Mamma Mia!’s choreographer since the beginning, Anthony Van Laast was curious to take the musical from stage to screen. “The challenge for me, both on stage and screen,” says Van Laast, “was to make the choreography narrative-based and character-driven, so that it appears to be improvised and spontaneous. In fact, it is really structured and developed.”
In the early stages of preproduction, Van Laast spent time rehearsing with Lloyd and her troupe of dancers just how exactly to make the dance work on film: which numbers would work, how many dancers were needed, where to position cameras, etc. Van Laast retained some of the original movements but, overall, mostly re-choreographed the dance for the screen. Such choices were crucial to facilitate working with twice as many dancers and adapting the dances to allow dialogue to continue throughout the film.
To help make the transition seamless, Van Laast suggested casting the majority of the dancers and the stand-ins from the pool of talented original performers of the stage show. Their ability to move gracefully and learn the dance routines would prove an invaluable time-saver, and immensely beneficial to the principal artists who could watch their steps.
Together with associate choreographer NicHola Treherne and assistant choreographer Tim Stanley, both of whom had also worked on the show for a number of years, Van Laast put the actors through the paces, rehearsing for weeks prior to the start of shoot and continuing with workouts and warm-ups every morning once filming commenced.
Having Stanley and Treherne on set helped make the process of staging and choreographing the large number of dancers a good deal easier. “Tim was much on the floor, checking that everything was fine amongst the dancers,” notes Van Laast. “Nichola acted as an intermediary between the dancers and myself, as I was on the monitors. If I saw something that was not working correctly, I’d say to Nichola, ‘Could you go make sure that that person moves a bit to the left or moves to the right,’ so I got the perfect pictures all the time.”
Though Baranski has had years of experience working on musicals and musical film, she admits that she felt slightly nervous and took up extra dance and movement classes to prepare. “One is always nervous about singing and dancing,” she says, “even if you’re a seasoned musical performer, because it’s a demanding genre. With music, you have to come in on a certain note or a certain rhythm and get your leg up at a certain time or turn or land at a certain time.
“When I heard I got this job, I immediately started doing private pilates and jazz classes, and stretching and going on the elliptical and working up stamina and flexibility,” she continues. “When I got to London, I found out where to take some ballet and jazz classes.”
Laughs Streep: “I’m really doing this to embarrass my 20-something-year-old children. The dancing part will mortify them. They’ll have to move to Alaska or someplace. Just the overalls alone are gonna do it for them.”
Continues Walters: “I’ve just got little wee bits of dancing, but it’s the most amazing dance. I could have gone on shooting it for weeks with these gorgeous male dancers. I’ve had this gorgeous partner, Philip, whipping me round and, of course, dancing with Stellan is really good fun.”
Van Laast acknowledges how exciting he has found the process of turning his actors into dancers: “They bring something to the movement that is so real. When you work with dancers, it’s so perfect, so fluid, there are no edges. Working with actors, they give the dance character, as opposed to it just being a slick routine. I have learned so much about finding character through movement.”