'Rise of the Pink Ladies' Cast on How the Prequel Series Expands the 'Grease' Universe (Exclusive)

The new installment in the 'Grease' franchise focuses on the origins of the formidable high school clique.

Now streaming on Paramount+ is Rise of the Pink Ladies, an all-new installment in the Grease franchise that expands the world of Rydell High and its two most formidable school cliques, the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds. In fact, the original musical series focuses on the former as it shows how an unlikely group of girls came together to form a refuge for the female misfits that they were on the verge of becoming and helped them transform into the coolest coeds in school.

Simply put: "It's about four outcast girls [who] can’t really find their place at Rydell High, so they come together and they decide to start breaking rules," Cheyenne Isabel Wells tells ET, before Ari Notartomaso adds, "And join a girl gang."   

The cast, including Wells (Olivia), Notartomaso (Cynthia), Marisa Davila (Jane) and Tricia Fukuhara (Nancy), as well as showrunner Annabel Oakes and music producer Justin Tranter break down what's in store for Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladies, from the catchy new song-and-dance numbers to the many connections to the original films.  

And one thing's for sure, "this expands the universe of Grease," Oakes says. 

Prequel Not a Reboot

Kicking off in the fall of 1954, during the 54-55 school year, Rise of the Pink Ladies is set four years before the events of Grease, which followed Danny Zuko (John Travolta), Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) and Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and their friends during their senior year at Rydell. 

Grease 2, meanwhile, took place in 1961, two years after the first film as it followed Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Frenchy (Didi Conn reprising her role from the original), who returns to get her diploma after previously dropping out to go to beauty school.

"It's not a reboot," Fukuhara says, while Davila explains that while "this is bringing back Grease," it's also "not a sequel. It is its own thing." Davila adds the series is "different than you could ever imagine. We're doing origin stories of characters that you've never met before."


For Notartomaso, Rise of the Pink Ladies is a story about "otherness," they say. "All our characters experience some kind of otherness with the world like all teenagers experience. So, throughout the season, you can expect each of our characters to both come into their own and also, in some way, understand a little bit more how they fit in." 

Adding to that, Fukuhara says the series is "about acceptance and pushing for change in the 1950s," with Davila adding that they hope to inspire audiences "to do the exact same thing -- to not hesitate to speak up and advocate for yourself and for others and really just listen to other people's stories." 

New Group of Diverse Teens

However, when the series begins, "we all start out as strangers at school," Davila says of Jane, Olivia, Nancy and Cynthia, who are all navigating their own problems before coming together to rival Rydell's mean girls. They are far from the confident, if not a little edgy, Pink Ladies seen years later in Grease.  

Jane starts the year as the subject of gossip intended to tarnish her good girl reputation while Olivia has been outcast for supposed dalliances with Mr. Daniels (Chris McNally). Additionally, Nancy's focus on fashion and lack of interest in boys puts her on the outs with most of her coeds, and Cynthia, the school's resident tomboy, is chastised for not being girly enough and is ultimately rejected by the T-Birds, who are led by Olivia's brother, Richie (Johnathan Nieves). 


In addition to the core four, there's another lonely girl named Hazel (Shanel Bailey), who hopes to find her place among one of the school's intimidating group of girlfriends. "Hazel is a great example of keeping your head down and doing what's safe. And it's really exciting to watch her step away from that and step into her own," Bailey says. 

When it came to bringing together this new group of teens, Oakes says she dug into the local history of Southern California and was surprised to learn "they were actually pretty diverse for the 1950s," she says. "So, we just went on what was real and what was true and shifted the lens a little bit to show people's experiences, and have them be shown in a really fun, 1950s musical context."  

"I take so much pride in being here and being able to represent people who look like us, people who are now being able to have the screentime, people who weren't given the time onscreen in the '50s," Fukuhara says. "I just hope that people feel seen." 

Connections to 'Grease' Films

That said, "We just wanted to show everybody how the Grease that we know and love came to be and really connect those dots for people and do it in a new fresh way that speaks to new audiences as well as original lovers of Grease," Oakes explains, while Notartomaso adds, "There's lots of Grease energy." 

And with that in mind, there are numerous connections to original characters as well as homages to moments in the original films that made them so memorable among fans.  

"There are some Easter eggs, absolutely," says Vivian Lamolli, who plays Jane's mom, Kitty, with Niamh Wilson, who plays Lydia, teasing, "We've got some Grease moments." Among them are pep rallies, sleepovers, dancing in the garage, gatherings at the Frosty Palace diner and, of course, the scandalizing moonings of the camera.  


"You can still see some of the set pieces. So, somebody who's a real big fan of Grease would know, like, 'Oh my gosh, that's the room…,'" says Madison Elizabeth Lagares, who plays one of the younger versions of Grease's original characters, Fran aka Frenchy. 

Lagares makes a brief appearance as Jane's younger sister alongside her new bestie, Betty Rizzo, played here by Emma Shannon. They join Jackie Hoffman as Mrs. McGee, who is only an assistant principal at this point in her career. (Screen legend Eve Arden originated the character onscreen in the first two films.)

With that, fans are "gonna be so impressed with everything that we've done," Lagares continues. "Just to be able to see this and to bring back a story and to kind of touch on some things that weren't touched on in the original movie, I think, is so amazing." 

New and Familiar Music

Another connection is the return of the Frankie Valli classic, "Grease," which was the title song for the 1978 film and is heard in the pilot episode of Rise of the Pink Ladies.

"Grease might have the best pop-rock songs of any musical ever," Tranter says, revealing that "there's a lot of pressure but also a lot of excitement and joy to step into this world." 

But the series doesn't recycle the hits from the now-iconic soundtracks for Grease and Grease 2. In fact, "there's over 30 songs that are original," Lamolli says, teasing that the music offers a "new spin" on the 1950s and 1970s influences heard in the previous installments. 

Led by Tranter, each episode features a number of new songs (and corresponding dance numbers choreographed by director Jamal Sims). Whether it's "A World Without Boys," "Different This Year" or "New Cool," the new music speaks to the characters' emotions and inner thoughts, which can only be expressed through song and dance.

The latter, meanwhile, celebrates a world that's "down with the phonies and up with the new cool." And in the series, it is brought to life with lively dance number in Rydell's auto body shop, a nod to one of Travolta's iconic scenes in Grease.

These songs, Tranter explains, "are getting characters from one point to another." He adds that "you are having to get a character from one feeling to a whole new feeling by the time the song is done, for most of these songs." 

Adding to the challenge was the fact that "no one's done a TV musical at this big of scale with this many original songs," he says, revealing that in order to get the job, he had to "audition" by writing a song for the pilot episode. "I was just so passionate to challenge myself and to do something new." 

He adds, "We are making a TV musical with an insane amount of music with people who are so passionate and so talented." And the results jump off the screen. 

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies debuted April 6 on Paramount+, with new episodes debuting weekly on Thursdays.