Annabel Oakes says that she firmly told an executive, “Nobody needs another Grease. Grease is absolutely perfect. It’s an important part of my and so many other people’s childhoods. I am not interested in dragging this down.”
But, she’s now executive producer and showrunner of the new series Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, a musical prequel of the popular movie that takes place four years before the events of the film as four fed-up outcasts dare to have fun on their own terms, sparking a moral panic that will change Rydell High forever.
The series stars Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Air Notartomaso, and Tricia Fukuhara. Alethea Jones serves as an executive producer and director, with Jamal Sims acting as the choreographer.
Oakes explains what changed her mind, especially given her initial feeling about the project.
“I thought about Grease and how much it meant to me as a kid and how it connected me with other generations of my family, and I started to think, ‘what unanswered questions do I have from Grease?’ Sandy and Danny, tied up nicely, beautiful story, but I always did love those Pink Ladies, and I really wanted to live in that sleepover in Frenchy’s bedroom. And, I wondered if that girl gang was a real thing or if it was just
She says that in doing some research she discovered that the Pink Ladies were actually based on a real group.
“They were these tough girls who had to stick together because they weren’t like all the other girls. So, I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’”
Next, it was a call to her mom, asking, ‘What was it like being a girl in the ’50s and ’60s in high school?’
After speaking with more women who lived through that time period, Oakes says that the writers gathered and, “We all started talking to everybody’s grandmas and aunties and aunt/uncles, and we got really excited about the possibilities of returning to the world of Grease and telling these stories. So that’s why we’re here.”
Commenting on just how the series won’t tinker with the cannon of the film, Oakes says, “We love Grease. We refer to it as ‘the mothership,’ and we always go back to it. Grease was the ’70s commenting on the ’50s, and they were telling really subversive, stories about the ’50s from a ’70s point of view. And now we are in the 2020s, and we get to comment on what they said in the ’70s and the ’50s, which is a cool experience.”
Oakes admits that the creative team behind Pink Ladies is aware that the film is a quite antiquated in some of its views, as she says, “Yeah, there are some lyrics [in the movie] that are problematic, but, we reference those in the pilot, and you’ll see us open up the lens of Grease through taking a deeper look at those.”
Justin Tranter, who is the executive music producer on the series, adds, “That idea of the Grease, that we all know and worship, is very much sonically a late ’70s version of the ’50s. So, it’s 2022, 2023 looking back at the ’70s and the ’50s, we tried to incorporate that sonically as well, which was a beautiful, beautiful challenge to try to figure out.”
Tranter admits that, like Oakes, he was a bit reluctant to take part in something tied to the original Grease. “When I was trying so hard to get this job, I was, like, ‘Why am I fighting so hard for something that people are going to be very, very precious over? Like, am I asking for trouble?’ But I like trouble, and I thought, what an amazing challenge to push myself to dig deeper and explore parts of music I never have before.”
Given that the music of the film is so iconic and that now this series will be forever linked to it, Tranter explains the process of creating the songs that the team believes deserve to be linked to the movie.
“In pop music, I think collaboration is beautiful, and so I had to make sure I had the right collaborators to co-write these songs with, people who had real history/knowledge of music in the ’50s. Then just the amount of playlists that I have of music from the ’50s that I had never heard — they go on forever, and they are too long in a good way to try to find all of that inspiration.”
He’s also quick to credit the cast, saying, “What’s really great about musical theater people is they like to work, which is very helpful when you are trying to achieve a musical. So, these brilliant young people worked so hard, obviously coming with their own talent to start but worked with a vocal coach that I love and believe in to make sure we were nailing as much as we possibly could.”
Then Oakes makes an interesting statement about the film, saying, “I actually feel that Grease, the original musical, the stage musical and then the movie, was trying to undermine the nostalgia of the ’50s, that it was this squeaky clean, perfect time where the economic tide was high, and everybody was having a great time. [In the original musical and film], there were people dropping out of high school. There were people having sex in the back of cars. So there was real life going on in Grease, and to me, we just get to expand the lens.”
She says that the more she talks to people who actually lived through the ‘50s, she realizes how similar their experiences are to the present. “All teenagers deal with moral panic, it was just a different moral panic in the ’50s than it is now. Rock and Roll was a moral panic, [there was panic] about gender-bending and race-mixing and women not acting like ladies, and all of that stuff exists today.”
‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ is available for streaming on Paramount+