“The day the music died,” that day memorialized in Don McLean’s American Pie, happened that year. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, three rock ‘n’ roll icons, were lost in a tragic plane crash in 1959. It was also the year the U.S.S.R. launched Mechta into the first solar orbit and Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state. Oh, and Barbie was introduced. Can’t forget that.
Music didn’t die, our lives are managed and monitored via satellites, Alaska is no longer the newbie state, and Barbie, she’s still damaging the body image of little girls everywhere.
That last year of the fateful decade was the cusp of big changes, yet everything remains the same. It’s the setting for the enduring musical, Grease. Newtown Arts Company is presenting Grease August 8-14 at Newtown Theatre.
Kathy Junkins is the director and spoke with me recently about her vision for the familiar musical. What those who know the story from the popular movie version forget is the musical opens at fictional Rydell High School for a class reunion.
“I do want the audience to know this is reminiscence. I think that’s often missed,” Junkins says. “That’s the entire premise of the show. We’re keeping to the script of the original Broadway musical.”
Mid-century — last century — is ripe for nostalgia, but Junkins cast is nearly all born at the very end of it. She has 16 cast members younger than 18. To prep, give some substance to the sometimes fluffy show, she had the cast research the era.
“We’re keeping it authentic to the 1950s and helping the cast understand what was going on and bring that to the audience,” she says. Junkins says she and the cast have done a lot of research in hopes of making the era more relatable to the young actors.
“This musical, although set in the 1950s, and the times, the technology, etc. were different, some of the issues concerning today’s youth are the same as they were in the ’50s.”
She’s right. Teenagers still worry about their grades in school, fitting in, standing out, getting in trouble, getting pregnant. They just have the added pressure of not being able to hide it. No gaff, goof or bad hair day goes unpublished.
“People have real concerns as teenagers,” Junkins adds, “and that carries through to today.”
Part of that perennial angst is being in the “chorus,” and not one of the leads, or even a named role. Junkins helps ease the sting by working with the ensemble on character development.
She’s assigned the roles of “nerd,” “student council president” and other archetypes roaming high school halls, to each of the eight members in the ensemble. These enhanced portrayals lend more depth to the story. And the actors get to do more than don a poodle skirt and do the “hand jive.”
Surely we don’t know who will be more successful — and happier — ten years from now, “Sandy” or the “nerd.” Hopefully, all equally so for having taken part in community theater, a summertime tradition.
As Junkins says about Rydell’s class of ’59, so goes for the cast of 2013, “This core group will always be friends. Through thick and thin, they’ll always be together and I think that’s a good message: You’ve got to stick with your friends and be there along the way.”
— Jodi Thompson