In 2016, a devastating fire ravaged Paris’ Théàtre Mogador.
The 2016 fire occurred a week before a production of The Phantom of the Opera was scheduled to open, and the production had to be canceled. “It was a disaster,” says Laurent Bentata director general of Stage Entertainment France, which owns and operates the Théâtre Mogador. The fire “destroyed the stage and backstage, the set was destroyed by water and the all the seats and carpet by the dust and the smoke. Everything has been changed—new carpet, new seats, even a new foyer.”
“For the reopening of our theatre we wanted to have a very happy musical, a feel-good musical. So we did our research, and Grease won,” says Bentata. “ I think Grease is universal. It speaks to all generations. And it’s iconic.”
The classic 1,600-seat showplace lies in the heart of Paris and dates from 1919. In recent times, it has specialized in presenting French versions of successful American musicals. For Grease, the 1,000-square-meter (more than 10,700-square-foot) foyer, or lobby, has been completely redone—and it has been designed as a 1950s diner. “It’s a surprise for the audience,” Bentata says. “We customized it for this show. We want people to feel that they are inside the show once they get inside the theatre. All the male ushers will be wearing leather jackets and the women ushers will be wearing long pink dresses. We want to provide the full experience, not just the show.”
Inside the auditorium, the first row of orchestra seats have been designated “lover seats”—covered all in pink (as opposed to all the rest in the red), with heart-shaped backs. Each has room for two audience members sitting close together. There are two balconies, but because of the theatre’s layout neither is very far from the stage.
But this won’t be just another mounting of the 1971 Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey muiscal or the movie it inspired starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Mogador’s Grease is performed (mostly) in French, with some songs in English. For the first time at Mogador, English surtitles are projected high up on either side of the stage, with seating locations for optimum viewing of the titles.
“We’re very proud to reopen the theatre with our first new creation,” Bentata says. “We usually take a production from Broadway or the West End, but this is a new production. It’s a French version.” There’s new choreography, he says, new direction, “200 new costumes,” a new set and a new cast. “A French cast, of course.”
This version, he says, “is very French. It’s the way the characters are played. When we produced Beauty and the Beast with a Disney team here we tried to make it very French as well. There was Jean Cocteau’s  Beauty and the Beast movie, [with a dark tone] so we tried to do it more dark and to draw all the characters more precisely. For Grease, we tried not to emphasize the two main characters as much. You have eight or nine characters. For example, Miss Lynch, the English teacher, is very French, in the tradition of French boulevard comedies.”
The production has a cast of 28 and eight onstage musicians, who are in costume and part of the show. And the changes in this rendition all aim towards introducing the property to a hyrbrid audience. Grease is “more associated with the movie than the show,” he says. “Many people don’t know it was a show before it was a movie. We’re trying to remind people it was first a show.”
Among the songs performed in English is “You’re the One That I Want,” one of the four songs not in the original musical that were added for the movie and later incorporated into the stage version. “Part of ‘We Go Together’ is also in English,” Bentata says. “Songs that tell the story need to be in French. ‘Summer Nights’ is in French but the refrain is in English. People need to hear the words they know in English, but the story stays in French. Contrary to the idea that the French are very chauvinistic and they want to have everything in French, they are very keen to keep in English the songs they know in English. Some of the songs are iconic.”
The advisor for the surtitles is an organization called Theatre in Paris, which, since 2014, has opened up opportunities for English speakers to enjoy the Paris stage by providing surtitles for selected plays and musicals. Theatre in Paris provides tickets for optimum seats to view the titles, and sends someone to greet theatregoers and offer English-language programs. This fall, in addition to Grease, Theatre in Paris also arranges experiences for Cyrano de Bergerac, Molière’s The Miser, a comedy called Real Life, and I Love Piaf, a musical biography of the legendary French singer.
“Paris is the largest theatre venue in the world that is not English-speaking,” says Carl de Poncins, a co-founder of Theatre in Paris. He and his colleagues work with theatres to “let non-locals be locals for a night.”
De Poncins says Stage Entertainment France wants to increase its percentage of foreign patrons at Mogador from 2.5 percent—largely French speakers from Belgium and Switzerland—to 10 percent by attracting Anglophones. Bentata says Grease is an ideal vehicle for doing so, in part because as much as the world has changed since the musical’s 1959 setting, some things remain the same.
“The problems of teenagers are the same, even if the context is totally different because we have technology and the internet,” he says. “Love stories, the relations between human beings, are the same in 2017—the same problems, the same joy. Grease is the story of first times—first cigarette, first love, first car, first fight. It hasn’t changed.”
With the newly reconstructed theatre and the English surtitle experience, you’d think Bentata had enough of change. But he’s still pushing boundaries: He is also trying, and hoping, for something else, he says. “We are trying to invite American producers and maybe move to Broadway. It’s a dream we have.”