Executive producer and director of Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, Alethea Jones, has a far more serendipitous connection to the late Olivia Newton-John than just ties to the 1978 film.
In fact, for the Australian creative — who is fast becoming one of the hottest directors in Hollywood — she just happened to be from the same rural town as the world-famous star. Alstonville.
“We would have Olivia Newton John sightings in the grocery store,” Jones told Mediaweek’s head of entertainment, Anita Anabel, during the latest episode of The Entertainment Hotline podcast.
“Mum would be like, ‘there’s Olivia’. My friend’s dad used to manage their property as well,” she added before later saying: “We were all so proud of to be from where she lived.”
While she never met Newton-John in person, the late star held a “really special” place for the cast and crew of the new TV series, which premiered on Paramount+ on April 6.
“When she passed, we were working… and it was a really dark day because she was so special to us as we shot this show.”
Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies easter eggs
While the characters of Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Newton-John) do not make an appearance in the new iteration, there are plenty more easter eggs for fans of the original movie.
The prequel series is set four years before Sandy arrived at Rydell High and focuses on the misfit students who created the iconic Pink Ladies clique. The story centres mostly around Jane (Marisa Davila), who just happens to be Frenchie’s (Fran Facciono, originally played by Didi Conn) sister. We also meet Betty Rizzo (Emma Shannon, originally portrayed by Stockard Channing) who ultimately become two of the Pink Ladies in the film.
But it doesn’t stop there. The iconic T-Birds and their jackets are back, Jane’s house is almost an exact replica of the film including the trelice Rizzo climbs down, there’s an iconic bed dancing scene and even a plate of Tootsie Rolls which is a nod to the Ladies’ sleepover in the movie.
According to Jones, finding a house that matched “a very important Grease house” was difficult, given that they filmed in Vancouver in the 2020s and not California, like the original.
“We ended up finding something that was a really good match and building out some stuff. Visual effects help a little bit too,” she said.
For the creatives behind the series, putting in these easter eggs was a pivotal component of remaking the iconic masthead.
“We always called it [Grease] the mothership. We wanted to pay it with so much respect and the more we watched it together, the more we realised what a masterpiece it really is.
“I would watch it with the cast, who were very new to film acting, and taught them how to fill a frame in the 50s. You’ve got anamorphic [wide-angle lens] which is super wide. In the 50s, cast would unbury themselves from behind someone. You have 50 people in a frame and you can almost see every face of the people who are peeking through.”
“So, I had to teach the cast to watch those actors and dig themselves out from when they can’t be seen by the camera, and to watch a background artist adjust during a shot.”
The Rock Eisteddfod served as inspiration for Jones
For anyone growing up in the 1990s in NSW, Australia, the Rock Eisteddfod was a springboard for budding young and talented teens to showcase their performance skills in front of a large audience. And for Jones, this was where a lot of her inspiration for the large-scale dance numbers came from.
“I was obsessed with the Rock Eisteddfod. I choreographed them, I lived and breathed it and since then, I’ve always been really drawn to musicals,” Jones said. “I’ve done everything I can to get back to those dance roots. So when I came to America and started directing, I said yes to anything I was offered, because I should be so lucky to be directing over here.”
After signing with new management a few years ago, her new team asked Jones what would “be your hearts desire?”.
“I said, ‘I really want to direct a musical.’ And they said: ‘What would you say if we said, Rise of the Pink Ladies?’ and this is not a pun, I literally got chills.”
During the pandemic, the director watched 59 film musicals in one year with a group of friends.
“We really started to unpack what works about musicals and what doesn’t work. I felt like I was yearning for more technicolour, for texture that they used to do in the 50s, 60s and 70s. And perhaps, with modern day musicals, we have kind of fallen away from texture and nostalgia and boldness with colour.
“That’s a promise that I made to Paramount+, that I would try and be a student of the technical and musical and I would try to hold the line and make sure that we could deliver and keep on delivering.”
Grease: Rise of the Pink ladies is streaming on Paramount+ now.
Listen to Alethea Jones’ full chat with Anita Anabel on The Entertainment Hotline.