It’s incredibly rare for a mediocre Broadway show to be adapted into a genuine movie classic, and indeed, this is the only time in the history of the form I know of it having happened.
The movie version of Grease is superior to the original Broadway show for two reasons. Firstly, while modern stage productions tend to be performed more like the movie, the original Broadway production of Grease was a raucous and slightly bitter spoof of Fifties youth culture. The movie, on the other hand, plays the material completely straight, as though it was an actually one of the Frankie Avalon—Annette Funicello films it’s deconstructing, because doing so only highlights the dark, gritty, subversive elements of the material.
Remember, this is a movie that features underage sex, a pregnancy scare, and a highly unwholesome pseudo-happy ending that is, at best, the cynical triumph of conformity over individuality, and at worst, the subtextual portrayal of a teenage girl choosing to have premarital sex purely to keep her boyfriend. The movie is so deadpan about treating this as though it were a legitimately happy ending that a surprising number of people have completely missed the fact that its disturbing implications were intentional, but the ending was already there in the original Broadway show, and as stated, that version was far more transparent about its brutally satirical intentions.
The second way in which the movie improves upon its source is in the score. The stage score of Grease did have a number of fine songs…several of the classics from the film version, including “Summer Nights”, “Greased Lightning”, and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” were already in the Broadway version. But about half of the Broadway score consists of embarrassing clinkers like “It’s Raining On Prom Night”, “Alone At a Drive-In Movie”, and “Mooning”.
The film cut pretty much all of those duds, and added four new songs which, while some of them didn’t quite fit the show’s Fifties sound, all equaled or surpassed the highlights of the stage show. The love song for John Travolta as the leading man, “Sandy”, is not only a fine song but also a flawless evocation of the Fifties, and while the torch ballad “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and the climactic duet “You’re the One That I Want” may not fit in perfectly with the rest of the score’s musical idiom, they’re sufficiently fantastic songs that it seems churlish to stand on principle about that.
Besides, the only song in the film’s score to truly break faith with its Fifties sound is the title-song, and it essentially happens outside the story anyway. Remember, the original stage show began with a flashback, and the film replicates the feeling of the Seventies looking back on the Fifties with an evocative animated credits sequence set to a disco-style song sung by Franki Valli himself. In addition, the lyrics to that song (such as “Conventionality belongs to yesterday” or “We start believing now that we can be who we are”) takes on a biting irony in a film that offers us, not the triumph of individuality that most high school-based romances offer, but the crushing domination of conformity that consistently happens in such setting as real life. It’s as if the authors decided not to give us the inspirational bullshit we want to hear and are generally given by fiction, and instead chose to end the story the way it would have ended in real life.
The film’s cast is admittedly a bit of a mix, but you have to give enormous credit to director Randal Kleiser, given that he was dealing with a leading man who couldn’t sing and a leading lady who couldn’t act, and both those facts are barely discernible while watching the movie. Compare Travolta’s vocals here to any other instances of his attempting to sing, or Newton-John’s acting to her performance is Xanadu, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
As I said, this movie is so skillful and subtle at what it does that its artistry and penetrating honesty are often entirely missed by less discerning audiences, but there’s more to its genius than the classic songs and John Travolta’s dancing, and it stands not only as a classic, but a more complex and substantive classic than it is generally given credit for.