Name the highest-grossing movie musical of the 20th century. Is it The Sound of Music? West Side Story maybe? Try Grease. The John Travolta nostalgia fest was an unexpected blockbuster in 1978. Paramount Pictures originally had very few hopes for this “lowbrow” production, but the film handily exceeded all expectations. Much of that, say the surviving members of the cast and crew, is due to a flamboyant, free-spending, hard-partying, and self-destructive producer named Allan Carr. As Fox prepares its own live production of this evergreen, ever-greasy musical, Vanity Fair‘s Michael Callahan has assembled a pocket history of Grease, explaining how the film came into being and why it was such a phenomenon.
Before it was a movie, Grease was a stage show written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who bonded over their mutual distaste for Led Zeppelin and other contemporary music of the 1970s. The raunchy show leapfrogged from Chicago to New York, landing on Broadway after a successful off-Broadway run, and Paramount secured the film rights after X-rated cartoonist Ralph Bakshi’s option lapsed. From there, it was a series of fortunate creative decisions and the untiring devotion of Allan Carr that made the film what it was. As Callahan’s article reveals, Grease could have been a very different (and possibly much less successful) film. Originally, for instance, Carr wanted Deep Throat star Harry Reems to play the gym coach at Rydell High. Paramount went with Sid Caesar instead. The pivotal lead role of Danny Zuko only went to John Travolta after Henry Winkler passed. And it was Carr who brought Australian songstress Olivia Newton-John into the project. Ultimately, despite the grumbling of critics, Carr’s efforts paid off, and Grease was a monster hit, capitalizing not only on the nostalgia craze but also on the cresting popularity of its two stars. Whatever you may think of this cinematic cotton candy, its place in the pop-culture firmament is secure.