"This is a recent development," says Long. "We started quickly. We've been zooming ever since." Grease: Live's director, Thomas Kail, first contacted Long to join the team back in July 2015 — after Kail's other little project, Hamilton, began previews. "I just thought, 'Oh my goodness, I've always wanted to do these,'" says Long of taking on a televised live musical event. He and Kail had never collaborated, but "how could you not know the cute curly-haired brilliant genius talent? You sort of pay attention." Still, seven months is a fraction of the time Long usually takes to design and create.
"I went back to the original research, which is always fun to me," he says. That research takes on the form of inspiration boards — or, more accurately, inspiration walls. When you duck into the lower level of his SoHo studio, you submerge into an ocean of magazine clippings, paintings and advertisements tacked to floor-to-ceiling panels lining the room's perimeter. "I had [pulled photos of] marching bands and school athletics and yearbook shots. We had clothes where these kids would have shopped: Sears, Roebuck. We went back to the original, that period."
Although Grease has had three Broadway outings (1972, 1994 and 2007) and the popular 1978 film, Long wanted to create his own version, and the producers encouraged his inventiveness.
"I'm finding a today take on the 70s take on the actual 50s," says Long. "In the 70s, they were actually just beginning the nostalgic takes [on other decades]. Grease was one of the first takes at the 50s."
"We have a very multiracial cast," he continues "which is totally a reflection of today, but not of then. Once you start doing that, you make it a today connection." Long draws on the movie — "We're standing on the shoulders of Albert Wolsky [who] designed the costumes for the film" — but he grounds his approach in authenticity and filters it through a modern lens. His look is a hybrid, and so are the materials used to make the costumes.
Long was never able to do so before, but he used vintage 50s fabrics to make many of the pieces for the one-night-only production. "If you're designing for a Broadway show, it's gotta last eight shows a week for a year and, chances are, old fabric is not as strong as when it was created 40 to 50 years ago. But this just has to last for this [night]."
>Still, the greatest tool in making Grease new for modern audiences comes from Long's secret weapon: artist Jean-Michel Basquait. "I found different Basquait paintings that I felt like related to each scene," Long says. "This is 'Greased Lightnin',' this is the USO, which is a new take on 'Freddy My Love,' this is the carnival at the very end.
"I felt [his art] had a high school sort of graffiti belligerent feeling," he explains. "Look at how high school it feels! It's like kids scratching. It's my big inspiration." As these sources combined, Long's vision took shape. But creating the final looks for each character is a collaborative process.
"They've got a really smart group of actors," says Long. "I go to every fitting. In the fittings I always ask them: 'What do you do in this, what type of dancing (for function), but also, how does this seem?'" The collaboration — and emphasis on character arcs from Kail — have shaped more fully fleshed out characters than we've previously seen.
"[Doody] sings one of the songs and we have a double thing happening in the gym," explains Long. "We have Danny becoming a jock to impress Sandy and we've got Doody sort of hanging out playing his guitar and going from this quiet bland nerd into becoming himself. Every time we see Danny playing a new sport, we see Doody getting a little more cool, and by the end he's a cool Buddy Holly. And that's Doody."
"Putzie is the little wannabe. We have him in versions of what Kenickie and Danny are wearing," says Long. "Sonny is supposed to be the boastful one who is sort of absurd so his looks don't quite come off."
But it's not all so different from the beloved film. "I've done lots of films to musicals: The Producers was a film, Hairspray was a film, 9 to 5 was a film, Big Fish was a film," he says. "Something about audience recognition [producers] get nervous about, so I always ask: 'What is it you want us to hit?'"
That image of Sandy in her catwoman leggings with her hair teased up, Danny embracing his bad boy, and Rizzo simmering coyly was a snapshot Long had to capture. It's still the image of Grease: Live, but Long created 407 costume pieces for the live event all with intricate detail, including fresh logos hand-painted by Long for the Pink Ladies and T-Birds.
"On Broadway, your eye takes in head to toe," he says. "Proportion is everything and detail [from one person to the next] is everything. You can't have everyone in the same black shoe because you see the shoes. But in film and television you see [close up] detail. We are really careful about the up close and personal…but, yet, there's still going to be long shots. I'm designing it like a Broadway show with more detail."
And there's one more detail: What would a William Ivey Long show be without some magic? "I think it's why I was hired to do it," he says. "They wrote in the script…three of these [transformations], and they said, 'Well, William Ivey Long can do it.'" Don't get him wrong, he's not complaining. Ever since he transformed Laura Benanti's innocent church girl into her "va-va-va-voom" look in Swing! Long has relished his role in illusions of theatre. "I love magic without smoke and mirrors."]
Grease: Live features mystifying changes similar to those that garnered him a Tony Award for Cinderella in 2014. As luck would have it Keke Palmer, who played Cinderella on Broadway, is the first of the cast members to transform during her number "Freddy My Love." "I can tell you that she walks through the wall and as she walks, her clothes change by itself," he says. But the women aren't the only ones who get to have all the fun. "The guys get to do it," Long reveals, so watch out for "Greased Lightnin.'"
"I think magic is exciting, and magic that happens before your very eyes is more exciting than it is on a movie and you clip [the take and] you change," says Long. "They've never done anything like this."