It’s tempting to attribute Grease’s appeal to nostalgia. It’s set in a fun, frivolous version of the fifties where the guys wear skin-tight jeans without looking like Russell Brand and the gals wear poodle skirts without looking like they should be sectioned. It never sends up the era; it wholeheartedly celebrates it. But there’s a problem with the nostalgia theory: while Grease’s original audience were able to reminisce about their school days while watching it, later generations are increasingly distanced from the time of grabbing milkshakes in diners and hot rodding cars as wide as Boeing 747s. Today’s ten-year-old can enjoy Rizzo’s ‘Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ number without knowing who Sandra Dee is. Or, to be precise, was. There must be something more to Grease’s appeal than doe-eyed longing for a more innocent time.
An indisputable part of the musical’s popularity lies in its songs. It’s contributed at least five tunes to the pantheon of all-time pop classics: ‘You’re The One That I Want’, ‘Summer Nights’, ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’, 'Greased Lightnin’ and ‘Grease’. It’s surprising to note that three of these didn’t even feature in the original stage production. ‘You’re The One’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ were written by Olivia Newton-John’s producer John Farrar especially for the film, presumably to give her a chance to show off her wholesome soprano, and the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb contributed ‘Grease’ at the request of the producers. Crucially, the highlights of the soundtrack have been summarised in the ‘Grease Megamix’, a staple of school discos, wedding receptions and dodgy nights-out since it was spliced together in 1991. You haven’t seen the film? 'Grease Megamix' tells you everything you need to know.
But the heart of Grease’s appeal seems to lie in its unashamed, winsome romanticism: it’s no coincidence that it was first performed on February 14, 1972. Its story is as hackneyed as you’d expect: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy meets girl again; boy acts like a dick; girl runs off; boy can’t forget girl and tries to win her back. Significantly, its creaking plot developments never interfere with the gleeful song-and-dance numbers that really dazzle us. And its themes are universal: who can’t relate to Sandy’s concerns about fitting in at a new school? Who doesn’t marvel when she morphs from a slightly prim girl next door to a black spandex-clad smoker who’s one half-arsed cartwheel away from giving herself a cameltoe? Who doesn’t gasp – even in ASBO Britain - at Rizzo’s pregnancy scare? These are experiences that we all live through, or know someone who’s lived through, even if we don’t spontaneously break into song about them. Yes, Grease is camp, shallow and almost offensively cheerful, but we can relate to it. Here’s to the next 35 years.
Grease Is The Word begins on ITV1 at 6.05pm on Saturday.