Fox’s ambitious ‘Grease’ ups the live TV musical ante

BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — “Grease,” the 1950s-set musical romp that was a stage and screen smash in the 1970s, is rebooting as a Broadway-meets-Hollywood hybrid for its 21st-century television close up.

Fox’s “Grease: Live” (7-10 p.m. EST Sunday) aims to revisit the puppy-love story of Sandy and Danny, played by Julianne Hough and theater veteran Aaron Tveit, with a supercharged blend that weds theater’s immediacy and cinematic flair.

Instead of one stage, the broadcast is using several indoor sets and outdoor studio locations to create Rydell High School, including its gym and exterior, along with teen hangouts including the Frosty Palace soda shop. A small army of camera operators will be deployed to capture the action in close-up and longer shots.

Some of the 20 cameras will be taken offline — almost unprecedented in live TV — and shifted among nearly four-dozen positions in the production, which is being shot at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. Cast members will be on the move too, relying on golf carts to rush them from one scene to another during commercial breaks.

Rain was predicted Sunday, but umbrellas are at hand and the show will go on, producer Paramount Television said.

“Grease: Live” is building on the current small-screen fascination with musicals, which started with NBC’s live telecasts including “The Sound of Music” and “The Wiz” and may include “Hairspray,” also from NBC, and, from ABC, a possible movie update of “Dirty Dancing.”

In a Friday night dress rehearsal performed before an eager friends-and-family audience, the intricate puzzle came together precisely, starting with an elaborate, continuous-shot opening with Jessie J singing “Grease (is the word)” as she roamed the studio and ending with an outdoor carnival scene.

“We’ll do it straight through, like we’ll do it Sunday for 143 million of our closest friends,” director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) told the audience at the start. He is overseeing the stage direction, with Alex Rudzinski serving as the live television director.

(Kail was indulging in a flourish of ratings hyperbole — “The Sound of Music,” NBC’s biggest live-musical draw, was seen by 19 million viewers.)

After the rehearsal wrapped on time, a beaming Hough flashed a thumbs-up sign to the crowd.

In that three-hour window, cast members and an ensemble of dancers and singers frantically switched costumes and sometimes hairstyles and makeup as they pivoted from one scene to the next in real time. The TV musical includes Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, Keke Palmer as Marty, Ana Gasteyer as Principal McGee and Mario Lopez as slick DJ Vince Fontaine.

Original “Grease” stars Didi Conn, who played Frenchy, and Barry Pearl, who co-starred as Doody, are back in cameos.

A smiling Conn, decked out in a waitress outfit, drew applause and shouts from the audience when she dropped by the gym set pre-rehearsal.

Other crowd-pleasing moments included a performance by guest stars Boys II Men of “Beauty School Dropout”; a cheerleader challenge between Hough’s Sandy and Elle McLemore’s Patty, and a cleverly-staged sequence that moves a Palmer solo of “Freddy My Love” from a girls’ sleepover to a USO stage show and back again.

And no surprise here: Big cheers greeted the high-energy dance contest scene in which Hough, Tveit and the entire cast got to show off their moves and the audience rocked out to “Born to Hand Jive.”