While thousands of aspiring musical theatre actors have auditioned via Grease Is the Word to play Danny and Sandy in the upcoming West End revival of Grease, the focus ahead of its first broadcast episode on 7 April 2007 is on the programme’s judges and their clash of interests and personalities (See News, 16 Mar 2007).

Judging the judges

At last night’s press launch for the ITV reality show, theatre producer David Ian raised eyebrows when he expressed his concern about the suitability (and even sanity) of some of his fellow panellists. Aside from Ian, who is bankrolling the resulting stage production, the judges – pop star Sinitta, music video choreographer Brian Friedman and David Gest, the main object of Ian’s ire - were chosen by the TV show’s lead producer and X Factor judge Simon Cowell.

Billed as a “record producer, impresario and raconteur”, Gest is best known in this country for his acrimonious divorce from ex-wife Liza Minnelli and his appearance on last year’s jungle-set I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! on ITV. In the screening of excerpts from the new casting programme, Gest said: “Grease is the biggest show in the world, and I do not want to be the guy to mess it up.” However, that serious attitude seemed to evaporate in later clips, particularly when he voted through to “boot camp” a patently unsuitable 36-year-old named Paula Nixon who admitted that her primary reason for attending the audition was to meet David Ian, on whom she had a crush.

Nixon, single for “about 11 years”, presented Ian with a bouquet of flowers, kissed him on the lips and serenaded him with “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, reducing Ian’s fellow panellists to fits of laughter. Gest decided to greenlight Nixon as a “gift” to the musical’s producer, prompting “Sir” David (as knighted by Sinitta) to hit Gest. At another point, when Ian lost patience and stormed out of proceedings, Gest chuckled, “I told you, that guy needs an enema.”

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David Ian vs David Gest

At last night’s event, the hostility between the two Davids was apparent. When asked his opinion of Ian, Gest said: “Truthfully, he’s a nice guy, but he’s got a brain the size of a pea.” Bristling, Ian listed his theatrical credentials and noted: “I think various people on the panel have been more concerned with having fun on a reality TV show than casting a West End show.” Peacekeeper Sinitta viewed her role as “trying to stop these two from killing each other”.

In the publicity pack for Grease Is the Word, American choreographer Friedman – who did not attend yesterday’s launch due to a work commitment in Los Angeles – seemed to side with Ian, noting: “David Gest is just crazy. I think something’s the matter with him! I mean, he’s got a great heart, he’s a great guy, but he’s all over the place!... Everything that comes out of his mouth is just disgusting and vile. It’s hard to handle.”

Ian echoed the sentiment in his statement, saying: “David Gest is stark, raving mad! I hope David gets his sanity goggles.” The other two judges didn’t escape the producer’s criticism either. “Sinitta is much more focused on what she’s wearing than what she’s thinking”, according to Ian, while Friedman suffers from “strange delusional moments”, although he is nonetheless a “phenomenal choreographer” who “truly knows what he’s talking about”.

Pop star contestants

Amongst the successful Dannys to make it through to the Grease boot camp, as shown at last night’s screening, is Nineties pop singer Kavana, whose hits included “I Can Make You Feel Good” and “Crazy Chance”. The judges advised Kavana that, if he got fit and regained his “rock star confidence”, he could do well in the competition. From the thousands who auditioned, the judges have settled on 16 finalists – eight couples of Dannys and Sandys – who will be revealed in the course of the ITV programme and subjected to the public vote each week.

At last night’s event, David Ian noted that the number of trained applicants had risen substantially since last year’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, estimating that two of the remaining eight couples, and one in 25 of the overall draw, have had previous professional experience. “It’s not an amateur contest,” he explained, “it’s an open contest.”

Though Connie Fisher, winner of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? has recently had to reduce her performances in The Sound of Music to six a week, Ian said that the successful Danny and Sandy would be contracted for the full eight shows a week in Grease, which he acknowledged to be more of an ensemble piece, with much less pressure on a single performer.

Grease vs Joseph

Ian said he was not worried about competition from his Sound of Music co-producer and one-time Problem partner Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose rival casting show, Any Dream Will Do, to find a star for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, commences this weekend (See News, 27 Mar 2007). “I think it’s great, as a theatre producer of some years, that Saturday night television is going to be dominated for some time by theatre. If someone had told Andrew Lloyd Webber and I that even a year ago, we wouldn’t have believed it. It’s great for our industry.” The outspoken Gest was less diplomatic, saying: “I don’t think Joseph has as good as songs (as Grease) – screw it!”

Grease Is the Word, hosted by Zoe Ball, airs on ITV for ten weeks, from 7 April to 9 June, going head-to-head on Saturday nights for much of that period with Any Dream Will Do, which runs on BBC One from 31 March to 26 May. On ITV2’s spin-off show, Greased Lightnin’, presenter Holly Willoughby will be providing more backstage coverage of the Danny and Sandy competition. The stage production of Grease – starring the winning couple – opens at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre on 8 August 2007 (previews form 25 July).

While now most famous from the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Grease began on stage, premiering on Broadway in 1972. The musical originally ran for six years in the West End, first at the Dominion and then at the Cambridge Theatre, returning to London for a short run back at the Dominion in 2001 and at the Victoria Palace in 2002/3. In between, it has toured the UK extensively.

Grease has book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. It’s now-famous songs include “Summer Nights”, “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee”, “We Go Together”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “Beauty School Dropout”, “You’re the One That I Want”, “Greased Lightnin’” and “Grease Is the Word”. The new West End production – for which further casting will be undertaken simultaneously with the TV programme – will be directed by David Gilmore and choreographed by Arlene Phillips. Tickets go on sale today.

It’s produced by Paul Nicholas and David Ian, who have been producing the musical around the world since 1993. Their Broadway production of Grease – with a Danny and Sandy announced this week via the US TV equivalent, Grease Is the Word, also featuring Ian as a judge – opens 19 August 2007 (previews from 24 July).

- by Terri Paddock (photos by Dan Wooller)