On ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,’ the Rydell High outcasts find their people

Creator of the Paramount+ series envisions expanding to an MCU-like ‘Grease’ cinematic universe.

SHARE On ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies,’ the Rydell High outcasts find their people
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Tricia Fukuhara (from left), Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells and Ari Notartomaso star on the new series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.”

Paramount+

Four years before Frenchy, Rizzo and Sandy ever donned their own pink jackets, a group of friends at Rydell High leaned into their image of “bad girls,” called themselves the Pink Ladies and created a girl gang. Their formation is chronicled in the new 10-episode musical series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies ” streaming now on Paramount+.

Set in 1954, the show focuses on new student Jane Facciano (Marisa Davila), who’s labeled as “easy” by the Rydell High quarterback and suddenly becomes an outcast. Jane ends up bonding with a few other teen girls (played by Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Ari Notartomaso and Tricia Fukuhara) who are struggling in their own way to fit in.

That theme of finding your people looms large throughout “Grease” as a whole, says creator Annabel Oakes.

“When you say Pink Ladies and T-Birds, you’re like, ‘Oh, those are the cool kids in school.’ But when you watch the movie, Rizzo is cool, Kenickie is cool. John Travolta’s Danny Zuko is cool. Jan’s not cool. Frenchie’s not cool. Sonny [and] Doody, are not cool. They are these lovely weirdos who banded together to kind of get through high school together. And I love telling stories about friendship like that.”

“Rise of the Pink Ladies” goes big with 30 original songs and a cover of “Grease,’ the beloved song sung by Frankie Valli (lyrics by Barry Gibb) for the 1978 film.

The “Pink Ladies” songs are from hitmaker Justin Tranter, who has worked with a who’s who list of recording artists. A Chicago Academy for the Arts grad, they’ve helped write songs such as “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, “Believer” by Imagine Dragons and “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE.

“The reason I got into music in the first place was movie musicals, whether it was ‘Grease’ or ‘Annie’ or ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ” said Tranter. “When I read the script I fought really hard for this job.”

Oakes and the writers — with Tranter’s input — decide where to insert musical numbers in the episodes.

“There’s always the rule that when the feelings are too big to speak, you sing them,” said Oakes. “It really is pretty natural to find out the point in a script where somebody needs to sing.“

There were moments though where Tranter felt a musical opportunity was missing. The songwriter recalls thinking, when the cast was filming the 10th episode, that the second one could benefit from one more song.

“The song ‘I Want More’ [in the second episode] is the last song that we wrote [for season one],” Tranter explained. “The episode was shot, it was done. ... I had already seen a rough cut. Jane is so defeated and learns she might not be able to apply for colleges. It’s a devastating moment. Then I got the call that we could add a song to episode two, I was like, ‘She is singing right there.’ The collaboration just never ends in a musical.”

Jamal Sims devised the choreography for the series. Sims created the dance moves for “Encanto,’’ 2019’s live-action “Aladdin” and the first three “Step Up” movies. As dialogue and scenes changed during the writing process, so would the music, and thus the movement. Tranter and Sims mastered their own dance of communicating directly to get the job done.

“There was a lot of stops and starts,” recalled Sims about finding their rhythm. “Then all of a sudden, Justin and I jumped on a call. We were like, ‘Let’s talk to each other.’ ”

Once they talked directly and “got on the same page, everything opened up,” Sims said. “That’s how we made it work.”

Beyond “Pink Ladies,” Oakes hopes to create a “Grease” cinematic universe much like the MCU, but centered around Rydell High.

“My husband loves ‘Star Wars,’ and I see how much joy he’s gotten out of that universe and how they’ve provided all this depth and context and different worlds. I’ve always wanted a cinematic universe that would speak to me that I could really get into,” she said. “Our show has 20 ensemble dancers who are actors, with their own distinct characters and stuff happening in the background. We have futures and stories for all those people and I can’t wait to tell them.”

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