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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It was probably inevitable. This winter, Broadway met reality TV. That would have been when NBC aired the series "Grease: You're the One That I Want." It was an "American Idol"-style contest to cast, through votes from viewers, the lead roles of Danny and Sandy in a Broadway revival of "Grease." The show is a nostalgic look at high school life and music in the 1950s and starts performances tonight. Theater professionals are looking closely at this experiment in casting and marketing to see if it's what Broadway wants.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Grease: You're the One That I Want")

Mr. BILLY BUSH (Host, "Grease: You're the One that I Want") Welcome to the live finale of "Grease: You're the One that I Want." Millions of you voted, and tonight America crowns who's winning Danny and Sandy.

JEFF LUNDEN: Shortly after host Billy Bush uttered those words last March, two 21-year-old unknowns, Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, were announced as the winners. On average, about eight million people tuned in to "Grease: You're the One That I Want" each week during its three-month run. And the show consistently came in third or fourth in its Sunday evening timeslot. In other words, in network television terms, the show was a flop.

Mr. DAVID IAN (Producer, "Grease: You're the One That I Want"): I'm a theater producer, I wasn't the TV producer. So TV ratings and what have you for me are not really what's driving me.

LUNDEN: David Ian is lead producer of this $9-million revival and was a judge on the reality series.

Mr. IAN: I have two goals from such a program. One, to get talent that can do the job in hand i.e. play the role of Danny and Sandy, which I believe I've got. And two, truthfully, it draws huge attention to the show, and that means selling tickets. And, you know, "Grease" at the Brooks Atkinson Theater at the moment is sitting on a $14-million advance. So as far as playing to a theatrical audience that might buy tickets, for me it was a huge success.

(Soundbite of song, "We Go Together")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga dong…

LUNDEN: So does Broadway and reality TV go together like rama lama lama ke ding a de dinga dong? Gordon Cox is a theater reporter for Variety.

Mr. GORDON COX (Theater Reporter, Variety): I think people are keeping their eye on it. And I think the sort of strong advance that "Grease" has racked up will encourage further efforts along these lines, no matter what the purists may say about how horrified they are about the popularization or the amateurization of Broadway.

(Soundbite of "You're the One that I Want")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got chills. They're multiplying. And I'm losing control…

LUNDEN: When two-time Tony Award-winner Kathleen Marshall was approached to direct and choreograph the revival of "Grease," as well as serve as a panelist on the TV show, she says she was intrigued.

Ms. KATHLEEN MARSHALL (Director, "Grease"): And I thought if there ever was a show to try this kind of casting with, this is the one because it's such a popular show. It's the most popular movie musical ever made. And it's also about young people — you'd be looking for fresh talent no matter what.

(Soundbite of "Summer Nights")

Mr. MAX CRUMM (Actor): (As Danny) (Singing) Summer loving had me a blast…

Ms. LAURA OSNES (Actor): (As Sandy)(Singing) Summer loving happened so fast…

LUNDEN: And true to the TV series unscripted origins, the selection of the slightly goofy Max Crumm in the role that John Travolta made famous left producer David Ian…

Mr. IAN: Totally surprised. He wouldn't have been the one that I would have bet on at all. I think the outsider won in my opinion. You know, not a conventional Danny-type, if you will; great singer, great actor, great dancer/mover, but I think it's pretty fair to say that we were all surprised by the outcome.

LUNDEN: But as part of the panel of professionals who helped carefully select the reality show's finalists, director Kathleen Marshall says she was delighted that Max Crumm and Laura Osnes were the winners.

Ms. MARSHALL: You know, as the judges, we thought we can't make people vote for somebody but we can give them permission. We can affirm their choice. So the fact that we said, you know what, Sandy doesn't have to be a blonde. We're not looking for an Olivia Newton-John clone here. And so people could sort of see Laura as a real possibility for this part.

(Soundbite of "Hopelessly Devoted to You")

Ms. OSNES: (As Sandy) (Singing) But now there's nowhere to hide since you pushed my love aside. I'm nodding my head hopelessly devoted to you. Hopelessly devoted to you.

LUNDEN: Backstage during tech rehearsals, both Crumm and Osnes used the terms stressful and surreal often as they described their journey from obscurity to seeing their faces plastered on posters in the subway and a huge billboard in Times Square. Crumm says just walking on the street these days is an adventure.

Mr. CRUMM: I get a lot of, like, young girls that come up to me a lot of the time, and moms - a lot of moms who like to come up to me. So it's pretty funny. And if Laura and I are ever walking together in this area, it's like we're Disneyland characters.

LUNDEN: Laura Osnes.

Ms. OSNES: It was unreal. It was completely unreal because I'm like I'm just this little girl from Minnesota that, like, happened to audition for this. And now I'm on national TV and I have fans and, like, screaming audience. It's just - it was a once in a lifetime experience that - I never thought I would have gone through something like that. And, you know, this early in my life and now I won this competition and now I'm playing Sandy on Broadway, it's just - I never thought that would happen to me.

(Soundbite of show, "Grease: You're the One That I Want")

Mr. BUSH: Introducing your Broadway Danny and Sandy, Max and Laura.

LUNDEN: Producer David Ian is well aware of the star-making possibilities of melding reality TV with theater. His smash-hit revival of "The Sound of Music" in London found its Maria, Connie Fisher, on reality TV. And two weeks after "Grease" opens in New York, Ian is opening a different production also cast from a reality series in London's West End. While the producer is pleased to be introducing two freshly minted young stars on Broadway, he hopes this production outlasts their tenure.

Mr. IAN: This show will continue after Max and Laura leave, whenever that is. And I'm not looking to have a show run just for the length of their contracts. And I hope Max and Laura are the first of many Danny and Sandy's in this production.

LUNDEN: Grease begins previews this evening and opens officially on August 19th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "You're the One that I Want")

Ms. OSNES: (As Sandy) (Singing) Oh, yes indeed.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You're the One That I Want. Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, Ooh…

MONTAGNE: You can hear more from the cast of the "Grease" revival both in rehearsal and on the topic of Broadway bootcamp at npr.org.

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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