John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease
[Image: From the collections of the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]

Patricia Birch usually isn’t interested in looking back through her storied career.

But with “Grease” celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer, the legendary choreographer is in reflective mood when it comes to the smash-hit musical.

“Looking back is not my favorite thing. But I am very glad it is there to be looked back on,”

But why does Birch, who worked tirelessly with director Randal Kleiser and its stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, believe that the film’s popularity has endured for so long?

 

“Because it is about relationships of kids in high school. And everyone remembers their relationships in high school, and this was dealt with very well right from the beginning to the end.”

“And people remember that, and there were types in there that were in all our classes. The girl that went out with the older guys, the Danny Zuckos, there was always a second guy, there was always a slightly heavy girl, they were all there. The same people we all went to school with.”

Birch’s history with “Grease” actually goes back further than 1978, as she choreographed the 1972 Broadway musical, too.

“They are very different,” explained Birch when I asked her about her experiences on the musical and the film.

“It started in Chicago, it was a very tough thing. It was less tough in New York. And by the time it got to the screen it was kind of suburban and different.”

“The attitude of the kids was more the same, but they were more suburban. It was a very urban to start with, and by the time we finished with it on the screen it was suburban. I tried to ask them to keep it a little tougher and more urban, because that is how it started.”

Birch played a prominent role in making “Grease” so iconic, as she worked against the clock on the likes of “You’re The One That I Want,” “Greased Lightnin’” and “Summer Nights,” each of which are now firmly ensconced in pop culture history.

“I don’t think there was time to spare. Everyone tells me it was last minute. I don’t quite remember. I do remember I had to adjust the set for ‘You’re The One That I Want,’ and had to improvise a bit, and had to go back and do some pick-up shots.”

“I loved doing the prom. It was hot as hell, but we had a good time doing it. I remember doing the carnival at the end, that was great fun. Hot but great fun. Those are my two favorite things. ‘Summer Nights’ was also a favorite. I think that might be the best thing in there.”

With time such an issue on the film, it helped Birch that both Travolta and Newton-John were a delight to work with.

“John was easy. He had just done ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and he was headed for stardom. But he was not difficult. John was easy. John has always been easy. Olivia was easier. She was new to the screen, she took direction beautifully, and that was that.”

Patricia Birch will no doubt go into more detail about “Grease” at the 40th Anniversary Screening for the beloved musical, which will take place at 7pm on Thursday July 19th at Metrograph, and is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.