February 14, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On Valentine’s Day, 1972, a little show called Grease slid its way into the Eden Theatre on Second Avenue and 12th Street (first built in 1925 as the Yiddish Arts Theatre, still standing as a movie theatre called the Village East Cinema). The makeshift musical was brought in by way of Chicago, where two young New York producers, Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox, came to see it at the suggestion of a college friend of Waissman’s. What they saw, performed in a basement, was something raw, but also energetic and perhaps most importantly — a whole lot of fun! They knew it needed work (a musical score, for one), but were so enthused at how the audience was reacting, that they grabbed the rights to produce it in New York, quickly lining up investors.
And what was the cost to bring Grease to the Eden in 1972? $100,000, that’s all. Sure, it was a lot of money in those days, but it was manageable — especially in that its investors totaled ten. I’ll just let that statistic speak for itself for a moment, considering that in today’s economic climate, it takes a village to get a show produced. Ten! And this is the tiny, inauspicious ad, set in the lower right hand corner of the New York Times drama page, taken out by its producers for opening night on February 14, 1972:
Although the Eden was on Second Avenue and far from Times Square, with a seating capacity of over a thousand seats, it was forced to operate under a Broadway contract. Its previous tenant, the raunchy revue Oh! Calcutta!, had opened there in 1969 and promptly moved uptown, where it had been doing great business ever since (mostly due to its full frontal nudity, a first for Broadway). Billed as “A New 50’s Rock ‘n Roll Musical,” Grease’s raunchily innocent quality gave the show a certain something that Waissman and Fox were hoping might catch on. They wanted to get Grease to Broadway (just like Oh! Calcutta!), providing they got rave reviews.
They didn’t. Let’s face it: Grease is not (nor will it ever be) a critic’s show.
But Lady Luck shined down upon Second Avenue when the Eden’s status as a Broadway house made Grease eligible to compete in seven different Tony Award categories for the 1971–72 season. When the nominations were announced a few weeks after it opened, Grease got a much hoped for shot in the arm publicity-wise, especially if it meant they would be asked to perform a number on the nationally broadcast program. Only they weren’t asked. Not only were they not invited, but neither were the evening’s big winners, Follies and Two Gentlemen of Verona (it’s a long story, but if you really want to know why, email me at email@example.com).
It’s no spoiler that Grease overcame its early growing pains to become a wildly successful show. Seven years after it struggled to make it through its first weeks, it broke the record to become the longest running show in Broadway history. And its sale to Paramount Pictures for $2 million was a heavenly windfall, followed by its becoming the highest grossing movie musical of all time (for a time). Throw in the monies earned from the film’s soundtrack album — a blockbuster — or subsequent stage productions which swiftly began cropping up all over the world, which resulted in new recordings in dozens of languages … well, based on just a $100,000 investment, the returns were staggering.
With Grease opening to mixed reviews, and with no significant advance sales to speak of, Waissman and Fox tired to stay optimistic, but they were in trouble. There was nothing in the bank to pay for advertising, a closing notice was posted, and without an influx of cash for publicity, Grease was going to be gone before summer.But then a miracle of sorts came their way. The show was “saved” by an investor, Tony D’Amato, a Chicago businessman, who offered to cover the deficit on the condition that Waissman and Fox sign over their share of the profits to him. With the notion of profits but a dim hope for the future, Waissman and Fox agreed, thus making D’Amato the de facto producer. Waissman and Fox retained their weekly producer royalties (thank God for that at least), but the cold hard fact was that they lost out on all the future millions to come. “Angel” D’Amato pulled off a very shrewd business ploy that paid off royally — for him!
When the New York Times marked the occasion of Grease passing Fiddler on the Roof to become the longest running show in Broadway history, it stated that for every $10,000 invested in Grease, it had paid off $400,000. For those lucky ten original backers, that meant a 400% profit over seven years on their initial investment. But it was the two men who wrote Grease, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, who yielded the biggest pay days, sharing as they did in the profits from all productions since 1972, which have included — and this is just a partial list: its first West End London engagement, the film (of course), two popular Broadway revivals in 1994 and 2007, national tours, and its being a staple of regional theatre, summer stock, community theatre, and high school and middle school drama groups for close to forty years. Add to that the income from the music rights and residuals off performances from the songs … suffice it to say, it’s up in the rarified air alongside Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. Sadly, Casey died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of fifty-three. But Jacobs, now seventy-five, is hopefully living a life of rest and relaxation, courtesy of residuals that seemingly will never stop. He even served as a judge when the NBC reality series Grease: You’re the One that I Want! aired in 2006.
The cast of actors who populated Grease during its initial run and throughout the 1970s is impressive. In addition to original cast members Barry Bostwick and Adrienne Barbeau, who both went on to long careers in film and television, Walter Bobbie played Roger, who though still occasionally an actor, is today best known as the director of what is now the second longest running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago. Grease actors who were in either early national tours, or came into the first Broadway production during its long run, now make up a who’s who of famous alumni: John Travolta (who replaced as Doody on Broadway and would go on to play Danny Zuko in the film version), Jeff Conaway (who played Kenickie in the film and had understudied Danny in the original production), Marilu Henner (who had been in the original Chicago version), Peter Gallagher, Ilene Graff, Judy Kaye, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Zaks, David Paymer and Treat Williams. Richard Gere understudied in New York, then was chosen to lead the London production as Danny (see photo below).
Following in that grand tradition, during the runs of the two Broadway revivals of Grease, actors have gone on to great things: The 1994 revival featured the Broadway debuts of Megan Mullally and Sam Harris, and one of its replacements for Sandy was Sutton Foster. In the 2007 revival, as perviously mentioned the result of a reality competition show, the voters did pretty well choosing Laura Osnes (two Tony nominations post-Grease), as well as allowing for the Broadway debuts of Lindsay Mendez and Max Crumm. For so long as Grease can serve as a launching pad for these kinds of talents, love live Grease!
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.