My high school drama teacher, too hip for the Bible Belt, caught me rolling my eyes at some bit of hokum we were rehearsing in our annual spring "high school in the '50s" musical and pulled me aside.
"What I'd really like to do is Grease," Nancy Barden stage whispered, underwhelmed by the school-approved Grease substitute we were doing. "It's just too dirty."
How times have changed. Well, sort of. The 1971 stage show rendered into a big, bloated 1978 screen vehicle for John Travolta is America's most-beloved musical. And it's widely considered as mainstream and family-friendly as musicals come.
Tryouts for a stage revival of the show about late-1950s greasers and cheerleaders, jocks and motorheads was a prime-time TV series in 2006. And now, in the tradition of sing-alongs for The Sound of Music and Mamma Mia!, the Grease Sing-A-Long comes to theaters.
Just follow the lyrics on the screen and do what you would do in the privacy of your own home — sing along with Summer Nights, Hopelessly Devoted to You and Greased Lightning.
But lest you think that this tale of high school love between greaser Danny Zuko (Travolta) and that quintessential good girl Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), with its leather-jacketed cliques masquerading as gangs, is totally family-friendly, double-check that rating. As any parent who has innocently and absent-mindedly slapped the DVD into the player for 10-and-youngers to watch can tell you, this is still pretty racy stuff, although perhaps not "too dirty" by today's standards.
With its illegal drag racing, "the cool kids smoke and drink" ethos, sexual experimentation and unplanned teen pregnancy (Stockard Channing was 34 when she played teenage Rizzo), Grease is worthy of its PG-13 rating.
And in a cinema, where the film returns in limited release this month, you can't fast-forward past the dicey bits to get to Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee. Because you don't mind explaining who Sandra Dee was and you do want to hold off on those birds and bees a little longer. But if they've sung along with Mamma Mia!, they're old enough for Grease.
The film, with its thirty-something teens acting out class conflict and its TV legends (Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Alice Ghostley) hamming it up as the school staff, isn't so much aging well as surviving and thriving as a quaint artifact of two eras — the 1950s and the 1970s '50s nostalgia boom. Hollywood had pretty much forgotten how to stage and film a dance number in 1977-78, and it shows.
Keep an eye out for a very young Lorenzo Lamas in a bit part and for dancer and future director Andy Tennant (Hitch, The Bounty Hunter).
And take advantage of those subtitles. Grease might still be "the word," but how else are you going to know the lyrics to You're the One That I Want?