Is Pakistan ready for Grease?

Shahzeb Jillani goes behind the scenes of the musical in Karachi

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Popular American musical, Grease, is being staged in Karachi - the first time one of Broadway's longest running shows has been to Pakistan. The BBC's Shahzeb Jillani goes behind the scenes to meet its young Pakistani actors and organisers.

Nida Butt is clearly agitated and it looks like she has had enough.

"What a bunch of fools am I working with? How long have you guys been rehearsing these steps? How can you suddenly forget it?" she yells at the young cast on stage from the auditorium stairs where she's been sitting and observing their rock and roll dance act.

The live band stops playing and there's total silence.

Pakistan theatre director Nida Butt Nida Butt has previously produced Chicago and Mamma Mia in Karachi

A few actors mumble something to themselves and nervously look around to avoid any eye contact with their fearsome director.

"She loses her temper deliberately," quips a young performer. "It's all part of the act to seek absolute perfection."

Dream project

Despite her occasional outbursts, Ms Butt - a lawyer turned theatre director - is actually quite proud of her team.

"We have a super talented cast which has been working long hours for nearly four months. It's challenging but exhilarating," she says.

Grease, set in 1950s American working-class subculture, depicts high-school teenage shenanigans exploring love, sex and friendship through their passion for cars, music and dance.

For Ms Butt, who has previously produced Chicago, and Mamma Mia in Karachi, Grease has been a dream project.

"It's different this time because we are doing things properly, after sorting out permissions and copyright issues," she says.

Thriving theatre scene

One of the first challenges for her company, Made For Stage Productions, was to get the casting, the American working-class accents and attitude right.

The cast of Made For The Stage Productions performance of Grease rehearse in Karachi The production stays faithful to the 1978 Hollywood hit

"The first month was only about studying and getting to know the characters," says Mustafa Changezi who plays the tough and rude Kenickie.

Actors say they were required to take part in workshops to really adopt the persona of the character they were playing.

"We had to have several walking drills. At times, it was like being in a boot camp," says Changezi.

Then, there was the issue with finding a suitable venue to put up a musical with a large cast and crew, plus a live band.

Start Quote

Ahmed Ali, who plays the lead role as Danny

This play - with its timeless music and story of teenage love - is relevant to young people everywhere”

End Quote Ahmed Ali Actor, Danny

"Karachi has a thriving theatre scene, but none of the venues are big enough or technically advanced enough to stage a big musical like Grease," says Ms Butt.

In the end, the organisers had little choice but to settle for the traditional Karachi Arts Council auditorium.

The stage with a depth of 24ft (7.3m) was so small, it had to be extended at least 3 to 4ft to accommodate the cast and dance crews of about 35 performers.

Innovative solutions had to be found to quickly change the sets manually in between the scenes.

Pushing the boundaries

So how would Grease relate to theatre audience in Pakistan?

"This play - with its timeless music and story of teenage love- is relevant to young people everywhere," says Ahmed Ali, who plays the lead role as Danny.

His co-star, Ayesha Omar, who plays Sandy, agrees. "Like many other countries, young people in Pakistan are in the process of really discovering themselves, and pushing the boundaries," she says.

"Yes, there's a lot of frustration, a lot of restrictions on youth in Pakistan. That's why we think Grease would resonate with young people here."

The cast of Made For The Stage Productions performance of Grease rehearse in Karachi Grease deals with themes such as sex and gang violence

And what about some of the more provocative themes to do with sexual exploration, teenage pregnancy and gang violence?

Did the storyline have to be adapted to Pakistan's conservative Islamic social values?

"No," comes the emphatic response from the director.

Start Quote

For two and a half hours, I would like the audience to forget about Pakistan's... problems and enjoy the show.”

End Quote Nida Butt Theatre director

"Grease is fabulous just the way it is," Ms Butt says.

"If we were to change anything, it would have upset a lot of people who are familiar with the story.

"Many of them have probably grown up watching the 1978 Hollywood hit starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It's something that's already well-loved and is well-known among our target audience."

'Thrilled'

Ms Butt expects the musical will appeal to young and old from Pakistan's small, Westernised elite class.

She also accepts that with tickets priced at about $20 (£12, 14.7 euros), most Pakistanis will not be able to afford the show.

The cast of Made For The Stage Productions performance of Grease rehearse in Karachi The cast have been working to get the style of Grease right

Still, she says she's thrilled to bring some live entertainment to the city of Karachi - otherwise known for crime, lawlessness and militancy.

"For two and a half hours, I would like the audience to forget about Pakistan's multi-faceted problems and enjoy the show.

"It's also about showing the world that there's much more to this city, and this country than death and destruction."

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