I'll never stop thanking Abba for the music
Judy Craymer created the ‘Mamma Mia!’ musical juggernaut and has remained the driving force through the making of the original musical and two smash hit films. Here, she talks about the project from its roots to its record breaking successes
Back in 1982, I was working with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on Chess. I was employed as Tim Rice’s assistant. Abba had just disbanded and my first job was to go to meet Björn from the airport. I’d always loved the Abba songs but that was when I fell in love with them. Meeting Benny and Björn and working with them over the next five years, I became extremely interested in those songs, which I think they thought they had left behind, as they were working on other musical projects.
When I was younger, I was an Abba fan but I was more into Bowie, and I went through the rock phase of the Led Zeppelins and the Emerson, Lake and Palmers. I loved “Dancing Queen” but I never went to an Abba concert.
Yet I was compelled by the songs and by meeting the guys. The song “The Winner Takes it All” was the inspiration for Mamma Mia! and when I met Björn I wanted to know what must have been going round in his head when he wrote that song.
It’s a huge romance/breakup song; a woman having a conversation in her head with a man who has hurt her and let her down or maybe cheated on her. “Tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you?” The lyrics are full of hurt; it’s a roller coaster of emotions. But how do you make a musical out of a song that is taking you towards Greek tragedy? That’s what I love about Abba songs. They take you on this journey, and even if they hit a certain emotional spot, you’re still left feeling in a good mood.
I felt the idea of hearing somebody sing that song in the theatre was like “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”; it was “the 11 o’clock number “ as they say on Broadway – the second act showstopper.
Benny and Björn were against anything that would be a tribute or a biographical story; but that didn’t interest me either. Björn was interested at first more than Benny because the musical was to use his lyrics as the source material. Those amazing words took us through the stage show and now two films.
It was funny working on the second film because people would say: “Are there enough songs?” I certainly thought there were, and, in fact, I think there’s a whole new audience that didn’t know Abba, didn’t grow up with Abba, didn’t know them as a band and yet know those songs as Mamma Mia! That tickles Benny and Björn quite a lot.
The girls haven’t been so involved because Benny and Björn wrote the songs. But Frida has always been very supportive. And Agnetha too for that matter.
Of course, I was passionate and keen about the show, but I had to work hard to convince people that it wasn’t just a performance in which people were going to be dressing up as Frida and Agnetha, and Benny and Björn.
I knew those songs worked for two generations. For the younger audience members there was “Honey Honey” and “Dancing Queen”, the dancing songs. And then there’s the more emotional breakup songs, perhaps for older fans. I toyed with different ideas; then in the mid-Nineties, Björn told me that if I could find the right story he and Benny might be interested.
That’s when I met playwright Catherine Johnson and pitched all my thoughts to her about generations, and how the theme of the production had to be weddings or holidays. I felt it had to be something nostalgic that took you to a happy place and Catherine came up with the genius mother-daughter idea; set around a wedding, and examining the relationship between a mother and a daughter – and three possible fathers. And that immediately appealed to Björn and Benny.
I hadn’t thought at that stage of the possibility of it becoming a film – I thought it might make a small TV film. But I always had a pull towards a stage show. And now I’ve overseen 50 productions.
The show opened in 1999 and, after its huge success, the original film was shot in 2007. I wanted straightaway to do another film and so did Universal. I wanted Catherine and Phyllida [Lloyd, director of the first film] to be involved. But Phyllida thought it was time to wish someone else well, and Catherine, I think, felt that she loved it as it was and couldn’t quite see where another story would begin and end. I was enthused about the potential for a prequel, but if we did a prequel how would we bring our original cast back? That’s where Richard Curtis came in.
The stakes were high because Mamma Mia! had done 20 years in London and the first movie had been one of the most successful musical films ever.
I had seen Love Actually. I adored Richard Curtis’s work. If we were to do another film we had to explore different emotions, and he is so brilliant not just at romance but also taking risks on life and loss: at the heart of all his comedies is loss. He thought about this in the sense of going back and forth and to different places, and all he had to say to me was “The Godfather: Part II” and I completely got it.
Even the music is like The Godfather: Part II; rich sweeping ballads. It underscores. There’s a rich palate of Abba in there.
It was always the intention to reuse songs from the first film. You have to have “Dancing Queen”. Why would you go to see your favourite band if they’re not going to play your favourite songs?
There were songs that I knew still had the power of storytelling and also the power of comedy, something fun that has come from the stage show, whether it’s “Chiquitita” or “Take a Chance”.
Curtis said he loved Mamma Mia! and Abba – and though he didn’t have time to write the screenplay himself, he was happy to support our endeavours, especially if there was a writer he liked and wanted to work with. That person was Ol Parker, who came on board as a writer at that time (and then later became the director).
So, it was a matter of making the story work. Meryl Streep had always been affectionate towards the original Mamma Mia! and was keen on being in a possible sequel; but I knew she was never going to take on a role as big as the first one. And for her to be part of it, what song? You can’t really top “The Winner Takes it All” from the first film, and she wasn’t going to be running along rooftops and jumping off cliffs singing lots of Abba songs. “My Love, My Life” is an incredibly affecting song and I think equal to “The Winner Takes it All”.
I’m going to claim Cher as my idea, though Ol would probably also claim it as his. I’ve always loved Cher and had a conversation with her for the last movie before we cast Christine Baranski to see whether Cher would be interested in playing Tania then. She wasn’t, but she said to me recently it worked out well this way round. I also felt that if we were going to do a second film, well we had hit a high with Meryl on the first and now we’d got to hit it out of the park. Who is one of the greatest actors who can sing? There’s Cher, there’s Bette Midler and there’s Barbra Streisand. There was always going to be a mother character. Ol wrote the part as the ultimate rock chick, and with Cher in mind. I was always fixated that Cher would be the perfect casting.
Mamma Mia! has traditionally had great female roles that we lack in musical theatre and in movies; and Cher really embraced it. For both films we cast brilliant actors. And now we have three generations, with Cher and Meryl; Christine Baranski and Julie Walters; and Amanda Seyfried and the Lily James generation – and Cher gets the guy.
“Fernando” was a favourite Abba song of hers and it was tempting for her to sing it. I think with this film we could have a wink at the audience with how we use this old song, and it’s a brilliant moment when she and Andy Garcia (Fernando) discover each other again and she tells that story through the power of her voice. You feel she was probably rebelling as a young woman in her early 20s, and then probably again when she was Donna Sheridan’s mum; hanging out at Studio 54 too much. And now we see her come back in her full glory as Ruby Sheridan – or as Cher, in fact.
It was said that the last film invigorated people and I think it probably did. We ran all summer, the summer of the financial crash, and it brought people of every age to the cinema. As a show we opened at the most tragic of all times in New York, the time of 9/11. You’ve got this massive show and one of the worst tragedies that you can imagine. How do you deal with that? With everyone involved and the city in complete crisis, while people have to keep going and earn a living?
It was a difficult time but the then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, was incredibly galvanising to the Broadway community. People asked us: “Are you still going to open?” The answer had to be “yes”. Everyone thought about it a lot and I know Phyllida sat and talked to the cast when we were rehearsing, it was almost like a therapy. But it was the best thing for everyone to make the show happen.
I don’t think there will be a “Mamma Mia 3!”. It’s great that people are thinking that way; I think people feel very safe with Mamma Mia! and this new movie has a lot more emotional heft, and it really makes you laugh and cry: it’s a shared experience. And those songs, of course. They said, back when the show opened: “Oh people don’t always know those Abba songs.” But now “When I Kissed the Teacher” – the opening song on the movie – has been trending on Spotify.
Mamma Mia! was way before social media in the case of the stage show; even the first movie came out before social media was the force it is now. Today, it’s a massive tool for marketing and communication, enabling us to appeal to a younger audience. So it’s fascinating that I see on social media a younger audience going: “Please do ‘Mamma Mia 3’.” That’s the natural thing for them.
One person even said: “Why can’t it become the new Fast and Furious?” – that made me laugh a lot.
Judy Craymer was talking to David Lister
“MAMMA MIA! Here We Go Again” is in cinemas and will be available on digital from 12 November and on 4K Ultra HD, BLU-RAY™, DVD and On Demand from 26 November