It’s the mother of all contemporary musicals, a global, record-breaking super trouper of a show that’s been seen by over 65 million people worldwide, in 50 productions and 16 different languages. MAMMA MIA! the feelgood musical with a score of irresistible ABBA songs, has given birth to two smash-hit films: the first, released in 2008, sank even the mighty Titanic at the box office; the second, 2018’s MAMMA MIA! Here We Go Again, is the most successful musical movie sequel of all time. Now, the show’s new UK Tour arrives at Cardiff’s New Theatre and It’s likely to prove just the pick-me-up that audiences crave to fight away the winter blues.
Now 23 years old, MAMMA MIA! has established its place in theatre history – so it’s almost hard to believe that right up until its very first opening night, on 6 April 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End, many theatre pundits were anticipating a flop. Looking back, Judy Craymer – the visionary producer and creative dynamo who dreamt up the idea for the show and powered it tirelessly to spectacular success – chuckles at the nail-biting uncertainty that surrounded that world premiere.
Craymer tells Sam Marlowe, “A lot of people doubted us,” she remembers. “The Lion King opened about the same time, and we were very modest by comparison.” Many were expecting a kind of ABBA tribute show about the band – “they just couldn’t get their heads around it. They were constantly asking me who was going to play Frida and Agnetha.” Even ABBA songsmiths Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had their doubts: “They said, OK Judy, it’ll be a small show, just in London, and if it doesn’t work it’ll close.” They needn’t have worried. Together with writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd, Craymer had achieved a landmark theatrical triumph with blockbuster, cross-generational appeal, that would delight Abba’s loyal fans and win them legions of new ones.
This was, though, no overnight feat – the show had a long gestation. Craymer, who trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama in stage management, was working in the production office of musical-theatre royalty Tim Rice in the early 1980s when she first conceived of the idea. Rice was in the throes of writing Chess, his collaboration with Andersson and Ulvaeus. One of Craymer’s first tasks was to collect Ulvaeus from the airport, and the pair quickly struck up a friendship. “It was huge fun,” Craymer remembers. “Chess was a big project, and then there was the cast album, so I was flying to Stockholm with Tim Rice every week, working in Benny and Björn’s studio. Then we did a crazy tour of Europe with about 5,000 people – the whole of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Choir, and all the artists. It was very exciting, and I got lots of experience.” Crucially, she also had access to the ABBA pair, “which was very fortunate, because otherwise I’m not sure they would have taken this on. I had to pester them for a long time!”
Spending so much time in their company, she rediscovered their music. “I listened to their songs with a whole different ear, having met the guys. I’d play them over and over again on my cassette player, and I was fascinated that Björn had written these lyrics. They meant so much, and they were about strong women. They take you on a journey. And that was the beginning of me falling in love with those songs.” Craymer began to see the dramatic potential in ABBA’s infectious pop. “They spoke to me as theatre songs. You’d be lucky to have two like that in a musical, let alone 20. So, I started thinking about how to turn them into narrative.”
At first, she wasn’t sure what form this dramatisation would take – she considered a film, or a children’s show. But she felt sure that, because the music was held in such affection, it should be “weddings, holidays, something celebratory, because everyone listens to ABBA in a happy moment”. She had a meeting with Johnson – who at the time was working on TV’s Band of Gold – over egg sandwiches in a Baker’s Street caff, and Johnson suggested centering the story on a mother and daughter. Craymer knew at once she’d found the right formula. “We were both penniless, Catherine was a single mum,” she recalls. “I only had about £1,000, so I said, I’ll pay you £500 now, and £500 when you’ve written it.” The next step was a meeting at Ulvaeus’ home in Henley-on-Thames – “and we couldn’t’t afford the train fare! It was all very hairy, but somehow, we did it. And I introduced Björn to Catherine and she was too shy to pitch the idea, so I had to – and then I had to stop her stealing the soap from his bathroom as a souvenir. We had nothing to lose. It’s so difficult to get a project going, but we just got on with it.” Lloyd, who came on board as director, shared their passion, and together, “living on sandwiches”, the trio put together a female-led show full of joyous romance and fierce mother-daughter affection: an exuberant matrimonial comedy set on an idyllic Greek island, with a playful nod to the family dramas of classical tragedy. It’s the strength of that narrative, Craymer believes, that sets MAMMA MIA! apart from other jukebox shows. “It’s an original story, and there’s a structure, and properly developed characters and themes,” she says. “I do like to think that MAMMA MIA! raised the bar.”
That universal appeal has seen the show play to packed houses around the world. In New York, it helped revitalise Broadway after 9/11, its warmth proving an unexpected balm for theatregoers in the traumatised city. In 2011 it became the first Mandarin-speaking production of a Western musical in China. And Craymer has particularly fond memories of the opening of the Japanese production – “because of theatre etiquette there, the cast can’t leave the stage until the audience stop clapping. I thought they’d be there all night!” Hollywood quickly wanted in on the act, and Craymer found herself fielding eager calls from several studios. There was some pressure to consider a younger star for the leading role of mum Donna, but Craymer held out for the team’s original vision, and for her ambitious dream casting – none other than Meryl Streep, who leapt at the chance. It was a coup Craymer repeated with the film’s sequel, in which Cher delivers a magnificent diva turn as Donna’s mother. The icon had, according to Craymer, already been to see the show twice in London, where she danced in the aisle; after making the film, she went on to record her own album of ABBA covers.
“Over the last 20 years, there have been so many white-knuckle rides,” Craymer reflects. “As a producer, you need enormous powers of persuasion, and a lot of tenacity.” And she’s still up for more: even during the 2020 lockdown, she was busily planning for a third MAMMA MIA! movie. “I wanted something to cheer us all up!” she laughs. “It’s something I have in my sights. I think there’s a trilogy there. There are lots of wonderful ABBA songs that we haven’t yet mined, and Björn and Benny have written a couple of new ones. They’re keeping them under wraps for now, but they should prove very useful!”
In the meantime, she’s looking forward to MAMMA MIA! touring the UK again. “I’m excited that we are taking MAMMA MIA! on tour around the UK once again and currently playing Cardiff’s New Theatre until Saturday March 4. We look forward to welcoming new audiences, as well as those that have seen it before”.
Whatever comes next for this sunniest of shows, there’s sure to be an audience for it. To misquote those famous, singalong lyrics: how can we resist it?
- For ticket availability visit Cardiff New Theatre’s website.