In this 'Grease' prequel series, pink is the word
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In this 'Grease' prequel series, pink is the word
From left, Ari Notartomaso, Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, and Cheyenne Isabel Wells, who play the title girl gang in “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” set four years before the “Grease” film from 1978, in New York on March 27, 2023. “Rise of the Pink Ladies” describes the origins of the title 1950s girl gang before Rizzo and Frenchy took over, as viewed through a 2020s lens. (Ariel Fisher/The New York Times)

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- If you’re into musicals, you may often find yourself wondering: Why should sci-fi fans be the only ones to enjoy ever-expanding franchises?

“I know a lot of people who get so much joy from Marvel and ‘Star Wars’ and all the iterations of those universes,” said Annabel Oakes, the television writer and producer (“Atypical,” “Minx”). “I have always been a little jealous of that.

“So when ‘Grease’ came as an opportunity to me, I realized that Rydell High is a universe I wanted to spend a long time living in and exploring.”

What resulted was the 10-episode prequel series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,” premiering Thursday on Paramount+. (Oakes is the creator and showrunner.) Set in 1954, four years before the events of the hit 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John — itself an adaptation of the 1971 stage musical — “Pink Ladies” explores how a group of four Rydell outcasts forged a friendship, then became the title girl gang, forebears to Rizzo, Frenchy and the other beloved Pink Ladies from the movie.

Both the stage musical and the film filtered the 1950s through the prism of the 1970s, offering an often frank, funny and unsentimental view of sex, class and gender at an American high school. The movie’s sequel, “Grease 2” (1982), viewed the early ’60s through the early ’80s.

“Pink Ladies” is similarly reflective of its time, offering a more diverse, more self-aware take on the ’50s. Like its predecessors, the series embraces candy-colored exuberance, but it also looks more overtly — and at times, more seriously — at coming-of-age concerns like race and sexual orientation.

“We want to talk to 2023 and we want to talk to 1954 and we want to talk to 1978,” Oakes said in a video call. “And we want to do all that in the music, in the scripts, with the characters. We’re in conversation with all three of those time periods.”

Oakes grew up a fan of “Grease” — when she was a child, she once dressed up as the cheerleader Patty Simcox — so when, in February 2020, Paramount solicited pitches for a show set in the world of the movie, she started reflecting on what she had loved about it.

“I thought about that sleepover scene with the girls, singing ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,’ and I just really wanted to be at that sleepover,” she said. “That was what I wanted out of my life as a 10-year-old girl.”

Crucially, that scene centers not on the movie’s leads but on the Pink Ladies, a group of independent-minded girls who stand apart from the cheerleaders and the jocks, the greasers and the nerds, and are led by Stockard Channing’s charismatic, swaggering Rizzo. The answer to that character in the series is Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), a confident Mexican American student who struts down the Rydell hallways in pencil skirts.

“Once I put on that outfit and the hair and the makeup, I was ready to bring on that Olivia walk,” Wells said in a video chat. “It was like, ‘All right, time to be cool.’”

The Pink Ladies were memorably distinct — so much so that they became the focus of “Grease 2,” starring a gum-snapping Michelle Pfeiffer. Oakes decided their origin story was worth investigating.

“This aligned with what Paramount was really looking for, which was: How can we tell the stories that you couldn’t have told in 1978 and that you definitely couldn’t have told in 1958?’” Oakes said.

The show applies a more modern sensibility to coed relationships than films like “Gidget” (1959), in which a teen played by Sandra Dee somehow clings to her innocence while surrounded by hunky surfers. Now, it’s not just acceptable but recommended to portray girls as embracing their sexuality and also having a degree of agency. In the second episode, boys spike the punch and the future Pink Ladies retaliate by putting castor oil in the booze.

“You’re right,” Olivia tells them, “it’s not funny to put something in somebody’s drink that makes them feel out of control of their body.”

Naturally, the score plays an important role in helping viewers navigate eras. Aside from an updated version of the movie’s title track — a recurring musical motif throughout — the songs mostly navigate a fluid zone that is not entirely vintage, not entirely modern. For that, Oakes worked closely with the show’s executive music producer, Justin Tranter, who grew up loving musicals and is a regular presence on the upper rungs of the Billboard Hot 100, with writing credits on hits by Justin Bieber, DNCE and Selena Gomez.

Tranter, who oversaw and co-wrote the series’ 30 original numbers and uses the gender-neutral pronouns they and them, drew inspiration from the movies, which, as they noted in a video call, had a relaxed attitude toward period authenticity: Some songs that were added for the 1978 movie, they said, didn’t bother to sound like the 1950s.

“‘Grease is the word,’ that is just a disco song; there is no nostalgia,” Tranter said. (The song, whose proper title is “Grease,” was performed by Frankie Valli but written by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees.) “In our arrangement, we actually used more ’50s instrumentation than the ’70s movie did, on purpose,” Tranter continued, but the songs also included contemporary flourishes, like “the vocal being a little more modern,” or the inclusion of “sub bass, or 808s,” a type of drum machine.

“So there is that modern element,” Tranter added, “just like the original ‘Grease’ had.”

Like Oakes, the young actors who portray the Pinks, as they all referred to their characters in separate video conversations, grew up with “Grease,” so they were familiar with the premise and tone.

“It’s been in and out of my life since childhood,” said Tricia Fukuhara, whose character, Nancy, is a Japanese American student who wants to become a fashion designer.

Wells said she had waited until after she landed the role to rewatch the movie. But she and “Grease” were hardly strangers.

“I’d seen it before,” she clarified. “I mean, who hasn’t?”

What was less familiar at first was the 1950s setting. But the creative team and the cast quickly realized it was not quite as foreign as they expected. Oakes looked up and interviewed some of the students in the 1950s yearbook of a Southern California high school where parts of “Grease” were shot, now in their 80s; she grilled her own mother about her experience. She read up and discovered that interracial and mixed-ethnicity relationships were not unheard-of in that time and place.

Following the showrunner’s example, the actors portraying the Pink Ladies researched what it was like growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, especially as a girl. They were all struck by how much they could relate.

“I talked to a woman who was not out in the 1950s but was aware of her sexuality in high school, which was truly a huge benefit to me, being able to sort of communicate and authentically connect with someone who had that lived experience,” said Ari Notartomaso, who plays the gender-nonconforming goofball Cynthia. “There’s a lot more of a connection between generations than we may be told.”

Marisa Davila, whose character, Jane, stirs up Rydell by running for president of the student council against a popular boy, also found resonance close to home.

“My father is a first-generation Mexican American, so I grew up hearing stories and being influenced by his background,” she said. “I used my dad as a big inspiration for the role: He was the first and only in his immediate family to get a college degree, and that’s all Jane wants — to learn more and go really far.”

That drive to follow one’s heart and brain wherever they might lead made the original Pink Ladies feel iconoclastic even in the 1970s, Tranter, the music producer, said — a timeless idea that carries over into this newer iteration.

“So many people watched ‘Grease’ so young that I think they don’t realize how progressive and edgy it was for the time,” Tranter said.

“What’s so great about Annabel’s story is that these Pink Ladies are radical and subversive and rebellious,” Tranter added. “They’re causing a moral panic in their town just because they want something.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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