Lube Job

Grease is definitely the word, even if I don't entirely understand why. I have nothing against fab '50s musicals or playwrights Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, who co-authored Grease back in the '70s. Their score is among the best of its kind, because it mimics the sound and sentiment of '50s pop music without ever mocking it.

But I'm just old enough to remember when Grease was slightly naughty; when it was staged with tongue-in-cheek bravado; when it was an air-humping homage to teenage testosterone, and not a wholesome family entertainment performed by and for children. I remember when Danny Zuko was a sleazeball, not a hero. But Grease is a karaoke event now; one of those musicals that soccer moms pull on saddle shoes and take their 4-year-olds to, forgetting that its subtext is teen sexuality, and that greasers weren't really sweet-natured auto mechanics with a four-octave range.

"Grease is appealing to everybody, teenagers and adults," says 16-year-old Jeff Reynolds, who'll be playing Danny in Valley Youth Theatre's production of Grease at the Herberger next month. That's right. Grease, with its songs about masturbation and dropping out and getting laid, is now a kiddy show. That's mostly thanks to the video generation's love of Allan Carr's film adaptation, an excellent hybrid of the show for which I have a grudging but abiding affection. The movie, which is as much of a time capsule of the '70s as it is the '50s, isn't the definitive translation of this once-campy tune fest, but it's right up there. And it's the reason that this once-wicked musical has morphed into "family entertainment." In fact, the 1978 film is so beloved that the goofball bubblegum tunes written for it ("Grease," "You're the One That I Want," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Sandy") are usually grafted onto the score of the stage version, so that this nostalgic '50s musical can allow us to be nostalgic about its '70s cinematic counterpart, too.

"Grease isn't about naughtiness, and it goes beyond nostalgia," according to Jack Humphrey, creator of Son of Grease, a fan site that celebrates Grease 2, Carr's mostly reviled 1982 film sequel ( "The idea of taking adolescent ordeals and emotions and putting them to music really resonates with people. The themes of rebellion and social acceptance evoke feelings we all have from high school and throughout our lives, and the music of the '50s and early '60s is the perfect soundtrack for those themes."

Apparently, Grease carries a sophisticated message about outsiders and the value of integrity. "The primary social cliques in the Grease films, the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies, both rebel against the structures of authority in terms of high school and society," Humphrey says. "Both films have the same basic story: an outsider who is initially rejected eventually finds acceptance without compromising his personal identity. It's a compelling fantasy."

Maybe. But Grease's primary audience is less interested in the story's deeper meanings than it is in attending matinees dressed up like beauty school dropout Frenchy and clapping along to "Greased Lightning," a song about yanking off.

"We've changed some of the words to that song," Reynolds assured me on the phone the other day. "And a lot of the script was changed, too. Like we don't smoke onstage, and the greasers don't drink alcohol in our version." The hoods in the Valley Youth version are all about intimidating with their hair and their clothes and their attitude, says Reynolds, whose director made the cast write one-page reports on each of their characters.

"I wrote about how, in the '50s, smoking and drugs were extremely prominent. And about how it was accepted behavior back then because people didn't realize it was risky behavior. But today Grease is more about people learning how to fit in. I think if the Grease kids were around today, they'd say, `Hey, drugs and smoking and sex aren't right, let's be cool another way.'"

Okay. But then what would Danny and Frenchy have to sing about?

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela