Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies stars tackle racism and sexism of original movie

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Grease may be one of the most beloved films of all times, but stars of the new prequel series Rise of the Pink Ladies have said their project addresses the problematic parts of the original movie.

Released in 1978 and starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John as Danny and Sandy, the film was set in 1958 and followed the teenagers love story as it unfolded against the backdrop of Rydell High School and also introduced audiences to the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.

However, in the decades since, discussions about the racism and sexism at play in the story have sparked many conversations about some of its problematic elements.

It’s something that was front of mind for both the creators and stars of Rise of the Pink Ladies, which is set four years before the events of the film.

Fed up with the way they are being treated at school, Jane (Marisa Davila), Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso) and Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara) band together to become the founding members of the soon-to-be iconic high school clique.

But standing in their way to be taken seriously are their classmates, teachers and parents, who each have their own ideas on how the young women should be behaving.

While there is shaming about things from ambition to sexual activity, this time around, the girls take back control and won’t let anyone stand in the way of their dreams.

In contrast to the movie, the characters at the centre of the story also now represent the diversity that did exist in Southern Californian society at the time, with Black, Latinx and Japanese-American students, who were largely omitted from the film, now seen.

But while one of the show’s stars said she was proud to be tackling the themes that have seen the film come under fire, the focus was to also simply tell the stories and experiences of the people who existed at this time.

‘It’s amazing but I also think in the 1950s there were these people there, they just didn’t have the spotlight,’ Cheyenne exclusively told

‘In the movie it wasn’t shown, but these people did exist.’

Explaining that writers of the series interviewed former students who attended schools in Los Angeles during the 1950s, Cheyenne added that several storylines were inspired by what these people had to share.

For Jane, her mixed Italian- Puerto Rican heritage is something celebrated in her home, but sees her encouraged to avoid addressing where her mother Kitty (Vivian Lamolli) is from in public.

During one exchange at a neighbourhood dinner party, after hearing one woman lament the fact that there are ‘three Mexican families on my street’, Jane and her sister are told they don’t appear to be related to their mother due to her darker skin.

Under the assumption from another bigoted neighbour that Kitty just has a ‘dark Italian complexion’, nothing further is said to correct her, at the unspoken wishes of their mother.

As Marisa explained, the show is looking back to this time to now share the stories of people who were there.

‘We are not rewriting history,’ she said.

‘The show is all based in a colourful fantastic world of the 50s, but all of the themes [we tackle] were very much alive back then and some unfortunately still exist today.’

The original Pink Ladies embodied a sass, flair and confidence that still makes the clique recognisable decades later, qualities that still exist in the series, but have also been explored in a unique way this time.

‘I think with these characters they all need each other because they are outcasts and refuse to change who they are to please other people,’ Tricia explained.

‘It is quite the opposite of the original Grease, and they are strong and find each other and their strength in what makes them different makes them special.

‘It makes them strong, empowered and confident young ladies in the 1950s… whatever that means to them.’

While the four actors who take on the title roles didn’t get a chance to meet any of the original Pink Ladies ahead of filming, one was given some advice and encouragement.

‘I had a little video sent to me from Didi Conn [who played Frenchy] and she was so excited to hear we were taking on this project and said she said she was excited to watch it,’ Marisa shared.

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Adding that Didi recalled some anecdotes about the difficulties of filming some of the musical performances in the original, Marisa also said the quartet got nothing but support from the four women who had starred as the Pink Ladies decades ago.

‘We have only heard good things from the people [which also included Stockard Channing as Rizzo, Jamie Donnelly as Jan and Dinah Manhoff as Marty] who came before us in terms of passing the baton and getting to share our side of the story with our own original characters.’

The magic of the music from Grease is still a defining part of this series, with the iconic Grease (Is the Word) featuring in the first episode.

There have also been 30 new songs written, which have been promised to have a ‘1950’s style nostalgia and harmony, but with a modern day contemporary flavour’.

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies is streaming from Friday on Paramount Plus.

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