The win­ner takes it

Two decades ago, Judy Craymer had a dream: to cre­ate a mu­si­cal based around the hit songs of Abba. By 1997, she had sold her flat, in­vested tens of thou­sands and was al­most broke. A decade later, Mamma Mia! had be­come a $2 bil­lion global phe­nom­e­non. So wh

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

ONE THIRD OF THE WAY into Mamma Mia! The Movie, there comes a mo­ment when even the most hard-hearted of cin­ema­go­ers must think, “Ah, the hell with it”, and sur­ren­der to this mu­si­cal based on the songs of Abba. Or as Judy Craymer, the film’s pro­ducer, puts it, let the joy wash over you.

Ev­ery­body on screen seems to be hav­ing such a dang good time for a start. Camp as a mir­rored disco ball, Mamma Mia! stars Meryl Streep as faded rock chick Donna, now a sin­gle mother run­ning a ho­tel on a Greek is­land with her daugh­ter So­phie. On the eve of her wed­ding, So­phie in­vites three men to the is­land – played by Pierce Bros­nan, Colin Firth and Stel­lan Skars­gard – any of whom could be her fa­ther. What fol­lows is an al­most Shake­spear­ian com­edy of mis­taken iden­tity set to Abba’s great­est hits.

This is not to say that the film does not have a few cringe-in­duc­ing mo­ments like some­thing out of a Cliff Richard mu­si­cal. The film is al­most un­done by Julie Wal­ters’ fright­ful mug­ging, and Pierce Bros­nan’s singing sounds alarm­ingly like Shane MacGowan.

But the reve­la­tion is Meryl Streep. Who would have thought that the an­guished star of So­phie’s Choice and The Deer Hunter would be such a great phys­i­cal co­me­dian, do­ing prat­falls as car­toon­ish as Fritz the Cat? In­deed, the cast seem to be en­joy­ing them­selves so much you feel like hand­ing out doses of lithium to bring them all down a lit­tle.

But the story be­hind Mamma Mia! is in many ways more in­ter­est­ing than the movie it­self. It is the story of one wo­man’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to get some­thing made, tak­ing a great risk, and at one point even sell­ing her flat to keep the pro­duc­tion go­ing.

In the early days, Craymer was so broke that she had to squat in peo­ple’s of­fices to use the phone, hop­ing peo­ple would not no­tice that wo­man in the cor­ner. She and the show’s writer, Catherine John­son, used to meet half­way be­tween each other’s houses to dis­cuss the script be­cause nei­ther of them could af­ford the full train fare. The greater the risk, the greater the re­ward. To­day, Craymer earns an es­ti­mated ¤5m mil­lion a year from Mamma Mia!.

Let’s just run through the fig­ures. The show has been seen by more than 30 mil­lion peo­ple in 170 cities and eight dif­fer­ent lan­guages. The in­ter­na­tional tour­ing ver­sion that pre­miered in Dublin in Septem­ber 2004 has now been seen by two mil­lion peo­ple. There are cur­rently nine dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions around the world gen­er­at­ing ¤5m mil­lion a week in ticket sales. More than 17,000 peo­ple see the show ev­ery night. All of which means that Mamma Mia! has be­come a $2 bil­lion (¤1.27bn) phe­nom­e­non.

Craymer first met the song­writ­ing team be­hind Abba, com­poser Benny An­der­s­son and lyri­cist Björn Ul­vaeus, when she was work­ing back­stage on Chess – the mu­si­cal they wrote af­ter the group broke up – in the early 1980s. Craymer was sure there was a mu­si­cal to be made out of Abba songs, but at first An­der­s­son and Ul­vaeus didn’t want to have any­thing to do with it. They were try­ing to for­get be­ing in the pop group, rein­vent­ing them­selves as Broad­way com­posers. Chess flopped on Broad­way and the song­writ­ers be­came more amenable. There had been one pre­vi­ous stage show based on the Abba back cat­a­logue, the sub­limely-ti­tled Abbacadabra, but this had rewrit­ten the songs. Of the two men, Ul­vaeus was more sym­pa­thetic be­cause a mu­si­cal would have ac­tors singing his lyrics rather than just some cheesy trib­ute band. But it still took Craymer seven years of bad­ger­ing the two be­fore they fi­nally caved in and agreed to let her have the songs.

Even then she would only have them for a short while. If she couldn’t get things mov­ing then the songs would re­vert back to An­der­s­son and Ul­vaeus.

Craymer sold her flat to get some seed money to­gether. “I was in­cred­i­bly over­drawn and I had to get some cash from some­where. This money wasn’t enough to live on, it was just enough to pay for the songs and the writer,” she says. But the big­gest risk was that, de­spite spend­ing £20,000 of her own money and two years of her time, An­der­s­son and Ul­vaeus could change their minds at any time and pull out.

She hired Catherine John­son to write the book, telling the play­wright that a lot of Abba songs sug­gested themes of wed­dings and hol­i­days. She as­tutely pointed out that Abba songs fell into two group­ings: the younger, more play­ful songs such as Honey, Honey and Danc­ing Queen, and the more ma­ture and emo­tional songs such as The Win­ner Takes It All. Craymer felt that The Win­ner Takes It All would be the Don’t Cry For Me, Ar­gentina of the show, or, as the Amer­i­cans put it, the eleven o’clock num­ber.

The big make-or-break pitch meet­ing with Ul­vaeus nearly didn’t hap­pen be­cause John­son, a sin­gle mother, couldn’t find a babysit­ter for her chil­dren. Ever the pro­ducer, Craymer man­aged to pro­duce one.

Craymer then picked re­spected theatre and opera di­rec­tor Phyl­l­ida Lloyd, who had pre­vi­ously worked at the Na­tional Theatre, the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and the Royal Court, to di­rect the show.

Craymer had not only to get An­der­s­son and Ul­vaeus on­side, but she also had to con­vince their long-time man­ager Stig An­der­son and PolyGram, the record com­pany which owned the Abba back cat­a­logue. She re­mem­bers a par­tic­u­larly crunchy meet­ing with record com­pany ex­ec­u­tives try­ing to per­suade them to in­vest £1.5 mil­lion in the show – and then ask­ing them if she could have some of that money right away.

Even­tu­ally Craymer raised £3 mil­lion with which to open the show through amix­ture of in­vestors, in­clud­ing a Swedish bank whose credit com­mit­tee were ob­vi­ously Abba fans.

Craymer says there had been a lot of Hol­ly­wood in­ter­est in Mamma Mia! over the years. Soon af­ter the show opened in Lon­don, sev­eral film com­pa­nies ap­proached her into mak­ing a movie.

“ Mamma Mia! begged to be a movie, but first I had to get the shows to the point where it was ap­pro­pri­ate to make the tran­si­tion.” Tom Hanks went to see the show and ap­proached Craymer to see if she wanted to go into busi­ness with him on a movie ver­sion. Hanks’s film com­pany made My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding. Craymer says the eas­i­est thing would have been for her to take the money. But she was de­ter­mined to keep the orig­i­nal team to­gether, de­spite the wishes of Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures, which wasn’t keen on a first-time di­rec­tor tak­ing care of its $32 mil­lion in­vest­ment. Hanks even­tu­ally be­came the film’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

Mamma Mia! is, to an ex­tent, a self-por­trait of the peo­ple mak­ing it. The creative troika be­hind Mamma Mia! joke that Donna and her su­per­an­nu­ated girl­band The Dy­namos are re­ally them­selves up on stage. John­son is the slightly chaotic sin­gle mum, Lloyd is the prac­ti­cal Rosie and Craymer thought of her­self as the high-main­te­nance Tanya – that is, un­til she met Meryl Streep.

Streep went to see the show when it opened on Broad­way and wrote a let­ter to the cast, telling them how much she loved the show. Craymer was so chuffed that she kept a copy of the let­ter on her fridge. When Streep said yes to star in the movie, sud­denly Craymer’s phone calls were be­ing re­turned.

Some think that Mamma Mia! could be the sur­prise hit of the sum­mer. Oth­ers point to how badly other movie ver­sions of hit mu­si­cals have done at the box of­fice. Uni­ver­sal spent £22 mil­lion on the movie ver­sion of The Pro­duc­ers, keep­ing the mu­si­cal’s orig­i­nal di­rec­tor on board for the film, which re­ceived poor re­views and un­ex­pect­edly stiffed at the box of­fice, gross­ing £18 mil­lion, hav­ing been judged too “stagey”.

“Ev­ery­one puts fear into you,” says Craymer. “Will it be mar­keted prop­erly? Will any­one go and see it?” She says one dif­fer­ence be­tween Mamma Mia! and other movie mu­si­cals such as The Pro­duc­ers and Phan­tom of the Opera is that both of those shows were stage-bound. Mamma Mia! on the other hand is set on a mag­i­cal sun-drenched Greek isle.

And yet, this de­li­cious, hon­eyed Greek pas­try that Craymer has baked leaves you with a tart af­ter­taste. You can’t help but feel that there’s some­thing cyn­i­cal about the way that Craymer has made a wish-ful­fil­ment fan­tasy aimed squarely at the fat-bot­tomed coach par­ties who go and see the show. She ad­mits that she was never into Abba as a teenager, pre­fer­ring much cooler glam rock and Led Zep­pelin, while Catherine John­son says she was into the Sex Pis­tols.

And if, hav­ing bought the records, seen the stage show and watched the movie, you still want to give the Abba ma­chine some more of your money, money, money, you will be pleased to know that an Abba mu­seum opens in Stock­holm next year.

Take a chica cha-chance: Mamma Mia! pro­ducer Judy Craymer


Julie Wal­ters, Meryl Streep and Chris­tine Baran­ski in

ograph: Joan Mar­cus

Mamma Mia!

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