David Madden talks ‘Grease: Live’ and the future of live musical events on FOX

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Grease: Live” is the word! The live, one-night musical event was a hit with viewers and critics alike. It drew a same-day audience of 12.2 million, marking FOX’s most-watched Sunday in nearly 13 years, excluding sports. We spoke with David Madden, president of entertainment for Fox Broadcasting Company, the morning after to get his perspective on the show.

How did “Grease: Live” come about? Did you seek out that particular title?

When Dana Walden, Gary Newman (Fox Television Group Chairmen and CEOs) and I got here, Peter Rice had already overseen a Paramount and Fox deal on it. So I can’t claim that we found it – it was already here. Nonetheless, that was only the beginning of a year-and-a-half’s work to get it to the point where it was last night.

We were all incredibly excited to know that there had been the initial beginnings of the deal on “Grease,” and I think we all felt television opportunities for live musicals was a big place for FOX to be. FOX has so much musical history, from “American Idol,” to “Glee,” to “Empire.” So we leapt like tigers on the opportunity to do “Grease.”

When you set out to do this, what was your biggest priority for success?

If there was one decision that was the key to this thing working, it was booking Thomas Kail, the director. You could see how much visual inventiveness he brought to it. He really had an extraordinary vision.

Marc Platt, who’s very experienced in theater, was a great partner for Tommy. And obviously, casting for something like this is crucial, particularly when people have strong memories of the original film and as we tried creating a sense of style and performance for the show that was separate from the film yet could stand side-by-side with the film. And it went to every single decision we made – every single casting decision, every single design decision, how we approached the script, how we approached the musical elements.

David Madden

Last night’s telecast was filmed almost like a movie rather than a stage production. What went into the decision to approach it that way?

It was very conscious. We obviously looked at the recent live television musical experiences, which were all very well done and very good. But they were very traditional, very proscenium. They were done as if you were sitting in the audience watching the show. That was the opposite of what we wanted.

We wanted something that felt like you were in the middle of it, not like you were sitting in a Broadway theater. We want to put you in the midst of a 360-degree experience. That was Tommy’s perspective right from the start. He wanted it to feel cinematic, he wanted that sense of constant camera movement.

That bravura opening shot with Jessie J singing was meant to set the tone: “This is not your traditional live experience. This is meant to feel like something like you’ve never quite seen.” Tommy absolutely achieved it.

What was the most challenging element of the production?

The “live-ness” of it all. That boiled down to yesterday when we were freaking out about the weather. Right down to a half hour before we started shooting, we didn’t know if we’d be able to shoot the exterior scenes – both the beginning and ending were shot outside, and there were a couple of other scenes that were shot outside. When we were all emailing around frantically yesterday morning looking at the rain, we were all terrified of what it was going to do to us, even though we had a backup plan.

We shot all over the Burbank studio’s lot; we had golf carts shuttling actors from one stage to another, from one set to another. Everything had to be down to the split second. And even with all the vast preparation we did, East Coast viewers had a minute of distortion. In a production as complicated as “Grease,” all sorts of technical details can go wrong. In live, there is no margin for error; error just happens. Fortunately, the audience seemed to have a great time nonetheless.

What was your favorite part of the show?

There were so many parts that I really loved. That opening shot was magnificent. I think the ending production number that sort of begins with “You’re the One That I Want” and goes out into the street for the finale is great.

But there was one small moment in particular: Early on in the process, Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, described something he wanted to do where Keke Palmer would be in the bedroom with the girls, as the girls are talking about boys and the stuff that girls talked about at that age, at that time. In a seamless transition, she would go from wearing a little nightie into a glamorous evening gown.

If you noticed, it all happens in one shot where the nightie is replaced by this red, shimmering gown as she moves through an opening in the set and is suddenly in what looks like a theater or a nightclub singing “Freddy My Love.” That moment is worth going back to look at because it’s just so seamless and really almost magical. And that was something that was described to us by William and Tommy early on, and we looked at each other wondering was that something that could actually be pulled off. And they pulled it off gorgeously.

What does the success of “Grease: Live” mean for live musical events on FOX? Do you foresee doing one a year?

Dana, Gary, Peter and I are sending emails around this morning, exuberant about the creative success of the show. We were thrilled beyond any expectation we could’ve had. We’re looking forward to “The Passion.” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” won’t be live, but it will be another inventive musical event.

So we certainly want to try to do more of these. Whether we do one a year or not, that may be too much to say. We want to find the right shows to do, the right opportunities. But it’s certainly going to make us more aggressive in this space.

If you missed the live show or want to watch it again, you can see “Grease: Live” on FOX NOW.