All-Female 'Grease' Won't Hit Philadelphia Stage

The musical Grease is a perennial favorite at high schools and community theaters. But an alternative production won't be performed in Philadelphia because the musical's licensing agent has threatened to sue. The agency says the producers violated their contract by casting women in all the roles. Member station WHYY's Joel Rose reports.

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The musical "Grease" is a perennial favorite at high schools and community theaters. It won't be performed in Philadelphia, though, because the show's licensing agent threatened to sue. The agency says the producers violated their contract by casting women in all the roles. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

The title "Grease" refers to the fast food and motor oil that were central to 1950s teen culture. It also could apply to the hairstyle of John Travolta who played Danny Zuko in the 1978 movie.

(Soundbite from "Grease")

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Danny Zuko) (Singing) Summer lovin'. Had to a blast.

Ms. OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: (As Sandy) (Singing) Summer lovin'. Happened so fast.

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) I met a girl...

Ms. LEE ETZEL (Actress): (Singing) ...crazy for me. Met a boy cute as can be.

That's Sandy's part.

ROSE: Lee Etzel grew up listening to the movie soundtrack. So when she got a chance to play the role of Danny Zuko in the Philadelphia production, she didn't hesitate.

Ms. ETZEL: I have always liked singing John Travolta's parts in all the songs, so that part was a done deal and also mainly because being a six-foot-tall actress in Philadelphia does limit the roles you get to play.

ROSE: She didn't get to play this one either. "Grease" was to be a collaboration between two small theater companies. Madi Distefano, artistic director of Brat Productions, says they re-imagined "Grease" as it might be performed at an all-girls high school.

Ms. MADI DISTEFANO (Artistic Director, Brat Productions): It was adding just a little element of farce, but it was a directorial choice. It was a creative choice. In this day and age, with color-blind casting, gender-blind casting, gay people playing straight roles, straight playing gay roles, like, I can't believe someone would have an objection to this.

ROSE: But someone did, namely the company that handles the musical's licensing, Samuel French, Incorporated. Distefano says she got a cease-and-desist letter from the New York-based company a few hours before the first scheduled performance.

Ms. DISTEFANO: Originally, their objection was to an all-female cast. They were claiming that changing the gender of the actors was the same as changing the script, and then their objection broadened to include the premise that it was a girls high-school production.

ROSE: If you want to produce "Grease," you first have to sign a standard contract saying that you won't deviate from the musical's script without permission. Distefano says her production was faithful to the words of the script but that may not be enough.

Mr. BOB JARVIS (Nova Southeastern University): When the playwright creates a play, most playwrights expect that their work will be respected and that they'll be performed the way that they envisioned them.

ROSE: Bob Jarvis teaches law at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and he's the co-writer of a textbook on theater law.

Mr. JARVIS: You're licensing the work to perform it as written, and as written, it is clear that certain characters are male and certain characters are female. The court is going to sit there and say, `You know what? If you wanted to do an all-female production, you should have asked. You should have gotten permission to do that.'

ROSE: The producers of the Philadelphia show say they did not seek permission to change the gender of the cast because they didn't know they should. Director Madi Distefano says the contract they signed did not explicitly mention gender.

Ms. DISTEFANO: They have since changed their contract. If you download a Samuel French "Grease" contract now, it says that female roles must be played by women and male roles must be played by men, but that's brand new in the last week. That wasn't there when we signed our contract.

ROSE: Samuel French would not comment for this story, neither would Jim Jacobs, the surviving writer of "Grease," but Jacobs joins a long list of writers who've tried to limit how their works can be cast.

(Soundbite from "Porgy and Bess" musical)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, Bess. Oh, where's my Bess? Won't somebody tell me where?

ROSE: Before he died, George Gershwin specified that only African-American actors could perform his opera "Porgy and Bess." Law Professor Bob Jarvis says playwrights including Samuel Beckett or their heirs have fought against non-traditional casting.

Mr. JARVIS: Sam Shepard has had a number of instances where people have tried to change his plays particularly "True West." There was an attempt to change it last year on Broadway that got closed down.

ROSE: At this point, you may be asking: What about all those cross-gender productions of Shakespeare? They're legal because Shakespeare's work is now in the public domain and, therefore, you can make any changes you want. And, of course, in the Bard's time, men would have played all the women's roles anyway. Today, women often play male roles in high-school musicals. John Rae of MacGuffin Theater & Film Company directed an all-female production of "Grease" two years ago at St. Maria Goretti High School in Philadelphia.

Mr. JOHN RAE (MacGuffin Theater & Film Company): For an all-girls school, it's absolutely how it's done. And I've done this even with a mixed cast where you don't have enough guys, you'll--the girl will step in and play the part. I mean, they don't kiss on stage, but, you know, they'll go and do a hug. That's standard.

ROSE: But even high-school productions may not be safe. Just this past weekend, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization stopped a performance of the musical "Big River" because a white student played the slave Jim while a black student played Huck Finn. Samuel French, Incorporated did not try to shut down the high-school production of "Grease" in Philadelphia, but the company did try to prevent a gross-gender professional production. Actor and director Jillian Armenante plays lawyer Donna Kozlowski on the TV series "Judging Amy." In 1992, she directed a professional production of "Grease" at Alice B. Theatre in Seattle with men in the women's roles and men in the women's roles. Armenante says she got a cease-and-desist letter from Samuel French but went ahead with the show anyway.

Ms. JILLIAN ARMENANTE (Actor, Director): It's OK for me to play a Hispanic woman in "West Side Story." It's OK for me to play a straight lawyer on television. I've played many men in plays. So when they approached me and said, `You can't do this play,' I said, `Well, come and stop me.'

ROSE: Armenante says the show was a hit and she never heard from Samuel French again. The producers of the Philadelphia show are still trying to persuade the company to allow their all-female production so far without success. So they're using the same costumes and props in a satirical 1950s-style musical called "Grease and Desist."

(Soundbite from "Grease and Desist")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Down, down, down the shore I can stay a year or maybe more.

Unidentified Woman #2: I can ...(unintelligible) shore.

Group: (Singing) Down, down, down the shore.

ROSE: Actor Lee Etzel still gets to slick back her hair and wear a white T-shirt that shows off her biceps, but she says it's not quite the same as playing Danny Zuko.

Ms. ETZEL: I'm very sad, but it's not like I'm giving up. Hopefully, one day there will be a new attitude.

ROSE: If not, all-girls high schools around the country may have to find a new favorite musical or take their chances.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite from "Grease")

Ms. NEWTON-JOHN: (As Sandy) (Singing) We stayed out till 10:00.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Zuko) (Singing) Summer fling, don't mean a thing, but uh-oh those summer nights.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite from "Grease")

Group: Shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop, shoo-bop bop. Yeah.

Ms. NEWTON-JOHN: (As Sandy) He got friendly, holding my hand.

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