Photo from the farewell national touring production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ visiting Denver’s Buell Theatre from April 11-16. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by Kevin Thomas Garcia.
By Judy Craymer
As Creative Producer of Mamma Mia!, my job started long before any script had been written. The story begins more than 25 years ago when I first met Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the songwriting geniuses behind ABBA. I was working for Sir Tim Rice at the time, who was collaborating with Benny and Björn on his musical, Chess, and I was immediately smitten — after all, these were the men who had written Dancing Queen, one of the greatest pop songs of all time — but it was another of their songs, The Winner Takes It All, that first suggested to me the potential of an original musical using their compositions. The lyrics revealed a roller-coaster story of love and loss that struck me as extraordinarily theatrical, but how was I to bring this to life?
First I had to approach Benny and Björn, who were a little unsure of my intentions. I explained that the project I had in mind would focus on a new and exciting story. It wouldn’t be a tribute show or “The ABBA Story,” but rather a truly original “book” musical. They weren’t 100 percent convinced.
So I sat on the floor of my apartment listening to ABBA late into the night. I may have driven my neighbors to despair but as time passed, I became more and more certain of my idea. In 1995 my tenacity finally paid off. Björn said, “If you can find the right writer and story, well … let’s see what happens …”
A year later I was on location with a film I was producing when the director mentioned Catherine Johnson. I was aware of her work as a playwright. We met in January 1997 and soon I was confidently telling Björn that we had found our writer.
My brief to Catherine was that no lyrics could change, the story should be a contemporary, ironic, romantic comedy and that if she listened carefully to ABBA’s songs, she’d notice how they fell into two different generations: the slightly younger, playful songs like Honey, Honey and Dancing Queen and the more mature, emotional songs such as The Winner Takes It All and Knowing Me, Knowing You … and so the idea of a cross-generational love story was devised.
By the end of that year Catherine had finished the first draft of the script and I persuaded Phyllida Lloyd to come on board as our director. Her background was serious, legit theatre and opera, and her secret weapon was her dry-martini wit.
It was unusual, if not unheard of, for three women to be the collaborative creative force. I think it readdressed the balance and had a great nurturing effect on the production. Appropriately, Mamma Mia! features three strong women in the story. Their characters are completely different — slightly bossy, a bit chaotic, extremely practical, and very high maintenance. We have a lot of laughs about who is who in real life.
Suddenly it was time to give up my day job as a TV and film producer and prepare for the white-knuckle ride of making the dream a reality: Money to raise, a theatre to find, artwork to create, ticket agents to seduce, deadlines to meet. It was the summer of 1998 and we had to open by April 7, 1999, or we’d lose Phyllida, who’d been booked to direct an opera in London. April 6 happened to be the anniversary, to the day, of ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo 25 years before. It seemed a good omen.
Although Björn was enthusiastic and shared the vision for the musical, Benny was a little more cautious and at any time both, he could have put an end to the project. It was a tense time, as their emotional backing as well as their creative input was very important. If they were going to trust me with their fabulous songs, I didn’t want to let them down. Benny and I agreed that on our opening night one of us would be able to tell the other “I told you so.”
By now we had a date for opening but we had no theatre. We’d been looking at smaller venues when suddenly the rather large and prestigious Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End became available. But its sheer size meant that the scale of the production had to expand dramatically too, with cast, crew, set and budget all having to be reworked. A lot of fingers were crossed for the big night.
And so … April 6, 1999, a night I will never forget — the world premiere of Mamma Mia! The audience was charmed, and one British critic wrote, “Mamma Mia! could put Prozac out of business.”
Benny heartily accepted his defeat: with the entire theatre dancing in the aisles, he turned to me and said, “You can say it now.” I flashed back, “I told you so!”
(Pictured above and right: Betsy Padamonsky in the farewell tour of ‘Mamma Mia!, which visits Denver from April 11-16. Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.)
Our very first North American premiere was in Canada, where we were booked for six months and stayed for five years. The first U.S. tour opened in 2000 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Having celebrated more than 12 years and 5,000 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre, Mamma Mia! transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in late 2013. As of its final performance in September 2015, it was the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history. There it remains, ahead of Wicked and Beauty and the Beast. Mamma Mia! also holds the title of longest-running “jukebox musical” (one with a pre-existing score).
And let’s not forget Mamma Mia – The Movie, which had had its worldwide premiere in London on June 30, 2008, rapidly making history as the highest-grossing movie of all time at the UK and Irish box offices.
One thing I’ve learned from 17 fun and frantic years of overseeing and coordinating the many productions of Mamma Mia! is that the potential and possibilities are continuously exciting, and seem to be limitless.
Editor’s Note: The DCPA NewsCenter offers a regular guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and topic to email@example.com.
About our Guest Columnist: Judy Craymer
Judy Craymer graduated from the Guildhall School of Music in 1977 and has since worked extensively in the theatre, film, television and music industries. She worked as a stage manager for the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester, the Old Vic Theatre, London, and on the original production of Cats for Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Theatre Company. In 1984, Judy became the managing director of Three Knights Ltd, formed by Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus and was the Executive Producer for the West End production of Chess at the Prince Edward Theatre. The idea for Mamma Mia! originated with Craymer, Judy who in 1996 formed Littlestar Services Limited to produce the stage musical. She is the Creator/Producer of Mamma Mia! and has produced 50 productions of the show in more than 440 cities around the world.
Mamma Mia! Farewell Tour: Ticket information
This hit musical that combines ABBA’s greatest hits, including Dancing Queen, S.O.S., Super Trouper, Take A Chance on Me and The Winner Takes It All, with a romantic tale of love, laughter and friendship.
ASL and audio-described performance: 2 p.m. April 15
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Selected previous Guest Columns:
Douglas Langworthy on ‘translating’ Shakespeare: First, do no harm
David Nehls: Live theatre returns to Elitch Gardens after 24 years
Gillian McNally: Colorado’s oldest theatre celebrates Artistic Director Tom McNally
Margie Lamb on the Henry Awards: Something doesn’t add up
Bryan VanDriel on Lloyd Norton: A name that will live on in Greeley
Jessica Jackson on Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season
Susan Lyles on 10 years of staging plays for women in Denver