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'Grease' has deep, dark Chicago roots

'Grease' has deep, dark Chicago roots

Pop quiz! What high school inspired "Grease," the Broadway musical-turned-film-turned-juggernaut about summer lovin', hot rods and rumbles? Answer: Taft High School in sweet home Chicago.

Truth be told, playwright Jim Jacobs (Taft '60) flinches at how his do-wop memoir has evolved into a sugary valentine to the 1950s. ("American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks shows up as the Teen Angel in the latest touring production, bopping Jan. 6-18 into the Auditorium Theatre.)

The original romance between the black-jacketed Danny and nice girl Sandy, which bowed at Kingston Mines here in 1971, was darker, edgier and would be "rated R today," said Jacobs, 66.

Back then, Danny, Kenickie & Co. cussed up a storm, just like ex-greaser Jacobs and his gang did in high school. He and late collaborator Warren Casey were out "to shock everyone with blue language," he admitted.

"What the rest of the country calls rough language, we call growing up in the city of Chicago.

Think of Blagojevich (his bleep-happy wiretaps) and David Mamet (of the salty "Glengarry Glen Ross" fame). That's the neighborhood I grew up in, that's how they talked," Jacobs said.

The real-life T-birds and Pink Ladies -- composites of his Taft classmates -- were just as rough-and-tumble. "There really was a girl named Rizzo, a tough little Italian chick," he said. They ran into each other at a reunion in 1989 and she mentioned "visiting her husband who was on Death Row in Marion, Ill."

Neither Broadway nor Hollywood, of course, wants that much reality. "They want it all sugar-coated and sweet, heavenly," Jacobs said in mock dismay. -- I don't know what's happened to America in the last 35 years."

He and Casey even turned sweet Sandy into a black-leather siren for the big finale to poke fun at Hollywood endings where the wayward hero (think Danny) reforms and becomes a model citizen.

" We wanted to see the cool guy stay cool and get the girl who becomes cool," Jacobs laughed.

Despites his regrets, "Grease" is destined to keep the perennial punky Chicago native in cold hard cash. The 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John has earned nearly $395 million worldwide to date. Factor in the best-selling soundtrack, movie sequel and umpteen tours, and we're not talking greasy kid stuff.

Besides Hicks, the incoming tour costars Allie Schulz as Rizzo. Schulz won a role in the Broadway revival of "Grease" via NBC's "Grease: You're the One That I Want" talent series.


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