How do you start rebooting something as iconic as “Grease”? It’s not an easy task, but “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” proves it’s certainly possible.
The hit Paramount+ series takes audiences back to the 1950s, even further back than the original 1978 film. Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson fell in love in the summer of 1958, but “Rise of the Pink Ladies” begins in 1954 as the gang of girls that Bettie Rizzo would eventually rule is attempting to reverse their fortunes and rise to prominence in the halls of Rydell High School. The series expands on the lore that made “Grease” so beloved and adds origin stories for many of the film’s most popular songs, introducing a new set of tunes that are modern classics in their own right.
On Saturday, attendees of IndieWire’s Consider This Event in Los Angeles enjoyed a panel with “Rise of the Pink Ladies” director and executive producer Alethea Jones, choreographer Jamal Sims, costume designer Samantha Hawkins and head of hair Jaala Leis Wanless. The biggest difference in the 1950s presentation the team wanted to convey? How different the 50s were.
“During the pandemic I saw a lot of (1950s) Technicolor musicals,” Jones said. “I think they’re amazing and spectacular, but they’re incredibly white and smooth. And in the 1950s, there were more than just white people. The diversity was there then, it just wasn’t represented.
Jefferson High School in Los Angeles was where much of 1978’s “Grease” was filmed, and series creator Annabel Oakes has discovered something unique about it. “The yearbook was from 1954,” Jones said. “And there were a lot of black kids, Latino kids, even Japanese-American kids, and it ultimately reflected something that wasn’t in the 1978 film.”
Choreographer Jamal Sims connected his mother’s experience to the work she contributed to “Rise of the Pink Ladies” to bring a more diverse vision to the “Grease” prequel. “My mother was in the homecoming court and she was the only black woman on that stage,” he said. “Everyone else was white. Looking at those photos I was like, wow, how brave she was.
The original “Grease” was based on co-writer Jim Jacobs’ 1950s high school experience, and the thing Sims loved most was discovering that there had been a real gang of girls at that school: one that directly inspired the pink women.
For Hawkins and Wanless, the challenge of adding a new dimension to the “Grease” lore was daunting. But they were inspired by how they could show a different side of the 50s.
“Dressing the spreaders who were from the Latinx community, and Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara) is Japanese, was so meaningful because they were there in the 50’s and they were a part of this culture, but you have to dig deeper to find them because they weren’t pictured” Hawkins said.
“Annabel Oakes did a great job of talking to people who lived in that era and were part of this kind of environment,” Wanless said. “Then I looked at old issues of Jet and researched the doo-wop culture. We wanted it to be historically accurate, but through a modern lens.”