One of the very, very few topics that virtually every film and TV fan can agree on is that “Grease” is fantastic. The 1978 musical — which stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as two high schoolers who find their summer romance tested by the social dynamics at Rydell High School — is the kind of timeless, feel-good entertainment that’s virtually impossible to dislike.
The film rode the wave of 1950s nostalgia that swept the nation in the ’70s (see: “Happy Days” and “American Grafitti”) to become one of the most recognizable films ever made. An incredible songbook that includes all-timers, from the “Summer Nights” solo and “You’re the One That I Want” duet to Frankie Avalon’s dreamy “Beauty School Dropout,” make it the sort of film that you can rewatch any time, anywhere and almost always enjoy yourself.
How do you put your own spin on a property that’s so beloved? It’s a daunting task for any creative team, but “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” approached the challenge head-on. Annabel Oakes’ Paramount+ series turned back the hands of time at Rydell High, transporting audiences to 1954 for an expansion on the “Grease” mythology. Bettie Rizzo and her Pink Ladies might have been supporting players in the love story of Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson, but there’s no denying that they ruled the school. And so, “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” explores the formation of the iconic girl gang: shedding light on the women who paved the way for Bettie’s reign.
“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” will be featured as a panel at IndieWire’s Consider This FYC event this Saturday, June 3. Producing director/executive producer Alethea Jones, choreographer Jamal Sims, costume designer Samantha Hawkins, and hair department head Jaala Leis Wanless will tell us how they brought these checkerboard pastel days to life.
Recreating the aesthetic of “Grease” is tricky because the film’s optimistic, candy-colored portrayal of the 1950s has become a distinct cultural relic in its own right. Designing costumes and sets for “Rise of the Pink Ladies” wasn’t as simple as researching the time period. The team had to capture and recreate a fantasy version of the era that’s shaped pop culture’s understanding of history for the past 45 years.
And then, of course, there’s the musical numbers. “Rise of the Pink Ladies” busted out a new slate of songs to expand the “Grease” canon, and the entire crafts team had to ensure that their work could hold up against the extensive choreography conjured to match.
“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” is proof that the “Grease” brand is still alive and well, and that sentimentality for Rydell isn’t going out of style anytime soon. Keep reading to see how the team pulled it off, ahead of the Emmys and IndieWire’s annual Consider This event in Los Angeles on June 3.
The Show Takes Place in 1954, Four Years Before the Events of “Grease”
The Paramount+ series expands the “Grease” franchise by showing audiences what life was like at Rydell High in the first half of the 1950s. Danny and Sandy are nowhere to be found, as the show focuses on the formation of the social dynamics that formed the backdrop of the original film. Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Ari Notartomaso, and Tricia Fukuhara star as Jane, Olivia, Cynthia, and Nancy: four not-so-cool kids who bond over their outcast status and learn they can rule the hallways if they work together.
The Pink Ladies Were Based on a Real Gang from Jim Jacobs’ High School
The idea of an all-girls gang called the Pink Ladies might seem like the kind of faux-1950s kitsch with which “Grease” is now synonymous. But “Rise of the Pink Ladies” creator Annabel Oakes learned that they were inspired by a real club from “Grease” writer Jim Jacobs’ high school. She began her writing process by interviewing former students from the actual school in order to craft a narrative that reflected their actual experiences.
“There was a group called the Pink Ladies at Taft High School where Jim Jacobs went to high school. So, I was like, ‘That’s interesting. Who were these girls?’” Oakes said in an interview with Script Magazine. “And then I just started calling women in their seventies and eighties who went to high school in the ’50s and ’60s, starting with my mother, then her friends, then expanding. Then I got Southern California high school yearbooks. I live near John Marshall High where the carnival scenes for ‘Grease’ [were] shot. And I found a 1954 yearbook to see what it looked like then and it was actually pretty diverse for 1954. So, everything started from a research-based approach and just talking to real people.”
The Choreographer Stepped into the Director’s Chair for a Key Episode
Musical filmmaking is always a close collaboration between a director and a choreographer. But “Rise of the Pink Ladies” choreographer Jamal Sims tried his hand at directing for the pivotal episode “Sloppy Seconds Ain’t My Style,” which features both the results of the class presidential election and the premiere of the school production of “Romeo and Juliet.” In an interview with IndieWire, Sims explained that his knowledge of dance helped him find new ways to capture more musicality with his camerawork.
“As a director, I know how to show the movement with the camera since I choreographed it, which is a skill set I now treasure,” Sims said. “I can move the cameras where I need them to be at specific points of the number. Nothing feels better than being able to see somebody’s feet during a dance scene.”
Every Dance Move Should Tell a Story
Some of the musical numbers in “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” are so overwhelming that it’s easy to get lost in the moment. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice, as Sims made a point of working each character’s story arc into their dance moves. The choreographer explained that each set of mannerisms reflected the dancer’s personality, and the characters gradually danced more creatively as they began to rebel against authority in the story.
“When you’re dealing with characters, they walk differently, they speak differently, they have different story arcs, so they should dance differently, too,” Sims told IndieWire. “The Soc’s dancing had to be a little more stiff so they couldn’t be really swiveling in the hips. The T-Birds have a cool, laidback vibe, so I thought about how my dad and mom danced back in the day.”
Designing Costumes for a Prequel Brings Its Own Set of Challenges
Working on a property as beloved as “Grease” is a challenge for any costume designer, but the fact that “Rise of the Pink Ladies” was a prequel added another layer of complexity to the situation. For the iconic Pink Ladies jackets, the team had to come up with a design that was recognizable, while looking like it was still a few years away from evolving into the design from the movie.
“The cool thing is, we’re designing a prequel,” costume designer Angelina Kekich said in an interview with Screen Rant. “It was important that we weren’t copying the original jacket, but that there were definitely similarities to the jacket from 1978. We were making it our own, but also making sure that the audience was able to identify with it quickly.”
The Costumes Combined Period Style with Practical Contemporary Touches
Kekich and her team did meticulous research on 1950s fashion to inform their creative choices, but at a certain point, the logistical hurdles of acquiring materials and staging musical numbers in 2023 necessitated some practical accommodations. The costume designer ended up traveling the world to look for modern fabrics that could recreate the look of period outfits while being more flexible and durable.
“We modernized it by the fabrics that we used, because we definitely can’t go back in time and get those fabrics. And, of course, we’re dealing with dance, acting, and musical numbers, with triple threat actors. That requires new ways of designing costumes that are tailored to what the cast needs in their dance sequences, their acting, and singing,” Kekich told Screen Rant. “We used a lot of micro blends, rayon, stretch velvets, jerseys, cottons, and wools. I spent a lot of time looking at fabrics in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Europe. We were sourcing fabrics from all over the world. It was important to find the right fabrics that met the period that we were focused on, and it was important that the fabrics were vibrant and complemented everything around them.”
The Music Team Tried to Filter 1950s Nostalgia Through a 2020s Lens
“Grease” might be viewed as one of the definitive movies about the 1950s, but its original creators never claimed that the 1978 musical was a completely accurate depiction of the decade. The film is beloved in part because it allows audiences to partake in a playful fantasy. Once the “Rise of the Pink Ladies” team realized that, it freed them up to experiment and create a 1950s paradise that reflected what modern audiences want to see.
“The original ‘Grease’ is so loved, which [makes it] scary to step into those shoes, but it’s very much a late ’70s version of ’50s nostalgia. It’s not supposed to be this perfect period piece,” music supervisor Justin Tranter said in an interview with Screen Rant. “That let me feel a little more free in terms of, like, ‘All right, so they were ‘current meet the ’50s’. I get to be ‘current meets the ’50s’, sonically.’ That took a lot of pressure off.”
There’s a Lot to Learn About the Songs You Think You Know
The soundtrack for “Rise of the Pink Ladies” was a delicate balance between original new songs and clever updates of classics. But Tranter explained that whenever a classic song was added to the show, the team found a way to reveal new information about it. He cites the “Hand Jive” scene as one of his favorite examples, recalling that allowing new characters to sing helped the team build a narrative around the song.
“Reinventing ‘The Hand Jive’ was a blast, trying to capture some of the nostalgia we all know and give it more of a story. It’s like the ‘Hand Jive’ origin story,” Tranter said in an interview with Consequence of Sound. “Also, Johnny Vavoom sings in the middle of it, so you’re inventing a new character’s vocal mannerisms if you will, bringing in that. And there are some classic Chuck Berry guitar vibes rocking us through it… That was, in a great way, a really easy fun one, structurally and vibe-wise.”