Honorable mentions: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” “Mooning”
Grease is, for a musical with only three important characters, maybe a little crowded with looks to Frenchie or Kenickie or Doody. What matters most in Grease are the presumed tough guy who ain’t really so tough, the nice girl who lives to preserve his manhood, and the tough girl who might be that tough as long as she isn’t pregnant. That said, I appreciate the endless versatility of what’s honestly a throwaway song. “Those Magic Changes,” when Sam Harris of the 1994 revival does it, is American Bandstand in a box, complete with screaming teenagers. Jordan Fisher, in the live performance on Fox earlier this year, crooned his way into our hearts with an acoustic version, an octave lower than what Harris was singing. Both are effective. For whatever’s wrong with Grease, which I blame for virtually every movie and TV show about high school, regardless of where it gets its origin (Glee as well as10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie to Heathers), there may not be a musical in the past fifty-odd years that’s been as successful at putting most of its musical catalog into pop culture; offhand, I think only Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera come close, and they only go one or two songs deep.
There’s a pun in place in this song, a pun so obvious and awful that I almost feel bad talking about it. It’s not a mistake that “Those Magic Changes” is placed at the beginning of the show in virtually every version; as I recall, the Fox production sends us back to Fisher a few times for reprises to finish off what they packaged for iTunes as a four minute song, but even the first incidence showed up pretty early in the telecast. “Changes” refers to the key changes which show up, predictably, halfway through the song; the Harris version has background singers who sing the notes themselves, which I’ve always liked. But there is the inevitable “teenagers are changeable and must change” business which goes on in the backdrop of “the Fifties didn’t let go of the Sixties as easily as y’all think they did,” which are both, of course, changes in their own way, the changes which dictate the course of the musical entirely. Can Sandy escape the Fifties? Will Rizzo survive the Sixties? Can Danny accede to any of the responsibilities of adulthood? Etc.
I’ve struggled for years to figure out what it is that grinds my gears about this musical. For some time, I think, I didn’t like it because my peers were convinced it had a happy ending, while I could smell (I was a pre-teen who thought “feminism” was a dirty word, so I’m definitely not going to say “understand”) something fishy about an ending in which a guy stays who he is and a girl is forced to renounce who she was before. But once everyone else still got the point, the musical didn’t entice me any more than it had before. I think the problem I’ve had is that for a show about those magic changes, the people playing the parts don’t flatter the changing. Grease doesn’t ring true when sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds play it, and yet it doesn’t work much better when a bunch of adults – Aaron Tveit at 32, Julianne Hough and Vanessa Hudgens at 27 – play people a decade younger. It may be that Grease, performed about as often as any other musical, is a rarity: it might be the book that can’t really be adapted to the stage or screen.