the movie version.
Consequently, movie-houses around the country — and the world — were brought down — in a good way.
Pure Nostalgia And Something More
It soon became more than “Clearasil”-clear that Grease was taking on a life of its own. Saturday Night Fever, sprinkled with the genius rousing soundtrack by The Bee Gees, was a stellar movie musical in its own right. But while that film featured songs that contributed to the storyline, the music in Grease became part of the storyline, incorporated directly into the script.
Just like the old days — of MGM musicals.
That kind of nostalgia, combined with the additional nostalgia of having Grease set in the 1950s, which was already made popular again on TV with sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley (both produced by Paramount Studios, which released Grease, and Saturday Night Fever, for that matter) was unstoppable.
A second Grease movie had to be made. It just had to be — but it wasn’t going to happen with Travolta and Newton-John.
And It Shouldn’t Have Been Made At All
While John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John wisely passed on re-pairing as Danny and Sandy on screen, they choose to reunite, unsuccessfully as other film characters in Two of a Kind, released in 1983. But one year before that happened, Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield stepped into Travolta/Newton-John’s dancing/singing shoes for what became Grease 2.
Unfortunately, for all parties concerned, especially the audience who was seeking a second party, “Greased Lightning” didn't strike twice, and Grease 2 bombed at the box office.
The magic was gone, helped along by budget cuts, bad casting, dreadful songs, and something even as simple as poor lighting.
Pffiefer and Caufield, both charming, talented, and attractive in their own right, gave this second pre-High-School Musical the old college try, but it just wasn’t happening. Not even the cameo-casting of Hollywood legends like Connie Stevens and Tab Hunter could help the film. Whereas a similar tactic was nicely utilized in the original Grease movie, with guest-spots from TV icons like Sid Ceaser, Eve Arden, and Alice Ghostly, it all fell flat-top in Grease 2.
Carr and Stigwood were still there in some producing capacity for Grease 2, but Grease 1 director Randal Kleiser, who had helmed Travolta’s heralded TV-movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (ABC, 1976), had joined Travolta and Newton-Johnin opting out for Grease 2. Instead, choreographer Patricia Birch (who guided the dance moves in Saturday Night Fever, and later Cindy Lauper’s True Colors music-video) took over helming duties, which proved to be an enormously overwhelming task.
Into this mix, the sound of Grease 2’s music just didn’t cut it.
The Big Picture — Times 2
Overall, Grease 2 was a valiant attempt to recreate the magic of Grease 1. But it just wasn’t the same, nor should it have been. And while the second Grease flick remains beloved in some campy camps, it simply can’t hold sixteen candles to the original — which will forever remain, at least in this writer’s eyes — the one that everybody wants.