The Dark Backstory of the Cult Musical About Naughty Kids Made by Randy Adults
It’s one of the most iconic back-to-school movies ever (aside from Back to School). Based on a wildly popular Broadway musical, Grease is oozing with baby boomer nostalgia and kitschy teen optimism. It is also, of course, a deeply stupid movie, but in a gleeful celebratory way that really does not care what you think of its flaws. Chief among them: Those “kids” are pushing middle-age.
In fact, most of the backstory behind Grease is far darker and more adult than the cheerful film would have you believe.
For example: How about that fun dance contest? Sure does seem like a good time! But it actually gets a bit grim when you find out that the gymnasium was up around 116 degrees when they were shooting, and many of the dancers had to be taken out after collapsing from heat exhaustion.
Even small details, like the hickeys on one character’s neck, are a bit more adult than you might expect: It turns out one of the actors insisted on putting them on Stockard Channing himself, with his own mouth. And that actor, Jeff Conaway, got addicted to painkillers while making this film, after another one of the dancers dropped him.
Like I said… grim.
Even when they tried to eliminate some of the darker themes, they weren’t completely successful. For example, one of the songs referenced Sal Mineo, an actor who was killed a few years earlier. They changed that into a reference to Elvis… who just happened to die the very day they shot that scene. Elvis was even supposed to appear in Grease, in a brief cameo, but turned the opportunity down.
Speaking of turning down opportunities, there was a parade of actresses who missed out on their chance to be in this movie. Carrie Fisher was under consideration, but one of the producers saw her shooting Star Wars and didn’t feel like she was right. They also thought about casting Ann Margaret, Linda Ronstadt, and Nancy Kyes. Susan Dey had a shot — you might know her as the oldest daughter from The Partridge Family — but her manager told her to pass.
Ultimately the part went to Olivia Newton-John because she’d had a previous disappointment with another role: She’d made a film called Toomorrow in 1970, but due to financial mismanagement it was never released. Desperate to avoid another setback like that, she demanded a screen test for Grease; and her chemistry with John Travolta was so good that she’d secured the part.
And then there was all of the sex. One song ends with an animated hot dog falling into a bun; another features cling-wrap as an allegory for condoms. What didn’t make it onto the film was the planned casting of porn star Harry Reems as the coach. Reems was best known for appearing in Deep Throat, and the studio freaked out at the news that their supposedly family-friendly movie would have an adult performer.
Everywhere you look in this movie, there’s something grim lurking behind a corner: During the iconic race scene at the end, the crew was sickened by the polluted Los Angeles water. There’s a fan theory that the entire story is a hallucinated in the moments before Sandy’s death. Travolta’s ex-girlfriend passed away from cancer during filming. Some of the “teens” were so old they had to have their grey hair dyed every day. The less said about Travolta’s Scientology the better.
But like looking back on high school with rose-colored glasses, it’s far easier to look back at Grease with fond memories. Try not to think about the dark underbelly — just keep telling yourself it’s all one big happy musical.