The story of Mamma Mia! began in the ’80s when producer Judy Craymer was working with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus as executive producer of their first post-ABBA project, Chess. She was immediately smitten with them. “After all, these were the men who had written ‘Dancing Queen,’ one of the greatest pop songs of all time,” explains Craymer. Inspired by the theatricality of their songs, she was moved to create a musical that would use existing ABBA songs, but one set against an original and exciting new format.
One song in particular, “The Winner Takes It All,” (sung in the movie by Meryl Streep) turned out to be the trigger. Originally titled “The Story of My Life,” ABBA’s greatest break-up song (also the band’s last top-10 hit in the United States) takes the listener on a roller-coaster ride of emotion.
In spite of reassurances that this would not be an ABBA tribute musical or the band’s story, Andersson and Ulvaeus were initially reluctant. So, Craymer began the long campaign of persuading the two to lend their songs to the project. In 1995, her tenacity paid off. They agreed, provided she could come up with a story strong enough to carry the songs…and a writer who could unlock the potential she’d spotted. In 1997, years after she had approached the men behind ABBA, Craymer met playwright Catherine Johnson, whom she believed had the talent and sensibility for the job.
Craymer briefed Johnson, and the producer asked the writer to note how ABBA’s songs fell into two distinct groupings: the younger, more playful and innocent songs such as “Honey, Honey” and “Dancing Queen,” and the more mature, reflective and emotional songs such as “The Winner Takes It All” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Craymer believed the songs suggested a story that could span generations.
Too, Craymer felt Johnson might consider that weddings and holidays were themes suggested by Ulvaeus’ lyrics. Craymer recalls, “I told Catherine you have to forget the songs. It is your source material only, and the story has to work without the songs. It is exactly what she achieved.”
For Johnson, the starting point was to read ABBA’s lyrics from A to Z, build the framework of a stand-alone story and choose only songs that would logically drive her narrative. Still, she felt she must be mindful that the tempo of the songs she used from ABBA’s catalogue complement the action. Not an easy task.
The result was a heart-warming and uplifting story about two generations of women, young love and love the second time around…not to mention friendship, discovering one’s identity and wish fulfilment. Johnson and Craymer felt that the story had universal resonance, with an appeal that crossed age, gender and national boundaries. Just as ABBA’s timeless music and lyrics do.
With a working script, Craymer began the search for a director. She persuaded respected theatre and opera director Phyllida Lloyd to join the company, and Lloyd immediately responded to Mamma Mia! Drawn to the songs, the notoriously calm, methodical director sums, “This was the musical Benny and Björn didn’t realize they’d written.”
Björn Ulvaeus worked closely with Lloyd, Craymer and Johnson, giving feedback on each new draft. More of the crew, including choreographer ANTHONY VAN LAAST, were added—along with an “A-list” of stage designers, including MARK THOMPSON (sets and costumes), HOWARD HARRISON (lighting), MARTIN KOCH (musical supervisor and orchestrator) and ANDREW BRUCE and BOBBY AITKEN (sound designers)—and the team workshopped the production in London a year before it was to open.
Of the process, Ulvaeus recalls: “Things were changed, songs were taken in and thrown out. By then, Catherine knew every lyric and was familiar with these hundred songs or so of the catalogue. The ground rule was not to change them, and given that, it is amazing how it still was possible to weave a story.”
Benny Andersson waited until the first preview to sit down and see the production, and was quite moved by how well it turned out. “I think that the biggest surprise for people who go to see it is that whatever they think it is before they go, they come out with a totally different experience,” he says. “The songs are good, but the context in this intelligent, witty way that they put together the old lyrics and used them to bring the story forward was amazing. I’m Catherine Johnson’s biggest fan.”
The first show opened on April 6, 1999, at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, which was deemed a good omen as ABBA had won the Eurovision Song Contest on the same date in 1976. The stage production was given the kind of rapturous reception it has grown accustomed to ever since. Mamma Mia! opened in the U.S. in November 2000 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. In October 2001, the musical debuted on Broadway, bringing in $27 million in advance ticket sales (one of the highest in theatre history), and, in 2002, the show received five Tony Award nominations. In February 2003, the show opened at the Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas, and played its 1000th show in June 2005 (becoming one of the longest-running Broadway plays in Las Vegas).
The story is now theatre history. Mamma Mia! has become a global entertainment phenomenon. There have been 20 productions of Mamma Mia!, and currently nine are generating more than $8 million a week in ticket sales. More than 30 million people have seen the show worldwide. More than 17,000 people see the show around the world every night, and Mamma Mia! has already grossed more than $2 billion at the theatrical box office. The show has premiered in more cities worldwide faster than any other musical in history; it has opened in more than 170 major cities since the first production in London almost a decade ago.
Explaining the phenomenon, Craymer sums: “Whoever the audience is, whatever age the audience is, they see themselves up on the stage in some form. They seem to totally immerse themselves in the experience. The songs have a magical and timeless quality.”