William Ivey Long & David Korins: Designing ‘Grease: Live’

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The antique doorbell of William Ivey Long’s TriBeCa design studio rings with nearly as much charisma as the charming and impeccably dressed figure who answers it. The who’s who of Broadway stars, directors and design collaborators who ring the bell today are merely the latest visitors in a parade dating back to 1855 – a parade that includes revelers during the building’s incarnation as a prohibition era speakeasy. Like it’s proprietor, the doorbell is an institution. And just as the doorbell has seen many incarnations, its owner is today experiencing his own “rebirth” (his words) as he celebrates his first Emmy Award Nomination for work as costume designer on the highly rated Fox telecast of Grease: Live last January.

Inside, foam core boards line the studio walls providing a glimpse into the elaborate design process required to modernize one of the most iconic stage and movie musicals of all time. “Let’s face it, the decades come and go and come back again and the retro look isn’t that far away from us. We wanted it to feel like the innocence of then [the 1950’s] reflecting on the high school kids of today,” Long explains as he holds up a miniature costume doll replica of Keke Palmer and demonstrates the costume transformation viewers experienced during the telecast’s “Freddy My Love” sequence.

A short time later Long settles into his upstairs office behind a desk given to him by Jacqueline Onassis (yes, that Jacqueline Onassis) for a chat with his Grease: Live partner in crime, Production Designer David Korins, also Emmy nominated for his work. The two are highly animated as they discuss the challenges and triumphs of bringing Grease: Live to living-rooms across America.

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Korins: I realized that the only possible person I could go on this adventure with was William Ivey Long. He’s the great master of how to do cathartic changes and revelations of space and theatrical story telling changes instantly. About as quickly as I came on, I said to Tommy Kail, our Director, that if he doesn’t know William he should get to know him instantly and talk about the project.

Creating new designs for one of the most iconic stage and movie musicals of all time comes with a fair amount of pressure. The underlying goal of the Grease: Live team was to update Grease for a new generation while embracing social media and live technology to make audiences feel a part of the magic happening on set in Los Angeles. The designers explained the importance of honoring the source material while simultaneously creating something new.

Korins: So many of the looks are iconic from the film – really we wanted to pay homage to the great designer’s shoulders we were standing on.

Long: Yes, like Albert Wolsky, the original costume designer!

Korins: We’re acknowledging that we love it too! We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here – we’re showing you a different way to look at it. We talked a lot about where to stay true to the source material and where to take liberties. We love the movie, we love Travolta, we love the stage show. We tried to take the best versions of those and mix them up with all that television has to offer.

Long: It’s a more modern high school, a more diverse high school and a more shapely high school. Things look and fit in a modern way. So we shook it up in that respect so it’s not a strict historically correct high school from the fifties. Even the band playing in the gym dance sequences lead by Joe Jonas, his hair had blue streaks in it and Mario Lopez’s suit was so tailored he couldn’t sit down when he was in his trailer!

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William Ivey Long is known for creating some of the most memorable live transformations in theater history. He won his sixth Tony Award in 2013 for the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in no small part due to a sequence that magically transformed actress Laura Osnes from rags to a ball-gown without so much as a dimming of the stage lights.

“They must have had me in mind honestly,” Long recalls after reading the script for Grease: Live which included two major transformative dreamlike sequences. These sequences were not necessarily written in the source material, but were inspired by the ideas of how to bring live theatricality to the small screen.

Long: For instance, Freddy My Love isn’t in the film, it’s only in the stage production but she didn’t go through this fantasy sequence that we created. She just sang to the hairbrush and all the girls were around her.

Korins: Freddy My Love, Beauty School Dropout and Greased Lighting are examples of numbers that start in realism and then explode into magical realism or abstraction and with William’s help explode into abstraction and then restore back into realism. We recognized early on, we start at a real place and then with a costume change and a scene change were going to elevate the world through song, through costume and through scenery and then we are going to restore back [to reality]. That’s where the audience had so much pleasure. What’s so pleasurable is to realize people are triple dressed, you reveal something and then you revert back to the original. It’s such a pleasurable story telling way to showcase what is happening in someone’s mind.

For the Greased Lighting sequence, Long created three layers of costume on each dancer. Starting with oil stained work overalls in the school auto body shop, to sleek shinny blue and silver jumpsuits and then a return to overalls with all of the changes occurring off camera – the benefit of quick jump cuts. These types of quick changes are not nearly as easy to accomplish as they might sound and while they may be common on broadway stages, they are rarely tackled for live television due to the fact that they leave very little margin for error.

Long: Chippendale style! You have to have the right fabric to achieve a rip-away costume. It can’t stretch too much because it has to pull away when you want it to pull away. So then that makes it hard to make dance clothes when there is no lycra, you have to cut it to fit each guy and gal in an incredibly tailored manor. We had lots and lots of fittings for this. I made hundreds of clothes! It’s the same way I constructed Hugh Jackman’s gyration gold pants in The Boy From Oz. Hugh Jackman is essentially responsible for the Greased Lighting costumes working! I had done my homework on a previous project.

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Grease: Live was shot on three sound stages in addition to the back-lot at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. Both Long and Korins had to create designs that not only complemented one other on camera, but that could quickly be changed during complex scenic and costume changes occurring during short commercial breaks – all in-front of a live on-set audience.

Korins: The idea of the live audience was Tommy Kail and our Executive Producer Marc Platt’s idea before we even came on [to the project].

Long: We sent out very specific descriptions that were inspired by my mood boards and reference images from the period to help coordinate what people would wear in the audience. Although a lot of people came as bad Sandy in the finale so we had to add a few jackets and sweaters!

Korins: Well actually the couple hundred people sitting out front of Rydell, if you recall it was raining that day, and we at the last minute sent out PA’s to go buy red blankets and in a way it kind of unified the color tone.

Long: It made them all look like they were in the same high school!

Korins: It was really a happy accident because we thought, they’re going to be sitting out here for three hours, it’s going to be freezing, lets get them blankets but lets get them Rydell red blankets.

Long: Which was Marc our producer’s idea! So when you look at the pep-rally outside everyone is wearing the school colors, it’s terrific!

The highly accomplished Grease: Live team was assembled by Executive Producer Marc Platt who is known for producing the broadway smash Wicked along with a lengthly list of feature films inclusive of the recent movie musical Into the Woods and 2016 Academy Award nominated Bridge of Spies. Director Thomas Kail and David Korins came to the project fresh off the success of cultural phenomenon, Hamilton. And Long, with 71 Broadway credits and six Tony Awards – let’s just say he is no slouch among distinguished company.

Korins: William is a friend, a colleague, a mentor and a living legend and I feel like the very first time I had a conversation with William I felt like 19 pearls of wisdom fell out of his mouth and I sort of just scooped them up. William even set up an office right on the soundstage so he could be right next to the action but keep working. He breaths and works with this casual ease, and is so astute in looking at the production design as he is at lighting design as he is at direction and choreography.

As for their next dream project, the designers explain:

Long: We just take what’s offered! I don’t let myself have those dreams because they can turn into wistful sad thinking. I’m just happy to get the job offer!

Korins: I feel the same way, but I think it’s a really fruitful medium, I love it.

Long: Much more than we thought it was going to be! I had no idea how rewarding [live tv] was.

Korins: I always walk to work and one time I stopped myself because I was whistling and skipping.

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