By Bobbie Katz
Judy Craymer is a producer, not a magician. Still, she was the first to recognize that by taking a hilarious script and waving the baton of a famed Swedish musical group over it, it would make for some ABBA-cadabra with the potential to sweep the entire world.
Today, the magic of MAMMA MIA! has become legendary – the production, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary in London and its 13th anniversary on Broadway, and which appeared at Mandalay Bay from 2003-2009, is back in Las Vegas. Acclaimed by the Associated Press as “quite simply a phenomenon,” MAMMA MIA!, which ingenuously weaves 22 of the super-group ABBA’s sings into a funny and infectious tale of a mother and her soon-to-be-wed daughter, will open at The New Tropicana for previews on May 8 and officially on May 16. The show has broken virtually every box office record wherever it has played, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide to date. It all speaks to the storytelling magic of what has been described by Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA as “the musical we never knew we wrote.”
“We knew that the story of MAMMA MIA! had to be contemporary and have the infectious charm of the music,” says Craymer. “The power of the musical is that people can relate to the characters on stage. We’re casting real people to an extent. It’s very unusual to have a show with three major roles for middle-aged women. But if you listen to ABBA’s music, there are actually two generations of songs – their younger, happier songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ and their more emotional songs written at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s such as ‘The Winner Takes All.’ So we devised a story that entails two generations, a mother and a daughter.”
Set in the present day on a tiny, mythical Greek island, “MAMMA MIA!” is a musical love story that crosses continents and generations. The musical score includes “The Winner Takes It All,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Dancing Queen,” “Chiquita,” “I Do, I Do, I Do,” “Super Trouper,” and “Mamma Mia.”
Before Craymer came along, a legacy of extraordinary songs, worldwide sales of over 350 million records and the success of movies, including “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” ensured ABBA’s lasting popularity. That’s why, for Craymer, who notes that it will be 40 years next year since the group won the Eurovision song contest that propelled them to success, the idea for the show was a song – literally.
Craymer also says that the 2008 MAMMA MIA! movie starring Meryl Streep, which was completely aligned with the show, had a huge effect on audiences, garnering the classic brand a whole new generation of fans. The DVD was also huge and the love of the movie opened up a whole new corridor for the show’s continuing popularity.
“Before that, there were people who didn’t realize that MAMMA MIA! was a proper story,” she acknowledges. “They thought that it was an ABBA tribute show.”
As to how Craymer’s brilliant idea for the show came about, after training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, in 1981 Craymer went to work for Cameron MacKintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber as a stage manager on their original production of “CATS.” Subsequently, she joined Tim Rice’s production company. She worked her way up to becoming executive director for “Chess, The Musical.” That is when she first met Benny Andersson and Bjorn, who had written the show with Rice, and found herself completely bowled over by them.
“It’s impossible to describe how huge their talent is,” Craymer notes. “Benny and Bjorn were the composers and maestros of ABBA. They were married to the two women in the group and when they went through their divorces, their music began to change, which is why there are two generations of ABBA music. They disbanded the group in 1982 but, all told, they had written over 90 songs.”
“I got the idea for the show in 1989 when I was listening to what I call their ’11 o’clock song,’ ‘The Winner Takes It All,’” she continues. “I wanted to know the story behind the lyrics. Benny and Bjorn’s lyrics have far more depth and irony than you first realize. They tell stories that everyone can relate to. If you really listen to their music carefully, to songs like ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You,’ you’ll learn a bit of the group’s history. They lyrics talk about relationships that are no more.”
Craymer initially approached Benny and Bjorn in 1989 when she first had the idea for the show but it proved to be too soon after the group’s breakup. The two men were busy pursuing other projects, working on a musical epic called “Christine,” which subsequently ran in Sweden for four years.
“The group had broken up, their marriages had broken up, they didn’t enjoy touring as much as being in the studio,” Craymer explains. “They had had 10 years of ABBA and had split up emotionally. In fact, three years ago, they were offered more than a billion dollars to re-form and they said no. Benny and Bjorn are very unassuming and quiet guys; they’re not performers like the girls were. They felt that ABBA as a group should be left in memory as it was up until 1982, even though they have sold millions and millions of records since then.”
Although they never closed the door on the idea, Benny and Bjorn basically patted Craymer on the head and told her that they would see her at the next party. Craymer, who was working in TV and film at the time, refused to give up. She sat in her apartment for three years, off and on, listening to ABBA music. She had become obsessed with the songs, having such a clear idea of how they would work theatrically.
Then, in 1994, Craymer met Richard East, the man who became her co-producer. The two began putting serious energy into the project. In 1995, Craymer approached Bjorn again. This time, having just seen “Grease” on the West End, he gave her the go-ahead to find the right writer for the project. In 1997, Craymer chose Catherine Johnson, a playwright in England who had also written some successful TV. Even though Johnson had never written a musical, Craymer thought that she had the sense of humor required to give the show a tongue-in-cheek feel. That same year, Craymer formed her Littlestar company to produce “MAMMA MIA!”
“Catherine and I met and I told her of my idea about the two generations of music becoming the story,” Craymer recalls, “I was thinking of a wedding or a holiday party theme. She stood up at the end of the meeting and said that it should revolve around a mother and daughter. Within seconds, we worked out the idea – she saw a mother and daughter wedding. While ABBA’s lyrics are very accessible, it all became a jigsaw puzzle for Catherine. As she was weaving the story in with the music, the story had to be more important than the songs in the respect that if the songs were taken away, the story would still be there. She had to forget the voices of ABBA and just think of the lyrics.”
The team came together with Craymer’s selection of Phyllida Lloyd as the director. Lloyd had never directed a West End musical before but Craymer instinctively felt that she was the right choice.. Lloyd had been described by one reviewer as having “a dry Martini wit.” According to Craymer, Lloyd took the story and songs by the scruff of the neck and molded them into something with a life and momentum of its own.
Craymer says that the fact that the writer, producer and director are all women, all the same age and that the three “Dynamos” (or “rock chicks” at heart, as Craymer calls them) in the play just happen to have some of the characteristics of the three of them is purely coincidental. Together with Bjorn, production designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Howard Harrison, sound by Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken, musical supervision by Martin Koch and choreography by Anthony Van Laast, the little show that could has turned into a theatrical empire.
“How Catherine’s story worked with the music was a fantastic revelation,” Craymer enthuses. “You don’t have to be an ABBA fan or know ABBA music to enjoy the show. I don’t think that Benny and Bjorn even realized the impact their songs had on people. They didn’t embark on this to promote ABBA – they didn’t need to. Still, the show has brought them a whole new audience. The one thing they wanted was for the sound on stage to be the ABBA sound. But they had never written down their orchestrations or arrangements; they were all in their heads. Someone had to spend six months listening to the music and transcribing the orchestrations. That someone was Martin Koch, who then took the orchestrations and molded them to Catherine’s story. Now it’s as if the songs were written for Catherine’s story.
“This show created three fantastic roles for women,” she sums up. “The Dynamos transcend the ages. They are in their late 30s, getting into their 40s. This show is what we felt and what we felt that the audience would recognize in themselves. There are not many roles for women like this that ages 10 to 90 can enjoy. It’s not a feminist story. It’s about a woman who makes a mess of her life and is giving a chance to fulfill her hopes and dreams. It’s big on women without burning one’s bra.”
This article appears by courtesy of Vegas Insider Daily.com.