The Mamma Mia! FactorDate: 5 April 2004
Mark Shenton looks at the global explosion of Mamma Mia!, the Abba blockbuster which is now celebrating its fifth anniversary in London & is on track to become the most successful stage musical of all time.
It was on 23 March 1999 that the musical Mamma Mia! met its first and most crucial test when it was put in front of its first-ever paying audience in London. It was given the kind of welcome it has been getting ever since, every night, at every one of the many productions that have since followed.
But that early spring evening in London, it was still a completely unknown quantity. "We really had no idea how it was going to be received," reflects the producer Judy Craymer whose initial concept, exactly a decade earlier, it had been to use existing Abba songs within the format of a new, original musical. But happily, she remembers, "The audience went wild. They were literally out of their seats and singing and dancing in the aisles - and they still are. Every night."
Global entertainment phenomenon
And now, they are doing so all around the world. It has become a global entertainment phenomenon - a production that opened in Seoul earlier this year opened with a 3.6 billion advance in local currency (admittedly, there are 1,100 won to the dollar, but it's still a big figure for a market where theatre isn't exactly a big feature). It's a show with truly universal appeal, and that's because it has tapped into something that transcends the popularity of Abba (already big to begin with, of course) into something popular in its own right. It uniquely personalises a familiar repertoire of Abba songs in a fresh, vital and immediate way that simultaneously retained their pop integrity yet also did something more that is an essential requirement of good musical theatre: to advance an appealing story and comment on it.
But though in this case the songs came first - and it was Craymer's genius to spot their theatrical potential so early on - she also had to find a way of unlocking that potential, with a story strong enough to carry them. "I knew from the outset that Mamma Mia! had to be much more than just an Abba compilation or tribute show," she comments. "The story had to be as infectious as the music and provide a strong feel-good factor."
A Decade-long Crusade
That, however, is easier said than done, and thus began Craymer's decade-long crusade to find it and bring it to the stage. The producer, who had been in on the ground floor (or at any rate the backstage door) of another West End musical phenomenon when she a stage manager on the original London production of Cats in 1981, had subsequently joined Tim Rice's production company, and it was there, while working as Executive Producer on the West End production of his and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus's first post-Abba project Chess, that she was first bowled over by Benny and Bjorn.
For Bjorn, meanwhile, it was his experience on the subsequent ill-fated Broadway production of Chess that taught him an important lesson. "What I understand after Chess is that story is No 1, No 2 and No 3, as they say on Broadway. A lyric should take a story forward, and a lot of pop songs are static - they have no drama in them whatsoever."
Plenty of drama
The playwright Catherine Johnson, who was commissioned to write the book for Mamma Mia!, fortunately found plenty of drama in them; and indeed, a plot out of them. Not only are they frequently complete stories within themselves, but she also discovered something else important: that many of the early Abba songs were more innocent, naïve and teenage-orientated, whereas later on they became more mature and reflective. And, of course, it was women who sang them. So that suggested a story about two generations of women, namely a mother and a daughter.
But in fashioning her story, Johnson was determined to always come back to the song. "We didn't want to have those awful clunky moments where people burst into song. I am primarily a dramatist. To me it was very important that I create believable characters and gave them all a true story line, and I absolutely worked to get the story and the songs to work together."
It then fell to Craymer to find the ship's captain of any musical: a director. She found Phyllida Lloyd - and though it was accident rather than design, Craymer notes, "I am delighted that Mamma Mia!'s success was the result of an unprecedented collaboration of three women, but there was no discrimination of men intended." And in fact, the onstage relationships of the three best friends - Donna and the Dynamos - at the centre of the piece mirrors that of the women who between them created the show. Craymer has indeed commented, "We all see ourselves as those three women on the stage, because Catherine is the slightly chaotic single mom, I'm the high-maintenance mum, and the pragmatic one is Phyllida."
The secret of the show's success, however, is that it's not just its creators who see themselves onstage, but the audiences do, too. Phyllida Lloyd notes, "In Catherine Johnson's ingenious story, the audience seemed to be having a very particular experience. They were seeing themselves on stage." In the process, the songs are re-born and the show's themes - of lost parents, a search for identity, and the generation gap - have a universal resonance. As Johnson says, "There's a mother-daughter relationship; an old romance; there's losing someone and finding him again. There are all kinds of things that everyone can relate to." This is a show about real people in real situations, yet a wonderful pop score that provided the soundtrack for a generation in the 70s and early 80s anchors it now as the soundtrack for a show whose appeal crosses all age and national boundaries.
Reconciling pop and musicals
The show also happily reconciles the worlds of pop music and musical theatre that were once indivisible: indeed, in the 30s and 40s, the popular music of the day came from the world of musicals, whether of the Broadway or Hollywood variety, but as pop music gained its own ascendancy in the 50s and into the 60s, musical theatre was left behind to go its own, variously sophisticated ways. Mamma Mia! is a sophisticated, but not pretentious, musical that re-introduces the familiarity of a pop idiom - with songs that people already know and love - to the theatre.
In the process, as musical supervisor and arranger Martin Koch succinctly puts it, Mamma Mia! is "the show Bjorn and Benny never knew they had written. Their music has made pop history; our show has made musical theatre history." Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, there have been lots of imitators to Mamma Mia!'s formula - and, here we go again, there have been a host of them, including the current London shows We Will Rock You and Tonight's the Night. Many of those who go to the theatre nowadays, of course, are likely to have been raised on pop, and it's entirely logical to complete the circuit of communication that the theatre is best at by bringing pop into its arena once again.
- By Mark Shenton