Mamma Mia! Ultimate Abba show opens in Blackpool tomorrow
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.
Now 23 years old, Mamma Mia! will be heading to Blackpool’s Winter Gardens this week as part of a UK tour.
Given its massive success, it’s hard to believe that right up the first opening night, in April 1999 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End, many theatre pundits were anticipating a flop.
Judy Craymer – the 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.
“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,” said Judy. “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.”
Judy 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 and even 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 writer Catherine Johnson who suggested basing 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 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.”
Phyllida Lloyd, who came on board as director, shared their passion, and together 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 theatre-goers 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!.
“Over the last 20 years, there have been so many white-knuckle rides,” Craymer reflects.
Mamma Mia!, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Tuesday, March 21 to Saturday, April 1. Details from www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk