Grease: Aaron Tveit '05 Takes On A Classic

In pop culture the word “grease” will forever be associated with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, who starred in the 1978 movie based on the musical by that name. So when Aaron Tveit ’05 steps into the role of greaser Danny Zuko next month, he’ll be standing on the shoulders of giants. His performance is going to be broadcast live to millions of viewers on the Fox network, offering the greatest exposure for him yet. It’s hard to conceive of a more perfect vehicle to showcase his triple-threat talents.

View the teaser for Grease: Live

Tveit was a musical theatre major at IC who has since gone on to conquer stage (Hairspray, Next to Normal, Catch Me If You Can), television (a recurring role on Gossip Girl and a starring turn in USA’s Graceland, which ended its three-season run last summer), and film (the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables) in the past decade.

For his part, Tveit believes Grease: Live, which will be broadcast on January 31, 2016, will translate particularly well to a live televised performance. “There’s an energy to it. It’s an iconic thing,” he said. “I think bringing the story to a whole new group of people—and allowing those who love it to revisit it in this new way—is going to be really fun.”

He’s also eager to see the production build on the success of the live TV performances of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, which aired on NBC in recent years. “Those were both very successful, but in some cases [they] were just filming what was happening on stage,” Tveit said. “This is a learning process, and as we go forward I think there’s more room to play with the format,” with a nod and wink to the audience as a reminder that it’s all happening live.

As for following in John Travolta’s dance steps? It’s both thrilling and daunting. “He really is so amazing in that movie. The tone that he finds is so difficult, and he makes it look so easy,” he said, with an admission that it’s a performance he could never replicate. But that doesn’t mean he won’t let it inspire him as he polishes his own take on the character.

“I’m going to sit down and watch John Travolta over and over and over again and try to figure out how he did what he did. And however I apply that, it’s going to come out differently anyway because we’re different people.”

It’s a familiar process for him, as the lead in Grease isn’t the first role Tveit inherited from a household Hollywood name. In 2011 he played con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. in the Broadway adaptation of Catch Me If You Can, based on the Leonardo DiCaprio movie of the same name. And, while studying for the role, he spent time exploring DiCaprio’s take on the Abagnale character, as well. Although the musical production of Catch Me If You Can closed later that year, Tveit’s performance was widely praised.

With his star rising, it may be surprising to note that Tveit almost enrolled in business school when looking at colleges, despite having performed during his high school years (his first role was Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors). However, he chose Ithaca College and started as a voice performance major because, as he admits, he didn’t really know it was possible to major in theatre. He got to know many of the musical theatre majors at IC his freshman year though, and many of them wanted to know why he wasn’t among their ranks. So after his first year, he took a chance and auditioned for the musical theatre program.

“They took me with open arms and made me feel like I wasn’t some new guy coming in,” he recalled.

Which doesn’t mean they didn’t push him. “I mean this in the best way possible: It wasn’t all glad-handing and compliments. They kicked me in the ass when I needed to be kicked in the ass,” he said. “And I’m the type of person who needs to be kicked in the ass. They saw that, and it really spurred me on.”

Tveit had the opportunity to join the national tour of Rent during his sophomore year and jumped at the chance. The tour took him away from IC for a year, but he returned to continue his studies. His next departure from the college—to take a role in the national tour of Hairspray—was his last, as he joined the Broadway cast of the show in 2006.

He built his career steadily after that, with work on stage and in front of the camera. He was among the cast of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Next to Normal before and after it made the jump to Broadway in 2009; and viewers might spot him in appearances on earlier episodes of shows including Ugly Betty, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Good Wife, among others.

However, the fact that he’d left his degree unfinished lingered at the back of his mind, and he wanted to find a way to complete it. “In this line of work you don’t need a degree, but I wanted it for myself and my parents,” he said. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of Lee Byron, the Department of Theatre Arts, and the School of Humanities and Sciences, a solution was found: Tveit had 12 credits remaining, 9 of which were for theatre. He was given a professional internship to polish those 9 off; the remaining 3 were satisfied with an online biology course.

That was in 2012, and Tveit said he was “over the moon” to have finally finished, joking that it only took him 11 years. In a visit to campus this past fall, he said his IC education was the foundation for everything. “I leaned on everything that the teachers here told us. I still think of all of those things today,” he said. “So the fact that I was then finally able to say, ‘Yes, I am an alumnus, officially. I have a real degree. I finally got it,’ is a real thing of pride.”

That same year he appeared as Enjolras in the silver-screen version of Les Misérables, a stunning Hollywood production that won Anne Hathaway an Oscar for best supporting actress and a nomination for Hugh Jackman as best actor. In early 2013 Tveit was part of the ensemble that performed a song from the film as part of the Academy Awards ceremony. It’s his time on the set of that film that Tveit believes will be most applicable to Grease: Live.

“I’ll definitely lean on that experience and try to trust that what worked for me then will work for me here,” he said. “It’s a different thing to do a theatre production when you’re used to sending everything to the back of the house. But you have to remember that you don’t need to do that because you’re going to have a close-up right on you. And a lot of times in a closeup, you just have to have a thought that’s going to come out.”

For his part, Tveit sees Grease: Live as part of a growing trend in entertainment. “Over the last few years, musical content has come back,” he said, citing shows like Glee, which also aired on Fox, and SpikeTV’s Lip Sync Battle. Even The Tonight Show under Jimmy Fallon is a return to the variety shows of old, he said.

“There was a time when doing musicals wasn’t cool, but I think we’re reverting back to the ’50s and ’60s sentiment where people like to sit down and watch musicals—and go on a totally different journey.”