“I don’t get it.” Those four words were a mantra for “Grease” choreographer Patricia Birch, who was in attendance at the Metrograph theater for a sold-out 40th anniversary screening and post-film Q&A presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Birch explained that she first heard what would become a guiding force in her creative output from opera director Sarah Caldwell when the two worked together on a production in Boston. “If you don’t get it, it doesn’t matter,” Birch said matter-of-factly, explaining that she takes great care to ensure that her choreographed numbers fit within a narrative.
Birch has had a long and successful career as a choreographer, but is undoubtedly best known for her work on “Grease,” a production which, since its release in 1978, has transcended from the cult to the canon. As a film, “Grease” can tend to feel as though it’s capitulating wildly from satire — of both the era it’s portraying, the 1950s, and the out-of-fashion (for 1978) movie-musical genre it’s inhabiting — to loving homage, again of era and genre, sometimes all within the same musical number. For Birch, though, it was always about finding an in-road to connect with the viewer. “You have to tell the story,” Birch explained, when asked how she goes about choreographing a piece. Throughout the film, one always feels her choreography is in conversation with director Randal Kleiser’s vision and the larger narrative of “Grease,” one that she was quick to say was “very honestly written.”
“Honest” ends up being an apt way to describe Birch’s choreography, which achieves a naturalism that highlights the exuberance and pent-up hormonal rage that comes with being a teenager. “It’s the relationship between the kids, and we all went to school with those types,” Birch mused on why “Grease” was such a success. Watching Birch’s choreography, it’s clear that it’s meant to amplify those relationships. Seeing Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton John) trade lines and moves in “Summer Nights,” as their respective Greek choruses, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, surge and sashay around them, one can’t help but feel that these lovers aren’t so much being choreographed as they are hanging out and trading gossip during lunch.
That number is what Birch classifies as the “paramount,” a show-off piece and one of the three classifications of dance numbers Birch used for “Grease,” she revealed. The blues-infused “Greased Lightnin’,” which comes mid-way through the film, is what Birch calls the “semi-paramount,” a number that starts as storytelling text, moves into “a bit of show-off” with the deployment of a masterful match cut, then back to storytelling by its end. Meanwhile, Birch classifies the tender Stockard Channing sung number “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” as “in-text” storytelling.
All that is to say, for Birch, this categorical framework for “Grease” is rooted in storytelling. With that in mind, Birch left the audience at Metrograph with a final thought: “It’s got to connect, otherwise people are in awe and they may admire [the choreography] but are not getting at your emotional side, and for me that’s more important than anything.” Forty years later, it’s clear that audiences are still connecting with the Pink Ladies and T-Birds, and that, with Birch’s four word mantra as a guidepost, audiences definitely “get it”; Grease is still the word.
Top Image: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures