John Travolta’s Disastrous Audition and Other Stories About the Making of “Grease”

By 1972, the hit Broadway musical Grease was ready, which meant a new cast had to be assembled.

In Los Angeles, an 18-year-old actor who had just gotten into the business auditioned for the role of Danny Zucko, dressed in a black motorcycle jacket and white T-shirt. He brushed his hair back and sang Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.”

“His audition was completely unfocused,” recalls Tom Moore, who directed the original Broadway production. “It was everywhere. But he had a great voice. He was immensely charming. And he was very attractive. He looked like a French movie star.”

His name was John Travolta.

Moore cast him on the show, but not as Danny. “He was too young for the role,” says Moore. “So we made him Doody, a goofy character who was kind of thrown out in the movie.”

Travolta toured with the show for two years. “I got to watch three to five Zuckos and see exactly what worked and what didn’t,” he recalls in “GREASE: Tell Me More, Tell Me More: Stories from the Broadway Phenomenon That Started It All” (Chicago Review Press), a new oral history of the show. What worked was his performance in the film, which has grossed $400 million to date.

Jerry Zaks, Vivian Fineman, Michael Lembeck, Ray DeMattis, Marilu Henner, and John Travolta "Fat".
The original Broadway cast: Jerry Zaks, Vivian Fineman, Michael Lembeck, Ray DeMattis, Marilu Henner and John Travolta in Grease.

Grease opened in New York 50 years ago this year. The book is edited by Moore, “Maude” star Adrienne Barbeau – who played the first Rizzo on Broadway – and Ken Waissman, who raised $110,000 to produce the musical on the Lower East Side before moving it to Broadway , where it ran for eight years.

Inspiration for the musical came one night in 1969 when Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, two aspiring playwrights living in Chicago, went on a nostalgia trip. Drunk and stoned, they had listened to Led Zeppelin but then decided to put on a Dion and the Belmonts record. It took her back to her high school days in the 1950s. Jacobs wondered why no one had ever written a musical with a ’50s-style rock ‘n’ roll score.

“Fun idea,” Casey said, “but what the hell would it be about?”

Eilene Kristen (Patty), Barry Bostwick (Zuko) and Adrienne Barbeau (Rizzo) in "Fat."
Ilene Kristen (Patty), Barry Bostwick (Zuko), and Adrienne Barbeau (Rizzo) were characters intended to remind theatergoers of their own high school classmates.

Jacobs thought for a moment and replied, “Maybe it should be about the people I went to high school with.” A moment later he had the title. Since everything was greasy back then — food, hair, people working under the hood of a Ford De Luxe — Jacobs said, “It could be called ‘Grease.'”

Jacobs and Casey didn’t know it then, but their nostalgia journey would one day become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, as did the 1978 film that got the world to do the hand-jive — and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John made stars. The original cast includes actors such as Marilu Henner (before her role in Taxi) who played Marty in the original Broadway cast, Richard Gere as Sonny and Barry Bostwick (later of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame).

The marquee of Eden
The Eden marquee: 1950s nostalgia in the 1970s.

Waissman first heard about “Grease” from his college roommate, a Chicago-based orthodontist. Jacobs and Casey scraped the show together and performed it with a cast of amateurs (including a henner) in the basement of an old trolley barn. The dentist, who “never had a good word to say about anything,” Waissman tells the Post, “called me and said, ‘I think I found a show for you.'”

Waissman flew to Chicago, sat on newspapers (there were no seats in the trolley barn) and watched Rydell High teens sing “Beauty School Drop Out,” “We Go Together,” and “Greased Lightnin’.”

“I saw my high school yearbook come to life,” says Waissman. “The show was hardly the show it was – it was just a couple of scenes and a couple of good songs – but the characters were real. You knew Danny. You knew Sandy. You went to school with them.”

Liz Taylor and Richard Burton are tall "Fat" fans.
Liz Taylor and Richard Burton – who played the block on “Equus” – were big early fans of “Grease” and invited the cast to dinner at Sardi’s.
Bob Penn/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Waissman believed that for the show to work in New York, it had to maintain its authenticity and sharp edge. The actors had to look like they were really in high school. An agent urged him to hire Michael Bennett, who was only a few years away from creating “A Chorus Line,” to direct the show, but he was reluctant. Bennett’s work was sophisticated and depended on trained dancers. It would be too polished for “Grease”. He instead went with choreographer Patricia Birch, who had a reputation for teaching non-dancing actors how to dance.

For his director, he turned to Tom Moore, a young Yale grad who had a New York fame to his name: “Welcome to Andromeda,” a two-person play about a quadriplegic who wants to kill himself and a nurse , urging him to live on. Waissman had seen the play and was struck by how real the characters were. Moore, he thought, would bring the kind of authenticity to acting that Birch would bring to dancing.

Richard Gere,
Richard Gere performs “All Choked Up” on stage.

“I had done a play where only ONE person moved,” Moore told The Post, “so I wasn’t sure if musicals were in my future.” He read the script, which had “serious problems.” , and listened to the “impressive” score. But he turned down the job. “It wasn’t something I wanted,” he says. Then he flipped through the script again and saw what Waissman had seen in Chicago: his high school yearbook springing to life.

“I went to high school in Indiana, and there were about three Greasers there,” he recalls. “They were soft core – they drank, they smoked, they skipped class. I wasn’t part of their group at all, but I remembered them and there they were in ‘Grease’.”

In the original draft of Grease, the characters were angular. Some were downright unsympathetic. Working with Jacobs and Casey, Moore kept them rough but gave them humanity.

“The show is about everyone’s first experience,” says Moore. “Your first time in a new school; the first time you become part of a group; your first kiss; your first love.”

“There are two reasons why ‘Grease’ was so successful,” says Moore. “Number one, the characters are prototypes to everyone you knew in high school. But they have heart and vulnerability. I think I helped with that. And second, and Jim and Warren understood this, the show is about everyone’s first experience: your first time at a new school; the first time you become part of a group; your first kiss; your first love.”

Moore and Birch assembled a cast of young and unknown actors, including Alan Paul, who thought he was auditioning for a musical about “Greece the Country,” he says in the book.

Rehearsals were “gorgeous,” Moore recalls. And then came the first premiere at the Eden Theater on Second Avenue. “Rocky doesn’t begin to describe it,” says Moore. “It was a disaster. It shook us to the core.”

Jerry Zaks, Ray DeMattis, Barry Bostwick, Judy Kaye and John Travolta in the first national touring company.
The First National Touring Company: Jerry Zaks, Ray DeMattis, Barry Bostwick, Judy Kaye and John Travolta.

“I wanted to commit suicide,” says Waissman. “Everywhere there was darkness and destruction. But I said to Tom, ‘How do you tidy a room? You start by picking up the first sock.’”

They started picking up the socks, and within three weeks they had turned the show from a disaster into something they thought audiences enjoyed. The film version of Grease would set off a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s, but the waves started at the Eden Theatre.

Unfortunately, the New York Times’ critic was a Brit – Clive Barnes – who was immune to ’50s Americana.

Dinah Manoff, Barry Pearl, Kelly Ward, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Didi Conn, Michael Tucci, in 1978.
The 1978 film established Grease as a pop culture legend.

“You’re starting to feel nostalgic about 1959 now and almost all I can remember is that it was a great year for Burgundy,” he wrote. “The show is a thin joke … and once the initial joke is established, it’s bound to wear off.”

Everyone told Waissman to shut down the show. His attorney told him he owed $20,000. But Waissman persevered. He couldn’t pay the $20,000 anyway, so he figured he might as well leave the show open and see what happens. Within three weeks, “Grease” was a hit. Word of mouth trumped the critics. Audiences flocked to Eden to relive their high school years.

Waissman moved the show to Broadway, where it sold out immediately. Among his many fans were Richard Burton, who starred in “Equus” on the same block, and his ex-wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Burton and Taylor took the cast to Sardi’s for dinner. Everyone was vying for a chance to sit next to Taylor, who was taking down a whole lot of Johnny Walker.

Neither Waissman nor Moore had much to do with the film Grease. But that never bothered her.

“They arranged a private screening for me, and I was like, ‘They made bubble gum out of this,'” says Waissman.

Moore adds, “The film is a success because it shows the ’50s from a ’70s perspective. That would not have been my choice. It wasn’t the itty-bitty show we did. But when the movie came out, I threw a party that Grease paid for. ‘Grease’ has been very generous to all of us.”

https://nypost.com/2022/06/09/john-travoltas-disastrous-audition-and-other-tales-of-making-grease/ John Travolta’s Disastrous Audition and Other Stories About the Making of “Grease”

Emma Bowman

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