The Stars of Stage and Screen: The stories behind some of the best song ever to appear in Hollywood or Broadway musicals.
I was twelve years old in 1976. That was the year that I bought my first album with my own money. It was called, Have You Never Been Mellow? by an Australian singer named Olivia Newton John. On our local radio station, they were playing a song of hers called “Please Mr., Please”. To my pre-teen ears, her voice sounded angelic and sweet. In those days before the Internet became a thing, I did not know what Olivia Newton John looked like. I only knew what I heard on the radio. That changed one day when I found myself in the record aisle of our KMart department store. Sitting there waiting for me to buy it was her new album. That was the very first time I ever saw her face. I didn’t know it at the time but seeing that album cover was the start of a lifelong attraction to “faces”. Hers was perfect. I couldn’t believe how beautiful I thought she was. As I held that album in my hands, I was developing my very first celebrity crush. For twelve year old me, Olivia Newton John was certainly worth emptying my piggy bank for.
In 1977, Saturday Night Fever was released in theatres. Like many, I was captivated by the light show, the pounding disco beats and, most of all, by the dance moves being performed by John Travolta on screen. Not having grown up in the age of dance movie musicals starring the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers, Saturday Night Fever was my first taste of an entire movie that was seemingly built upon a foundation of dancing. My exposure to that movie coincided with me attending my very first school dance. I was thirteen years old. I had visions of wearing the same silk suits as John Travolta and his friends all did. In truth, that first dance was a dud. Our teachers only had a limited supply of records so they played “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons again and again. I was too shy to ask the girl of my desires to slow dance so I spent the night standing around in a red polyester shirt and too tight pants. It was awkwardness and coolness on a collision course. But, at least I was at a dance. The music was loud. There were lights, of a sort. It was the beginning of a love affair for me with loud music in public settings.
As many of you are aware, Hollywood tends to chase its own tail when it comes to replicating success. Saturday Night Fever set box office records. The soundtrack album became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. The movie made a star out of John Travolta. So, when it came to deciding what his next starring vehicle should be, it didn’t surprise anyone that John Travolta was cast in another musical. In the late 1970s, movie musicals were the big trend in Hollywood. It was announced that the movie, Grease, would star Travolta opposite my girl, Olivia Newton John. I couldn’t have been more excited. In interviews that I saw on TV, Olivia Newton John presented as being the fresh-faced, innocent, girl-next-door type that I had always imagined her to be. I was fifteen years old when Grease premiered in theatres. It did so to positive reviews, quickly becoming one of the most popular movies of the year. Olivia Newton John was nominated for a Grammy Award for a song called “Hopelessly Devoted to You”. The soundtrack album went on to be the biggest selling live action music soundtrack in history (until topped by Les Miz several decades later). Needless to say, when the time came for me to finally watch this movie, I was pumped! Great music awaited! Superb dancing was on tap. And best of all, I was going to be able to watch my favourite celebrity on the planet on screen for an hour or two, which in those days, seemed like eternity. So, I grabbed my popcorn and my ice cold pop and settled into my seat at the Triple Cinemas in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Let the movie begin!
Grease is a musical that was originally a stage production that had its premiere in Chicago. The success it achieved on stage there, and then on Broadway, convinced producers that it would translate well on screen. The plot involved two characters (Danny/Travolta and Sandy/Newton John) who had had a summer fling and who were now, unbeknownst to each other, returning to the same high school for their senior year. The movie opened with each character discussing their summer romance with their friends. Travolta, who had adopted a more sophisticated demeanour at summer camp, returned to school as the greasy leader of a gang of guys whose only interest was in learning if Travolta had gotten “lucky” with this girl he had met. Olivia Newton John, on the other hand, clutched her school books to her chest and waxed nostalgic as she recounted to her girlfriends how dreamy her summer love had been. Obviously, the two summer lovers meet up again at school and the movie rests upon whether the two can rekindle their romance in this new setting, especially since John Travolta’s character has revealed himself to be something other than the man Olivia Newton John had fallen in love with. For the first three quarters of the movie, I watched sweet, innocent, soft-speaking Sandy wrestle with her desire for Danny against the pragmatism of her understanding that, as a greasy gang leader, Danny was not the sort of boy she thought she would find herself ending up with. I was cheering Olivia Newton John on all throughout this decision-making process, secretly urging her to drop Travolta and pick me instead! But then, the song “You’re the One That I Want” began to play and Olivia Newton John announced her decision by ditching her “nice girl” clothes and donning tight leather instead. I was crushed! As Olivia Newton John announced that she was “open for business”, so to speak, and John Travolta’s eyes bulged out of his head, my heart cratered. My sweet crush had turned into a bad girl. Audiences went wild. The song “You’re the One That I Want” went straight to #1 on the charts and ended up selling over four million copies as a single. The message couldn’t have been any clearer…sweet girls get their hearts broken but girls that “put out” were the real stars of the show.
As a boy who always preferred Mary Ann to Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, Olivia Newton John’s on screen transformation ended my celebrity crush. She capitalized on her newfound success by releasing a series of albums that all employed sexual innuendos such as, “Physical”, “Tied Up” and “Make a Move On Me”. I don’t want to say that I was a naive teenage boy but I was. Watching Grease was one of the very first moments when I started to realize how the world worked for women and how much of their value in society was linked to their sexuality. The leering nature of Travolta’s Danny character when he believes that he is going to get lucky after all has always sickened me. I wish this was not the way of the world. But, as much as I was disappointed when Olivia Newton John appeared all leather clad and ready to play, my admiration for her as a real person increased as I learned more about her own life and the causes she supported and believed in. She has become an animal rights activist and is an outspoken cancer survivor. Olivia Newton John remains a very popular figure in the entertainment world and has eased into respected elder statesperson status with much grace and aplomb. The funny part of it all for me is that she has done it all despite the misogyny of a world filled with men like John Travolta’s character, Danny Zucko, as well as a world filled with judgey types like me who freely cast opinions from the safety of our keyboards. Perhaps all the men of the world…me included…should simply keep our mouths shut and enjoy the music.
The link to the video for the song “You’re the One That I Want” by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Grease can be found here. *A link to the lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the film Grease can be found here.