Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies Stars Tell Us More (Tell Us More) About the Musical Prequel Series

The new streaming series puts a progressive spin on the classic story of sex jokes, double standards, and Hand Jives.

by | April 7, 2023 | Comments

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L-R: Tricia Fukuhara as Nancy Nakagawa, Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano, Cheyenne Wells as Olivia Valdovinos and Ari Notartomaso as Cynthia Zdunowski in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies episode 2, season 1, streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+

(Photo by Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

Grease, the beloved stage play and movie musical about the teen lovers of the fictitious Rydell High School who find their romance to be star-crossed by the cruel world of 1950s high school factions, is not a story that ages well. The movie version, which came out in 1978 and starred Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, is Certified Fresh even if it does include teen boys singing in perfect harmony about fixing up a car because it will help them have sex with girls or asking if a girl “put up a fight” during a hook-up session. Even more important, it has Stockard Channing’s “bad girl” Rizzo hide her fear of potentially being pregnant and anger over being ostracized for “putting out” by singing that there are worse things she could do beside date around.

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, a prequel series that premiered April 6 on streaming service Paramount+, seeks to rectify these transgressions by acknowledging them and mocking them.

The musical, which is created by Annabel Oakes, doesn’t want to sugarcoat the sex jokes, double standards, and Hand Jives of its the first iterations. Instead, it uses color, choreography, and lyrics to put the focus on where the story always should have been: The Pink Ladies, the tough-as-nails girl gang that ruled the school and left the patriarchy, well, shook. In this sense, it attempts to skip right over the world of the story of Grease and draw a straight line between the series and the somewhat also problematic, but under-appreciated, second movie, Grease 2 (where Michelle Pfeiffer’s Stephanie Zinone dreams of finding a “cool [motorcycle] rider,” who “if he’s cool enough, he can burn me through and through”).

“We love Grease; we refer to it as ‘the mothership’ and we always go back to it,” Oakes said during the show’s Television Critics Association panel in January when Rotten Tomatoes asked about how to make this leap without upsetting canon. She added that “Grease was the ’70s commenting on the ’50s, and they were telling really subversive, funny songs and stories about the ’50s from a ’70s point of view. And now we are in the 2020s, and we get to comment on what they said in the ’70s and the ’50s, which is a cool experience.”

She admitted of the first movie that “yeah, there are some lyrics that are problematic. But, as you see, we reference those in the pilot in other dialogue. You’ll see us try to open up the world of Grease and open up the lens of Grease; taking a deeper look … and getting the girls’ perspective from it.”

Instead of focusing on four characters with an obvious camaraderie, Pink Ladies shows that the group was formed by kids from across the high school diaspora: Marisa Davila’s brainy and straight-laced Jane Facciano; Cheyenne Isabel Wells’ Olivia Valdovinos, a new girl with a tainted reputation; Ari Notartomaso’s Cynthia Zdunowski, a greaser in her own right who will never be accepted as one of the guys; and Tricia Fukuhara’s Nancy Nakagawa, a fashionista who dreams of getting the heck out of her small town and who leaves her own friend circle because all those care about is boys. (Another character, Shanel Bailey’s Hazel, represents another new kid and outsider who has trouble fitting in. She also happens to be a pretty decent singer).

Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano and Cheyenne Wells as Olivia Valdovinos in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies: "We're Gonna Rule the School" EP#101 streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+

(Photo by Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

Despite the inevitable comparisons to characters in the original properties, the actresses playing these parts stress that these similarities are only skin-deep. For one thing, both Davila and Wells have Latin heritage. Davila’s character especially feels the pressure to succeed that is familiar to a lot of children of immigrant parents.

“Our characters; they’re all original characters and they have their own stories and their own views on things,” Wells, whose character could easily be labeled the “Rizzo” of the bunch, told Rotten Tomatoes in a recent interview. “They might have the -esque of another character from the original movie, but they’re definitely not them.”

Davila said that the fact that the so-called “leads” of the Pink Ladies are people of color drives home that “anybody can be a Pink Lady.”

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies stars Tricia Fukuhara (Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

(Photo by Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

Conversely, Fukuhara’s Nancy and her family are not limited to a traditional societal depiction of Asian and Asian American families; in fact, she’s a descendant of Rydell royalty.

“She’s not stereotyped in that way where her parents are trying to make her the perfect model student,” Fukuhara said. “They’re just there for her and they support her. But it turns out they were the popular kids when they were in high school, and they don’t understand how they have this weirdo, outcast daughter.”

The show still embraces the cheeky double-entendres of the movie; there’s an episode titled “If You Can’t Be an Athlete, Be an Athletic Supporter.” Choreographer Jamal Sims found ways to put a modern spin on Patricia Birch’s legendary moves from both the Newton-John/Travolta and Pfeiffer films, while executive music producer Justin Tranter worked with the writers to find ways to fit in their own tongue-in-cheek lines (Wells referenced a song from the third episode, entitled “In the Club,” where a photo depicting the rich, white, male members of a private social club comes alive to sing that “the world is yours to have / We’ve got each other’s back. / As long as you’re not Jewish, Asian, Brown, or Black”).

Ari Notartomaso, Russell Lee, Joshua Blum Hagen, and Victor Lau in GREASE: RISE OF THE PINK LADIES (Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

(Photo by Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

It also hits against gender norms, both with its casting and with its plot. Notartomaso’s character is queer. Although that’s not an overt fact in the plot, they do play the role more as someone just looking for a place in this crazy world instead of a “tomboy” or “kid sister” type. And there are no main characters like Cynthia in the film.

“I think the reasons that Cynthia may not have been seen in ’70s version of the 1950s take are the things that, for me, make her the most fun,” Notartomaso said. “The things that make her different are the things that make me love her the most and are the things that that I can relate to the most. It’s so liberating to be able to relate to the identity of this character and be able to completely create a new character that represents something that hasn’t really been represented very much in media.”

Nancy and Cynthia’s bond strengthens while singing about a world without boys.

“I feel like that doesn’t happen very often,” Fukuhara said. “Even today, it’s like, ‘No, you should probably get married and have a kid and a dog.’ It’s nice to let people know that that it’s OK if you don’t want that and that you can want other things. And you can find people who are going to support you and be there for you. And you can be just as successful and happy.”

And if that group of friends happens to sport matching satin jackets? Even better.

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