On Saturday, April 12, 2014, comedienne Hedda Lettuce hosted an interactive screening of Grease 2 at the Chelsea Bow-Tie theater (née Chelsea Clearview Cinema, née Cineplex Odeon—who the hell remembers?—They change the name every other year). The 1982 film stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Maxwell Caulfield, Lorna Luft, Eve Arden, Adrian Zmed, and (sort of) Didi Conn, in a few bizarrely disconnected sequences that seem like they were randomly inserted from an altogether different, better film. The sequel, as I was happily reminded Saturday, is so deliciously misguided that it makes the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John original look like The Bandwagon.
The evening was dramatically elevated by Miss Lettuce’s fascinating Q&A with the film’s director/choreographer Pat Birch and composer/musical director Louis St.Louis (excerpted below). The conversation, which regarded their creation with a level of respect more generally associated with the presentation of Library of Congress restorations, yielded trenchant observations about the film’s production and scintillating details about the film’s stars. There was, in fact, no morsel of information too arcane for this twisted audience and I was thrilled to be there to memorialize the event. Though it might seem counterintuitive, Miss Lettuce mined comic gold by treating Grease 2’s creators with abiding respect and even added a subtle intellectual flourish to the somewhat academic tone of the occasion, by sporting a verdant updo. For the uninitiated, please take my word when I tell you that Grease 2 is to the movie musical what the BP Deep Horizon disaster is to oil spills.
Miss Lettuce is not your average drag queen. I hesitate to even use that appellation, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because it in some way diminishes the brilliance of actor Steven Polito’s accomplishment in the creation of his alter-ego. I’ve seen a lot of drag in my day, but Polito’s Hedda is more truly a stand-up comic than standard drag queen; her wit is quick and she works the room like a green super hero in a wiggle dress. Example: chatting with a psychologist in the audience she quipped, “Oh that’s perfect. I have several personalities and none of them agree with each other.” Hedda also informed the crowd that, “Of course we wanted Lorna Luft to be here but her machine didn’t pick up. After all, she came out of one of the most famous vaginas in the world.” I appreciated the period correctness of referencing an “answering machine” before the presentation of one of the real low points of 1980s cinema. Likewise, as I am fond of saying to absolutely anyone who will listen, referencing Judy Garland’s vagina is timeless and correct for any period.
Here are excerpts from Miss Lettuce’s conversation with Birch and St. Louis:
Hedda Lettuce: There’s lots of fans of Grease, but you’re really a fan if you love Grease 2. Tell us Pat, what was Maxwell Caulfield like?
Pat Birch: Maxwell is a good actor but wasn’t perfect for the role.
HL: Who’d he blow to get the part?
PB: There were no other candidates.
Louis St. Louis: There was one—Rick Springfield. He screen-tested with Michelle Pfeiffer and was great but he looked like her lascivious uncle.
PB: Maxwell and Michelle looked glorious together.
HL: Can you tell us a bit about casting Michelle Pfeiffer.
PB: She came in late to the audition process. I remember it clearly, she was wearing purple cowboy boots and I thought, “She does have something.” I said, “You have to come back and dance” and she said, “I’m not a dancer” and I told her, “Well I’ll just put you in the back of the room and come and check in once in a while.” It turned out that she moved really well and the camera just fell in love with her.
HL: The film hurt Maxwell Caulfield but certainly didn’t hurt Michelle Pfeiffer.
PB: No, in fact, while we were editing they were considering her for Scarface they came in and looked at our footage.
HL: (To LSL) You did the music. What’s you’re favorite number?
LSL: (thinking for a moment) I would say the Bowling alley song [“Score Tonight”]. It’s a gift being given to you to make a musical with [film producer] Robert Stigwood.
HL: What do you think of the film today? Why wasn’t it more successful?
PB: Well I like it. It has some of my best work in it. The audience wanted more continuity from the original film. I had an idea at the end when Maxwell and Michelle leave town they would run out of gas and would pull into a gas station run by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
At this the Bow-Tie audience emitted an audible gasp, suggesting that while it may not have saved Grease 2, Miss Birch may actually have been onto something. Of course, this still wouldn’t explain the illogic of Didi Conn’s Frenchy returning to Rydell, ostensibly to “learn chemistry” but then disappearing from the movie after a few scenes. According to IMDB, Conn said the script was not finished when they began filming, but the draft they were using still included Frenchy. The character was written out during filming, and she was told halfway through that she was no longer needed. The filmmakers ultimately decided to include Frenchy in the final cut, though they had limited footage. Didi described the filming process as “rushed, frantic, and unorganized.”
HL: How was it working with Olivia Newton-John in Grease? [Miss Birch was the choreographer on the original film and, for that matter, on Broadway before that.]
LSL: [Mr. St. Louis was a “Creative Music Consultant” on the original film.] She was incredibly prepared.
PB: I think the success of Grease, the phenomenon, has to do with the fact that there was always a “Rizzo,” a “Jan,” a fast girl, all of these types, in every school. It was relatable.
HL: How was it working with John Travolta?
PB: John is simply an intuitive performer—pure magic.
HL: —and Lorna Luft?
PB: Chops for days.
* * * *
Throughout the film there were a few queens seated directly behind the special guests who knew every word to the film’s songs and happily sang along which elicited occasional yelps of pleasure from Mr. St. Louis. (Miss Birch’s reaction to the film and its fans struck me as more, well, internal.)
As the final credits rolled and the lights came up, the Grease 2 queen approached Pat Birch and breathlessly queried “so I’m wondering how many takes did it take to get the shot of Michelle Pfeiffer on the ladder, you know, where she goes up and she goes down?” Miss Birch looked at him blankly, seemingly puzzled, until he clarified, “You know, during ‘Cool Rider’ when she’s up on the ladder? Because it’s really amazing because I know she’s not a dancer, so I was wondering how many times you had to do it?” Miss Birch, finally locking in on his point, responded warmly, “Oh I think we got that in four or five takes.”
I was only so glad I had the good sense to pretend to be gathering my things so I could glean this last, useful tidbit. Now Stargayzing will go on record for perpetuity as the source when film scholars watch “Cool Rider”—as they are certain to—and wonder how long it took Pat Birch to coax such a graceful ascent and descent from “non-dancer” Pfeiffer. They will wonder no more. The revelation of the “Cool Rider” sequence was the icing on the cake of a truly memorable evening.
For those who can’t get enough, I discovered there is a website devoted specifically to Grease 2. Who knew?
By the way, Hedda Lettuce hosts her classic film nights every Thursday at Chelsea Bow-Tie cinema.
More Olivia Newton-John:
“Now That I’m Here, Now That You’re Near!” In Praise of Olivia Newton-John’s Wretched/Wonderful Xanadu
Eating With The Stars: Just In Time For Those “Summer Nights”: Olivia Newton-John’s Tamaramma Tuna Salad