Austinmiller_grease_240You caught me. I admit it. I’m watching NBC’s Grease: You’re the One that I Want, or as I like to call it The Search for America’s Cutest, Whitest Young Singers.

Yeah, I know. Sandy and Danny are supposed to look like Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta and Grease fans are a pretty fanatical lot. They like their Sandys button-nosed and blonde and their Dannys dark-haired and non-ethnically Italian and any deviation from that norm would just shatter the realism of the musical’s depiction of ’50s-era high school life. Little joke there. Grease is every bit as realistic as Starlight Express.

I guess the show’s producers couldn’t have just put out a sign saying "You must be between 18 and 35, white and attractive to audition," because that would have seemed racist and age-ist. Instead, they let chubby people, ethnic people and ugly people audition and, for the most part, sent them packing. A couple of those atypical Sandys and Dannys were too talented to eliminate straight-away, so they went to last week’s Grease Academy episode where they were booted without additional explanation (other than that they weren’t white enough or cute enough, not that the judges used those words).

The New York stage isn’t exactly averse to mixing up classic formulas. There was an all-male Swan Lake and the part of Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is rarely, if ever, played by a beagle. For heavens sake, Lou Diamond Phillips was nominated for a Tony for The King and I, while Alfred Molina got a Tony nod for Fiddler on the Roof even though they aren’t Thai or Russian-Jewish respectively. If 10 years ago somebody could have offered you tickets to Grease starring Taye Diggs as Danny and Idina Menzel as Sandy, do you think they might have found a way to make that work? I do.

Whew. Sorry. The funny thing is that the actual point of this blog post initially wasn’t to sarcastically salute Grease: You’re the One that I Want for bringing racial segregation back to primetime — since I know that this will prompt commenters saying that until producers want to put on an all-white version of The Wiz, Grease is entitled to be as white as it wants to be. Actually, I meant to be complimentary, because despite how utterly bland and boring this show’s Top 14 (expanded from 12 during Sunday [Jan. 28] night’s show) may be, the judges somehow managed to select a Top 12 where each and every performer can actually sing, dance and project, something that American Idol has never done in six seasons [The decision to bring back untrained boy toy Matt Nolan and tear-prone Barbie doll Ashley Anderson, both totally out of their leagues vocally, threatens to wreck my "They all can sing" thesis."]. In fact, the overall depth of this group makes me wonder why, despite thousands more auditioners annually and doors open to minorities and people of different shapes and sizes, American Idol finds a way to give us finalists like Kevin Covais, Leah Labelle and Camille Velasco every year.

All this show does is expose the lie that’s disseminated every time Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson tells a contestant (dismissively) that they’d be better suited for Broadway. Without the Idol imprimatur, I can’t think of more than two or three Idol losers with the vocal chops to topline even a decent traveling company.

And despite all the talent, are any of the You’re the One that I Want finalists actually stars?

The most gifted of the Dannys, almost without question, is Austin Miller (above), a funny-looking model with touring and soap opera experience. He hoofs and sings better than any of his rivals and if there were a production of Grease in its 10th or 11th year on Broadway, he’d make a great Danny, but to open a production? I wouldn’t want to bet $10 million on it. Also, despite the nickname "Hot Danny," I think he’s really funny looking. I don’t know who can beat him. Chad Doreck ("Ambitious Danny") and Derek Keeling ("Wholesome Danny") seem good as well.

I’m less convinced by "Boy Band Danny" Jason Celaya and "Slacker Danny" Max Crumm, who prove that Sandys may be a dime-a-dozen, but good Dannys are hard to find.

Katerockwell_grease_240On the Sandy front, I’m not sure how Kate Rockwell — "Serious Sandy," if you will — can lose. She looks the part (assuming you accept the Olivia Newton-John hegemony), sounds great and, according to her NBC bio, has a butterfly tattoo on her back. If Juliana Hansen ("Rock Chick Sandy") could win over the anti-brunette haters, she’s got a super voice and we know that Ashley Spencer ("Ballerina Sandy") can prance.

I’m not so positive about "Spiritual Sandy," Kathleen Monteleone, who has a wide-eyed cultishness that scares me a bit, while "Small Town Sandy" Laura Osnes may not be ready to go from regional Minnesota Grease to Broadway.

If the viewers at home have the sense to eliminate Matt and Ashley, the show can reboot next week with the same 12 variably worthy contenders who started Sunday’s show.

Are you tuning in to this one? What are your thoughts? And, more interestingly, do you think that the Idol producers and judges specifically target a few less talented contestants each season to generate drama?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg