Everything you didn't know about 'Grease,' from the $171 stage version to the original name of the T-Birds

Jen Kucsak
Senior Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

It’s time for Rydell High’s 40th reunion.

While Grease is one of the most loved films of all time, the version we’ve been watching on screen for the past four decades is vastly different from how the musical was conceived. Grease started out in 1971 as a much grittier and raunchier stage show, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, which eventually went to Broadway. Yahoo Entertainment talked to Jim Jacobs ahead of the film’s anniversary (it was originally released on June 16, 1978) and walked down memory lane about how it all started.

The film Grease was based on a much grittier stage musical of the same name.

In 1970, Jacobs came up with the idea for a Broadway show. He pitched it to his best friend, Warren Casey. “Warren said, ‘That’s a really funny idea, but what the hell would it be about?’” Jacobs’s idea:  “Rock ‘n’ roll dances and drive-in movies. A really good name for it would be Grease, because the guys used all that grease in their hair at the time. The food was greasy. … Then there were the guys in the neighborhood that had the cars looking like grease monkeys.”

They started writing; the first scene they finished was the girls’ pajama party. Not long after, Jacobs was substitute-teaching at an acting class He asked the students to do a cold read of the pages he and Casey had crafted. “They started to read the scene, and the people who were not in the scene, they were laughing hysterically. The bulb went off in my head — I went, ‘Holy crap! We really have something.’”

The slumber party scene in Grease, featuring Stockard Channing, Didi Conn, Jamie Donnelly, and Dinah Manoff. (Photo: Courtesy Paramount/Everett Collection).

The film Grease cost $6 million to make, but the first theatrical production cost $171.

The very first theater production of Grease premiered at the Kingston Mines in Chicago, formerly a vacated trolley barn, which sat only 110 people at the time. “People were sitting on the floor and on orange crates, bleacher benches,” Jacobs told us. “Some people even just brought newspapers and sat on the floor.” The budget for the show was only $171. According to Jacobs, “Sixty-one dollars, I remember, was for a ’51 Chrysler, a real car, which they drove on stage, and everyone in the audience was dying from carbon monoxide.” As for the wardrobe, “We said to the kids in the cast, you all have older relatives and grandparents who have clothes still in the closet from the ’50s — see what you can find and bring it in.”

Grease was based on a real high school in Chicago.

One of the most frequently debated questions among Grease fans is where is Rydell High? While the film’s director, Randall Kleiser, said it takes place in “Movieland,” Jacobs told us that Rydell High was actually based on his high school, William Taft High School in Chicago. Jacobs’s intent was for Rydell to be set in an industrial city like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, or Boston.

The Pink Ladies gang really existed, and the T-Birds had a different name.

Jacobs based a lot of the characters on his fellow Taft classmates. The Pink Ladies, for instance, was the name of a girl gang that actually prowled the halls of his school. The T-Birds, meanwhile, were originally called the Burger Palace Boys in the stage version, and they were much tougher than the T-Birds in the film version. (Fun fact: The 1961 film The Young Savages also had a gang called the T-Birds.)

Members of the Burger Palace Boys in May 1973. (Courtesy: Everett Collection)

John Travolta and Jeff Conaway were Grease stage alums, albeit in different roles.

John Travolta, who played Danny Zuko in the film, made his stage debut in the first national tour when he was just 17. But he didn’t play Danny Zuko; he played Doody, the goofiest member of the gang. On that same tour, Jeff Conaway played Danny Zuko; he went on to play Kenickie in the movie. Some other notable Danny Zukos on the original Broadway run included Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze, Peter Gallagher, Treat Williams, Greg Evigan, and Adrian Zmed, who would later star in Grease 2.

Richard Gere as Danny Zuko in Grease in June 1973. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Many of your favorite songs weren’t originally in Grease.

Musically, the original Grease was also quite different. “Summer Nights” wasn’t part of the Chicago run — it was added to the score when the show moved to Broadway. The original song was called “Foster Beach,” which Jacobs says “is an actual beach in Chicago where all of the greasers hung out on the rocks.” “The Hand Jive” was also added later; it replaced a song called “Boogie Man, Boogie” that served as the theme for a monster dance contest. And “You’re the One That I Want” wasn’t added until shortly before the finale of the movie was filmed; it replaced the stage song “All Choked Up,” which was a spoof of Elvis’s “All Shook Up.” Jacobs admits the songs added for the movie “were better.”

Watch: Grease was almost an animated movie that could have looked like this:

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