Choreographer Arlene Phillips putting women front and centre in 'Grease'
Choreographer Arlene Phillips is no stranger to Grease. In 1993, she received an Olivier nomination for her Grease choreography. Nearly 30 years later, Phillips and Grease go together once more, as Grease heads to its London spiritual home, the Dominion, where it's currently playing for 26 weeks. But this Grease is unlike the musical film, and the show taps into the story’s hard truths.
In recent years, the Grease story has faced backlash due to misogynistic tropes and a dated idea that a woman must impress a man in order to be deemed "attractive." But when speaking to Phillips, it’s clear that she, and the rest of the creative team and cast, have worked hard to inject a new feminist energy into a well-known story.
“Now, it’s very reflective in the sense of giving the girls a sense of their own empowerment to not be dominated by men,” said Phillips.
But how does Grease achieve this on stage? We spoke to Phillips about transforming Grease for the 21st-century, the show’s new choreographic influences, and putting female stories centre stage.
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This Grease is billed as an update on past Grease productions. How have you and the rest of the creative team updated Grease for a 21st-century audience?
The updating of Grease is down to [director] Nikolai Foster who started this production three years ago. As director of the Curve [Leicester], he has always been interested in looking at shows and making shows work for today in terms of diversity, inclusivity, and making everything that has a story feel like what you’re putting on stage is the truth. Within this, he’s started to look at it and embody the original story and the music of that original Grease, set in a late 1950s Chicago high school, and bring the edginess to it.
In the 1950s, many of the kids were not expected to go on to anything. They had low expectations from parents and teachers. In many senses, a lot of characteristics are due to their own way of how they feel. We needed to know one thing: What were the real girls like? Were they pushovers? No they weren’t. They’d have been strong. Nikolai likes to work with where are the truths and researching deeply into what it was like to be a teenager with many of them who had dads out of work, mums who stayed at home, very different life to what we live today and bringing that onto the stage.
What inspired such intense, beautiful choreography in Grease?
I choreographed the version of Grease in the Dominion in 1993, which was very much a musical theatre production and based on the film. Here we went back to the beginning and at the time, there were a lot of competitions in Chicago that kids could go in for in the burger joints and in clubs, in schoolyards. A lot of them entered and they did rockabilly style dances, which is essentially a jive. At these dances, they could win vouchers, win competitions.
I used the rockabilly rawness and this style to invoke the way the kids felt. There’s flips, there’s drops and it all really evolved from there. It’s less musical theatre and more raw and edgy. But the inspiration came from what they would have danced in the high schools.
You’ve also got The Cher Show on tour at the moment, are there similarities or differences between these two musicals with popular songs and characters?
I’m involved in working on musicals that are about the truth of a time. In directing The Cher Show, I really looked at the stories of Cher. She’s a woman who quite early on in life realised she was being dominated by men and set out to change that, not only becoming a star but also a woman who knows her own mind, speaks her own mind, determined to stay young and youthful because why not and someone I admire.
They’re both musicals set and based on true stories and so there is a familiarity. Grease really has a story running through it and The Cher Show uses the songs to tell her story. They’re both gut wrenching and heart breaking.
Photo credit: Grease cast (Photo courtesy of production)
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