Drew Anthony is a dab hand at putting on a show. He started out as a stage performer, starring in everything from A Chorus Line to The Pirates Of Penzance, Hot Shoe Shuffle to 42nd Street. Soon enough he branched into the creative side of things, most notably directing and choreographing The Boy From Oz at Crown Theatre. After having received a slew of awards for this and other productions, Drew is now bringing Grease to the Perth stage. Here, he chats with Cream about why this epic story lends itself well to the musical stage.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Drew. What do you think is it about ‘Grease’ that appeals to audiences, generation after generation?
I think both its simplicity and the music. At its core, Grease is a simple story about what it is to be a teenager dealing with romance, raging hormones, peer group pressure, acceptance, broken hearts, uncertainty, lack of direction and aspirations for the future. And the music – oh that amazing music! The songs in Grease are some of the most recognisable in music history.
Who have you picked to play Sandy and who plays Danny in your most recent production of ‘Grease’ and what do those performers bring to the two main roles?
Elaina O’Connor plays Sandy. She is a star-on-the-rise, having recently starred as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, and Serena in Fame. Both of these productions were at Crown Theatre, giving Elaina invaluable experience in front of big audiences. John Berry plays Danny. This will be John’s first lead role, having worked hard in minor and ensemble roles over the last couple of years. He won the role after a wonderful audition where he demonstrated a unique charismatic wit along with his ability to bring strength and vulnerability in equal measure to this iconic character.
When you first watched the movie as a kid, which character did you relate to most?
Actually, I didn’t see Grease until I was well into adulthood. I was nine years old when the film was released and my Mum wouldn’t let me see it. [Laughs]. When I did finally see it, I related mostly to Frenchy, oddly. I loved her optimism, and her fun-loving, warm-hearted nature and I love that she is a dreamer and an optimist, much like me!
You’re no stranger to directing musicals. In fact, you directed and choreographed ‘The Boy From Oz’ for Perth audiences last year. How difficult was it to switch from directing ‘The Boy From Oz’ as a whole and choreographing key scenes… or did you wear both hats at once?
I’ve always been a director/choreographer so wearing both hats at once is second nature to me. Choreography, in a musical, is such an important part of the storytelling, so being capable of both disciplines really helps me to shape a production in exactly the way I envisage it. Grease will be the first production in years where I have actually engaged a choreographer – two, actually! – to work with me to bring the songs to life.
I believe you’ve also worked on productions overseas, having read something about working in Abu Dhabi pre-pandemic? Tell me more about that; was it in connection to the Arab Games?
I was a senior creative on the Arab Games in 2011 in Doha, Qatar. The opening ceremony was extraordinary in terms of scale, cultural importance to the nation, and the level of technical innovation. I worked for six months solid with a cast of over 2,000 performers, and the result was amazing. A real career highlight. Just prior to the pandemic, I was the creative director for a major event company in Abu Dhabi where I would develop major event IPs and bring them to life. It was very rewarding work but hard in that I was commuting between Perth and Abu Dhabi monthly. Kinda like showbiz FIFO!
You were also Associate Artistic Director for the Closing Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games. What would you say is one thing a musical and a major sports event have in common?
Whether a musical or a major sports ceremony, the audience must be taken on a journey during which they must feel, be moved, and feel elated. That’s true, really, of any art form and in that way, the two are similar.
And what’s something very different between the two types of events?
The scale and intimacy.
In your latest incarnation of ‘Grease’, have you kept in mind the changes in society and pop culture? For example, with regards to identities key characters, are any presented in a ‘non-binary’ manner compared to strictly masculine or strictly feminine?
It’s important for theatre makers and artists to represent societal changes through their work and this can be challenging when applying this to a show as well-known as Grease. The story takes place in a very specific time in our history and whilst none of the characters in this production would be considered ‘non-binary’ as such, consideration has certainly been given to some of the masculine and feminine narrative concepts.
“Whilst ‘Grease’ is set in a time during which gender roles were more defined, I think that notion is challengeable. There are many moments in ‘Grease’ when male characters display distinctly feminine traits and vice versa.”
The original ‘Grease’ was set in a time when boys were boys, and girls were girls. Are there aspects you miss of the time when gender roles were more defined?
Whilst Grease is set in a time during which gender roles were more defined, I think that notion is challengeable. There are many moments in Grease when male characters display distinctly feminine traits and vice versa. The overarching thought about Grease is that Sandy feels she has to ‘change’ for Danny. In fact, the authors wrote the show with the opposite in mind, and it is Danny who decides to ‘change’ so that Sandy accepts him.
Have any parts of the original Grease been changed to suit the identity-sensitive era we’re now in? For example, the jibes by Kenickie to Rizzo?
Nothing has been changed, but as the old saying goes “delivery is everything” and once that notion is accepted, Kenickie can be received differently – as a loveable character who struggles to communicate in a way that Rizzo can accept, based on her own insecurities. They eventually find common ground, which makes for a wonderful arc for that couple.
Could you see yourself directing a ‘Grease 2’?
No. [Laughs]. Grease 2 isn’t a strong enough sequel to consider it a worthy theatre experience for audiences.
Finally, what would be your dream musical to product or direct?
I would love to direct a production of Les Miserables as it’s an epic story with a soaring score. I’d also like to direct a production of La Cage Aux Folles. The 1984/5 original Australian production had a huge impact on my young creative life and for me it’s one of the great love stories in musical theatre and an important story of tolerance, acceptance and love.
‘Grease’ is on stage at The Royale Theatre at Planet Royale, Northbridge from June 1-26, 2022. Tickets are available through ticketmaster.com.au.