After global success ABBA musical Mamma Mia! finally arrives in Norwich
- Credit: Archant
On a Greek island paradise, a story of love and friendship told through the timeless songs of ABBA. Mamma Mia! has been a global stage and Hollywood movie success, but only now arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal as part of its first UK tour.
Blue skies, a sun-drenched whitewashed Greek taverna and some of the best feel-good dance music and ballads ever written – you can almost taste the olives and ouzo and hear the waves lapping at your deckchair….
Add in a storyline that resonates with people of all ages and it's no wonder Mamma Mia! the stage show is still pulling in the crowds more than 17 years after it first launched in London in 1999. It really has been the winner that has taken all.
Now on its first UK tour, this globe-trotting generous helping of ABBA-fuelled happiness is set to arrive at Norwich Theatre Royal for a four week run.
The show has so far been seen by 60 million people worldwide. There have been 50 productions of the show fashioned from the ABBA songbook.
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It has been seen in 440 cities, in 16 different languages — including, of course, Swedish. Plus there was the massively successful 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan, giving a singing performance that few will ever forget.
And yet for all its 18 years trotting around the globe, Mamma Mia! is only now touring the UK. The show's creator and producer Judy Craymer explains its phenomenal long-running success in London has been the reason why theatregoers outside the capital have had to wait.
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'When we opened, I asked someone's advice about what should I be doing about a UK tour. They said, 'Watch your midweek matinee because when that begins to go soft then you should think about touring'. It never did go soft!'
Instead the show went to Canada and Australia, then toured the US and took up residence in Las Vegas before landing on Broadway the month after 9/11. It stayed for a dozen years. More recent conquests have been of China in Mandarin, while onboard a cruise ship touring the Caribbean the show can be seen by audiences of 1,000 passengers at a time.
Judy has seen the show on every continent but has yet to be lured aboard the Royal Caribbean. 'I was asked when they did the technical rehearsal between Hamburg and the Solent in November,' she recalled wryly.
She is one of the least demonstrative super-producers on either side of the Atlantic. Hers is the only mega-musical to have proved itself unstoppable without any assistance from anyone called Lloyd Webber or Mackintosh or Nunn, or without being affiliated in any way to Disney or any other film franchise. Or indeed to get any help from men (unless you thank Bjorn and Benny for the music). The three dancing queens of Mamma Mia! are, in reality, Judy, director Phyllida Lloyd and book writer Catherine Johnson.
The show is Judy's ingenious vision of staging the story-telling magic of ABBA's timeless songs. Her idea for a film or a stage show based on the Swedish supergroup's songs came many years ago when she was Tim Rice's assistant on Chess, the musical he wrote with the group's songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. 'I started talking to them about it in the mid-80s, and then in about 1995 Bjorn said 'If you can get the right story, maybe.''
By then Judy had worked as a producer in television and had come across Catherine Johnson, a scriptwriter who had also written a couple of sparky hit plays.
One of them was Shang-a-Lang, about three women from Chipping Sodbury who hit 40 in a holiday camp where their girlhood idols the Bay City Rollers are playing.
'I explained my thoughts and Catherine said 'What about a mother-daughter story?' and that was it. We tentatively pitched it to Bjorn and Benny and it kind of worked from there. They trusted me. They weren't saying 'Bring in a star team. We'll only do it with Tom Stoppard and Hal Prince.' They let us nurture it. I think timing was everything. It probably wouldn't have worked ten years before in the same way.'
Judy is resistant to the idea that Mamma Mia! is just another jukebox musical. 'To me those songs were written by Bjorn and Benny for Mamma Mia!,' she said. 'The Winner Takes It All was the inspiration for me. I kept thinking that is a great 11 o'clock number, as they say on Broadway. It's Don't Cry for Me, Argentina.'
In reality, many of the songs were being written as the songwriter pair were struggling with their own failing marriages to the band's two singers, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, but the emotions they document are universal and fitted into the storyline almost seamlessly.
It's a storyline that has proved hugely important. It centres on the search for a father. Twenty-year-old bride-to-be Sophie has grown up on a Greek island where her mother Donna runs a rackety taverna. Sophie doesn't know who her father is, so rummages through her mother's diary from 20 years back and secretly invites three potential candidates. The relationships that run in different strands throughout the story speak to every audience member and as a feel-good plot it is a long way from the doom-laden blockbuster musicals which dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, and Craymer thinks that helps explain its longevity.
The movie – which also starred Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan - came out in 2008. At the time it felt like a final frontier for the show and Craymer looked about for alternative inspiration. It came in the idea of doing a Spice Girls musical. Viva Forever!, with a book written by Jennifer Saunders, and it opened in the West End in 2012 but sadly closed six months later.
'Although I do think it had potential,' Judy said. 'There's all kinds of reasons why it didn't work, but I was very proud of it.' One thing that has changed is the power of social media to make or break a show. Mamma Mia! had good reviews but it mainly conquered the world by word of mouth – and, of course, wonderful songs.
'The show's creators had no real idea how deep those songs are in all our bloodstream until they first launched them upon an audience. They stood up and cheered at the end and everybody was dancing. Somebody said to me, 'This is just the first preview audience. Don't expect this to happen again.''
But people have been dancing at the end of the show ever since to Waterloo and Dancing Queen, sung by Donna and the Dynamos in wonderful Seventies spandex outfits in the show's finale.
One night the audience proved so immovable that the front of house staff had to make an announcement that 'the Dynamos had left the building' otherwise the audience would have stayed all night. On another occasion they were joined onstage by Anna-Frid Lyngstad.
'Frida came quietly one night, she wanted no fuss,' Judy revealed. 'She loved the show so much that she asked if she could go onstage at the end with the cast. She did and she sang Dancing Queen in front of the audience. And that was her quiet night out.'
Although the show has grown and grown, Judy travels a great deal less than she used to. 'Ten years of being on a plane all the time, I used to get remembered by the staff at BA quite a lot.'
She does reveal there just may be another twist in the Mamma Mia! story in the shape of a second film: 'I think it would be a companion piece. It would only happen if we all agreed it was the right thing. People love that film and those characters and love being in that moment of escapism on the Greek island. It's good for us to always be thinking.'
• Mamma Mia! runs at Norwich Theatre Royal from February 28-March 25, various times, £49.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk