“I was certainly a little hesitant taking the job,” admits “Grease Live” production designer David Korins during our recent webcam chat (watch above). As he explains, “I wasn’t really sure what I had to add to the experience. But the whole theatrical presentation on television is a very interesting medium to me.” “Grease” began life as on Broadway in 1972 before being turned into a film in 1978 that still ranks as the highest grossing movie musical of all time.
Korins was coming off collaborating with “Grease: Live” co-director Thomas Kail on the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton” and was hired here for “a one-month exploratory phase.” He readily admits, “I wasn’t really sure how we would present the show.” He decided to “take the best things of theater and the best things of film, what each of those two mediums do together, and really try and explode those two options.”
One of his ideas was to incorporate the live studio audience. “The definition of theater is A performing B for C, and we had to have C.” Another was to show, via the opening number with Jessie J, the artificiality of the production. “We made the decision to actually make ‘scenery.’ We showed you the backs of it, we showed you the dressing rooms.” He adds, “It was really a great way to tell the audience you’re in good hands. You see that there’s live audience there, we show you the backlot, and we tell you we’re making a piece of theater and a piece of TV.”
Of course, a live event is not without its fair share of complications. Yet one very nearly lead to the ultimate demise of “Grease: Live.” “We didn’t know whether we were going to shoot in New York or L.A.,” Korins divulges. “The day we decided to film the show in L.A., the New York Times, the next day, ran a front page article that said ‘Godzilla El Nino to hit Los Angeles in January.’”
While that threat of harsh weather may have put a damper on decisions to use outdoor locations, it couldn’t stop him completely. “One of the things in deciding that we were going to shoot this thing outside was buying a little bit of rain protection.” It wasn’t just rain, however, that threatened to shut the production down. “Two hours before the telecast happened, there were winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour,” which almost destroyed the tent erected to keep audience and cast members dry.
He continues, “We had to, at the last minute, an hour before telecast, re-choreograph the entire opening number and all of the outdoor scenes with a real serious plan B. It wasn’t until 20 minutes before the telecast that we got approval to go back under that tent structure — the pieces that were still standing — and actually be able to use [it].”
For Korins, “Grease: Live!” is an achievement that may be difficult to top. “In some ways,” he says, “my whole career was built and created step-by-step to get to the place of production designing ‘Grease: Live!,’ because it wasn’t just a piece of theater or a television show. It was also a live event, an immersive experience. It was a happening, because it happened only once. It was so many things that I’ve firmly entrenched myself in over the years, so I really do feel all of those experiences added up to that one moment.”