When Heathers: The Musical star Elle McLemore was cast in FOX's upcoming Grease: Live she received a text message from Max Crumm: "Welcome to the Grease cult. Once you're part of it, you can never leave." He would know, after all. Crumm and co-star Laura Osnes belong to that very group, having been handpicked by the American public to lead the most recent 2007 revival of the show. As America gears up once again to welcome Grease onto their television screens, we reunited Osnes and Crumm to chat about life before, during and after their "exciting and terrifying" Broadway journey. Although it's been nearly nine years since they burst onto the scene, to them, "Grease" is definitely still the word.
"It was absolutely life-changing," Osnes says of her win on "Grease: You're the One That I Want," the reality show that landed her the role of Sandy. "It was the opening of a door and the golden ticket to my dream come true. Was it hard work? Absolutely. Was it stressful? Absolutely. Did it come with all of these other things that I didn't expect [it to come with]? Absolutely. But… was it a dream come true? Yeah, it really was," she continues while noshing on crostini and half a Pig's Ass Sandwich at Casellula Cheese and Wine Café — their old Grease hangout.
As a Broadway and New York newbie, Osnes admits that she initially never went out much. ("I was totally Sandy — don't drink, don't swear, don't rat my hair," she says, with a laugh.) But, one night, post-show, Kim Grigsby, Grease music director and conductor, and a group of Pink Ladies dragged her to Casellula.
After a few repeat visits, she found out that she and her husband, photographer Nathan Johnson, have a special day in common with the establishment: Casellula opened on the same day she and Johnson were married. "Oftentimes, [the restaurant staff] have a party on their anniversary," Osnes explains, "and because we come here all the time [and] we know the people, we get invited to [that] which is our anniversary party, so usually, we spend our anniversary here at Casellula."
"This is like those [places] that feels like a little bit of France," adds Crumm. "A respite from the bustle of New York." What's more? Their hours are 5 PM-2 AM, so "it's a great place to have a glass of wine" post-show.
"I love theatre and acting so much. I've wanted to do it since I was a little kid, like five or six," adds Crumm, taking a handful of lavender-rosemary popcorn. "It was the opening of a door, and we just ran through it because we were ready for anything."
It's clear their strong connection helped them through the experience. "Max and I met in line in L.A.," Osnes explains. "We were ten people apart or so [in line] on the very first day, when there was a thousand people there at the L.A. audition. Eventually the people [that were standing] between us [in that line] got eliminated, so we definitely became buddies early on."
"My roommate at the time had grown up doing children's theatre with Laura," says Crumm. "So, I was like, 'Oh, you're from Minnesota. My roommate's from Minnesota.' And she was like, 'What?' She knew him! We instantly had this special [connection], which solidified a really great friendship."
Their friendship blossomed throughout the duration of the reality show and, when they won and they eventually moved to Broadway, they continued to connect as a way to fuel themselves for the show ahead. They leaned on each other through the various press appearances that came along with their new gig — an element with which they both expressed they were neither familiar nor expecting. "Having you there [through that experience] for me was the best thing," says Crumm, "because when it was overwhelming, we could always squeeze each other's arm or something like that. We always had each other to bounce off of. I can't imagine doing that alone."
Despite the initial scariness of all that came with leading a Broadway show, once they actually began Main Stem performances, "I was so at ease," says Crumm. Though Osnes does acknowledge a shift in adjusting to an eight-show week schedule and staying healthy, having grown up doing theatre, the acting aspect was the comfortable part. "We were finally at home. [It wasn't] scary territory."
But it was exciting new ground. "Everything had this added Broadway magic sparkle," says Osnes. She recalls a real sandwich being used in a scene at rehearsal — "like, it wasn't a fake sandwich," — and "costumes being made for me, not just pulled from the costume shop. My shoes [were] being custom ordered for my foot from Italy. That was cool for me [to experience] for the first time." "It was crazy," remarks Crumm. "It was phenomenal and magical and crazy, because nothing like that had ever happened to me before."
As one might expect from such a journey, the two emerged from the reality show not only victorious, but having each learned valuable lessons about themselves. For Crumm, "the TV show gave me the confidence I needed to tackle the industry. I didn't realize that I could do what I could do until I did the show. [It] was a wake-up call [saying], 'Use your gifts. You got it, kid. You're actually good at this.'"
Osnes, on the other hand, learned to vocally push herself beyond her limits. During one session, she recalls, "Kathleen [Marshall] was like, 'Can you belt that high note? Hopelessly devo-TED to you.' And [I thought I couldn't but] in the moment, here I am, singing for my survival and I belted it, for the first time in my life." Once she mastered the basics in the rehearsal room she was able to actually teach and train herself independently. As a result of all she learned from Marshall and the NBC experience, Osnes shares, "I haven't taken a voice lesson since I moved to New York City."
Of course, a year on Broadway isn't complete without its fair share of stories, and the best revolve around backstage secrets. "My ankles were always wrapped," shares Crumm, "because my body proportions are such that people like to make my legs [look] longer. So, I was always in lifts. Essentially, I was doing 'Greased Lightning' in heels."
Crumm also recalls suffering wear-and-tear on his body, and he confesses to learning that lesson the hard way. "Kathleen [Marshall] asked me, in rehearsal, 'Can you jump off the counter here?' And I said, 'Absolutely,' and I jumped, touched my knees and landed. Someone said to me, 'You know, maybe you're gonna wanna cut that because eight shows a week [of that would be tough].' I was like, 'Oh, I'm fine,'" says Crumm. But then, "I cut that [jump] myself — without telling anybody — in the second week."
Their Broadway year also included a turn on the 2008 Tony Awards, where they performed with the rest of the cast, having been nominated for Best Revival of a Musical. "It was fun, and we got to do our dance break, which is not captured anywhere else on film," says Osnes. Having attended — and performed on — subsequent ceremonies, she adds, "The Tonys is like being shot out of a cannon. It's a whirlwind experience. [It goes so fast,] you don't even remember that it happened."
But, on the other hand, there are moments they do remember — even ones they'd rather hope to forget. "The first time I cracked on 'Summer Nights," says Crumm, shaking his head. "I still talk to Laura about it to this day— it taught me so many lessons, but it was also mortifying. I didn't come in, and then I came in too high and my voice cracked. And as I came offstage, Stephen Buntrock and Jeb Brown had a sign that said, 'Welcome to Broadway.'"
Fans rolled out the welcome mat, too. "I was overwhelmed at the amount of love we were getting. And I was almost thinking, like, 'You guys, no, no, we're just people,'" says Crumm. "I don't think anything can prepare you for that kind of stuff." The pair knew the love stemmed from their television exposure. "That's why we got entrance applause, and that's why there was a mob at the door," says Osnes. "We had to sort of play ourselves as the character," Crumm notes. "That's why I was a brunette Sandy," Osnes reveals. "People wanted to see Laura as Sandy, as opposed to Olivia Newton-John."
Stage door groupies weren't the only special visitors. "I did meet Carole Demas, who was the original Sandy when it was first on Broadway," noted Osnes. "YES!" Crumm screams in response. "And I got to meet Barry [Bostwick, the original Broadway Danny]. Richie Sambora, I remember [came] too."
So what would life be like for them today had they not stepped into that Grease audition room? "I'd probably just still be living in L.A.," says Crumm. "I strongly believe I would not be doing anything. I truly think that. I mean, I'm enough of a hard worker and inspired enough to always be creating stuff, so [maybe] I would be creating a web series, but I don't know. … [Now] I believe anything is possible."
In a moment of surprising honesty, Crumm admits he didn't necessarily feel like he was the right guy to win. "I was just nervous because in my mind, I would wanna see like a sexy, hunky Danny," he says. "So, I was feeling for the people [who thought] like me [and had that same feeling while] going to see the show, like, 'What?' I wouldn't be into me!"
Osnes, however, reassures him he hit all the right notes — literally and figuratively — and won the country over by staying true to himself. "I tell kids, be who you are, embrace who you are, and that's how should walk into every audition room," she says. "Because only you can be you. [On the show] you gave them what they wanted, but you stayed true to who you are, Max, and that's why people loved you, and that's why you won."
As members of that aforementioned Grease cult, the duo have their plans set for Grease: Live's Jan. 31 broadcast: "I'm gonna camp out at Max's place and we'll watch it on TV," says Osnes, excitedly.
In terms of the telecast itself, the pair is most excited about the addition of live audience members. "I think it's weird to finish a huge number and then [have no live response]," says Crumm. "It feels like I'm watching a rehearsal."
"Totally," Osnes says, nodding in agreement. "The joy of live theatre is that it's interactive with an audience. They're the other character. [The live audience] is going to be so helpful." "It's [theatre for] the next generation," she adds, on the topic of the live televised musicals in general. "I think it's such a huge feat, and kudos to everyone who has done it."
Osnes and Crumm are also happy to report they've kept in touch with several Grease cast members, among them Lindsay Mendez, Natalie Hill, Keven Quillon, Anna White, and Kirsten Wyatt. "I also went to go see Emily Padgett and Matt Hydzik [the Sandy and Danny understudies from Grease] in Side Show," says Crumm. "I thought that was so freaking cool!" Of course, too, Osnes and Crumm seem bonded for life.
They each make it a point to see each other in their respective shows. "I loved The Bandstand," says Crumm, on the subject, leaning into the recorder to make sure he's heard clearly. "Everybody go see it. It's gonna be so freaking good!"
"And everyone must go see Max in Disaster!" exclaims Osnes. "I [saw it and] cried out of joy and laughter."
"Laura can do anything," Crumm gushes. Osnes smiles and turns toward him, preparing to wrap him in a hug. "So could you, Max," she responds, arms around him tight. "So could you." It's for that reason — among a plethora of others — that they're still the ones that we want.
Casellula Cheese and Wine Café is located at 401 W. 52nd Street and 9th Ave. Grease: Live, featuring Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens and others, will air Jan. 31 at 7 PM EST on FOX.
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more information, including additional writing samples, he encourages you to visit MattSmithTheatre.com.