Grease was a cultural phenomenon. On release in 1978, it became the highest-grossing musical film ever, spawning an army of fans, merchandise and a massively successful soundtrack album. It seemed inevitable, then, that the blockbuster would lead to similarly lucrative sequels. Grease 2, though, was an infamous box office disaster, and – less famously – a proposed third film never even made it to screens.
In 2003, Paramount announced that Grease 3 had entered development. The threequel would follow Sandy, Danny and their friends beyond high school, as they navigated life as parents. The movie, which both Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta were initially attached to, was to be set in the 1970s and feature a lively disco score.
However, after rejecting various scripts, Newton-John and Travolta ultimately dropped out, causing the entire sequel to collapse, never to be revived. Where did Grease 3 go astray?
Olivia Newton-John was a rising pop star when she first auditioned for Grease. “I was very anxious about making another film, because my music career was going well,” she told Vanity Fair in 2016. At the age of 29, she was also concerned that she couldn’t play a high school student convincingly.
The filmmakers had already picked John Travolta as Danny Zuko, and as he became involved in the casting process, he realised that Newton-John was the perfect fit. “There was only one person on this planet who could be Sandy and I was hell-bent on getting her in the movie,” he later said.
At Travolta’s persuasion, the pair teamed up to make one of the best-loved romantic pairings in cinema. Following their astronomical popularity, it became clear that Grease 2 would need to secure some similarly spectacular leads. However, Grease 2, starring Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer, was a box office flop.
Following Grease’s enormous worldwide gross of $366 million, Grease 2 made just $15 million at the US domestic box office. Widely criticised for simply recycling the original film’s plot with worse music and acting, Grease 2 was particularly detested by Jim Jacobs, composer of the original 1971 stage musical, who described the sequel as “the pits.”
Plans for any further Grease sequels were dropped until 1999, when boy band ‘N Sync commissioned a sequel script. With original Grease director Randal Kleiser rumoured to be helming the movie, ‘N Sync would play the T Birds, while Justin Timberlake hoped to cast his then-girlfriend Britney Spears as the leader of the Pink Ladies. This project fell through, but it’s rumoured that this particular Grease sequel script later became High School Musical.
In 2003, Paramount began to develop another Grease 3, and this time execs had hopes of bringing back Travolta and Newton-John. At the time, both actors were on the lookout for another hit. After their respective successes in the 90s – Newton-John with double-platinum albums, Travolta with Pulp Fiction and Face/Off – the two stars were experiencing career lulls at the turn of the century.
In a coup for Paramount, Didi Conn (who starred as Frenchy in the original Grease movie, and was one of the only original film actors to return in Grease 2) was selected as an executive producer for Grease 3. Set some 20 years after the 1958-set original, the sequel was set to follow the lives of the original Grease characters as adults and parents in the late 70s (which, in a meta twist, was when the original movie was made).
Suitably intrigued, Travolta and Newton-John both signed on to the project. Newton-John confirmed in an interview around that time, “They’re writing it, and we’ll see what happens. If the script looks good, I’ll do it. But I haven’t seen the script, and it has to be cleverly done.”
Newton-John said similarly of Travolta that he was “up for it if it’s the right thing”. Indeed, Travolta had an idea of where he wanted the film to go: along with Newton-John, Travolta reportedly pushed for original Grease director Randal Kleiser to return. The pair also wanted the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, who composed the song Grease, to join the sequel project.
Unfortunately, neither Kleiser nor Gibb joined the project. Worse, none of the other stars from the original cast agreed to sign on to Grease 3. It was rumoured that Kylie Minogue would play the teenage daughter of Sandy and Danny (even though 2003 saw the actress and singer turn 35). In the end though, not even Travolta and Newton-John were keen on making the film once they read the script.
Conn later explained why Travolta and Newton-John turned down Grease 3 in the end: “We’ve been planning one for years, and I’ve had meetings with writers, but they just don’t get the innocence of Grease,” she said. According to Conn, the new scripts were simply too miserable for the stars’ tastes, with one script even doing the unthinkable and doing away with Danny Zuko.
“The scripts are not right – they’re sad, and everybody’s a loser,” Conn elaborated. “I don’t think John is interested anymore, and he’s convinced Olivia not to do it. The feelings of John, Olivia and Stockard [Channing] are to let those characters be. I even read one script that had John’s character dead. It was such a downer. That’s not Grease – Grease is always an upper!”
After the project collapsed, Conn revealed further details of one Grease 3 script that was considered: “Danny was a racing driver and still married to Sandy, who was a singer. Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and Kenickie (Jeff Conoway) were divorced and had a gay son. Frenchy was a dog groomer.”
Since 2003, many of the original stars of Grease have passed away, making it even less likely that a Grease legacy sequel proposed will ever see the light of day. Jeff Conaway died in 2011, as did Annette Charles (Charlene ‘Cha Cha’ DiGregorio). Edd Byrnes (Vince Fontaine), Dennis C. Stewart (Cha Cha’s boyfriend Leo ‘Craterface’ Balmudo) and Joan Blondell (Vi the waitress) have also passed, along with producer Allan Carr and Grease the Musical’s original writer Warren Casey.
Then in August 2022, any hopes for another Grease were finished once and for all with the death of leading lady Olivia Newton-John, who passed away after a long struggle with cancer.
Travolta and Newton-John remained great friends to the end, with Travolta telling People magazine in 2018: “When you share that kind of meteoric success [i.e. Grease] – and nothing has been able to exceed it – you share a bond… It’s wonderful and full of shared memories.”
What’s more, the two stars’ shared love for Grease never dwindled. In 2020, the pair dressed once more as Sandy and Danny for a Meet ‘n’ Grease singalong show in Florida. Travolta described it as “a glorious experience… [it was] one of the highlights of our lives to return as Sandy and Danny.”
While a third Grease movie seems off the cards, the story world is poised to be explored further with 2023 Paramount+ TV show, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.
A prequel to Grease and Grease 2, the show will be set in Rydell High School in 1954, four years before the arrival of Sandy. According to Deadline, the show “follows four fed-up outcasts who dare to have fun on their own terms, sparking a moral panic that will change Rydell High forever.”
Rise of the Pink Ladies will star Marisa Davila and Cheyenne Isabel Wells, with original songs by Justin Tranter.