British playwright Catherine Johnson's personal rags-to-riches journey, and how her phenomenally successful musical Mamma Mia! now gives The Lion King a run for the money – all the way to the bank
by Richard Burnett
The first time I saw the musical Mamma Mia! was in Toronto in the summer of 2000, with famed director Phyllida Lloyd at the helm. Lloyd had directed the original West End production and would go on to direct its Broadway debut in October later that year.
But the matinee I saw at the Royal Alexandra Theatre that day was packed with celebrities, notably Jennifer Lopez who sat directly in front of me with a suited, black-sunglasses security cortege worthy of an American president. In those days J-Lo was the biggest star on the planet and I think most theatre-goers that day spent as much time watching her as they did watching the show.
Mamma Mia! created a new template – driving a plot on existing pop songs – since copied by every other big shot producer trying to make a quick buck.
Which would be a shame, really, because Mamma Mia! was a really fun show. It’s no Lion King (which debuted a couple years earlier). But Mamma Mia! created a new template – driving a plot on existing pop songs – since copied by every other big shot producer trying to make a quick buck.
But where Priscilla Queen of the Desert - The Musical abjectly fails, Mamma Mia! abba-solutely shines.
And that has everything to do with British playwright Catherine Johnson’s well-crafted book.
I blabbed with Johnson the last time Mamma Mia! toured Canada (see below for the North American tour’s upcoming Canadian dates in 2012) and I ended up liking her a whole lot because she first thought Mamma Mia! was going to be another West End crock of shit.
“I was anti-Abba,” Johnson told me. “They represented everything I disliked. I was into new wave and punk. I liked The Clash in particular. Abba was Europop cheese. But I got over it. Abba Gold was released and was the one CD my friends all played at parties. Then everyone my age said, ‘We do like Abba after all!’ If I hadn’t liked them I couldn’t have done [this play]. I really started to feel respect for them.”
In another stroke of genius, Craymer also eventually hired Phyllida Lloyd to direct, forming the theatre world’s most successful all-woman trifecta.
Around that time the four founding members of Abba refused a $1-billion U.S. offer (yes, you read right) for a world reunion tour. But songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus in 1997 agreed to lend their songs to British producer Judy Craymer, who had met them in 1983 while also working on the Tim Rice musical Chess.
Craymer later came up with the idea for Mamma Mia! after hearing the song The Winner Takes It All, sold Abba on her idea, then asked award-winning British playwright Catherine Johnson to write a comedy-romance based on the songs. In another stroke of genius, Craymer also eventually hired Phyllida Lloyd to direct, forming the theatre world’s most successful all-woman trifecta.
Johnson, meanwhile, took a whopping two-and-a-half years to write the book (and you thought the backstory for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was labyrinthine!).
Over the course of the play, the cast sings 22 Abba songs that fit together uncannily, as if they’d been written for the narrative.
“Benny and Björn gave me my space but had final approval,” Johnson explains. “I had to change stuff but the storyline always stayed the same. When a new director [Phyllida Lloyd] came on board I had to reshape it again. The play could have gone on for five hours so I had to remember the songs were going to tell the story. It took about two years to write the book, and there were a few rewrites during previews. So about two-and-a-half years.”
In the end Johnson wrote a sunny play about a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her wedding on the same Greek island paradise her mother visited 20 years earlier. Over the course of the play, the cast sings 22 Abba songs that fit together uncannily, as if they’d been written for the narrative.
“It only became seamless afterwards, like a puzzle,” Johnson says. “You cut off bits to make it fit. There were moments when I felt like I was chopping my toes off. I tackled it as if they were my songs, not Abba’s songs. Everything in the story had to come through the songs and the characters had to live through what the songs said about them.”
The phenomenal audience reaction worldwide has since made Mamma Mia! the world’s number one musical – unless of course you’re the producer of The Lion King, then that musical is the world’s number one musical.
Johnson’s own life would also make for a great play.
Her musical’s success, Johnson believes, is because “the audience is as much a part of Mamma Mia! as the cast. You know, I went to see a play last night [in London] and left feeling like I’d been outside a party looking in. Everyone on stage forgot about the audience. But Mamma Mia! doesn’t do that.”
Johnson’s own life would also make for a great play. She was expelled from school at age 16, was married at 18 and divorced by the time she turned 24. Johnson then moved to Bristol and was unemployed with one child to support when she spotted a notice in the local paper for the Bristol Old Vic/HTV West playwrighting competition.
So she wrote the play Rag Doll – a play about incest and child abuse – using the pseudonym Maxwell Smart and won the competition. The play was staged by the Bristol Old Vic and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I’ve never thought of Mamma Mia! as one of my babies because it’s also not connected to me,” Johnson says. “People think of Abba. The funny thing is, you have ambitions as a writer. I’m a serious writer. I had boxed myself in a particular field. But when I’m down, I think, ‘Mamma Mia! is playing somewhere around the world right now.’ I’m very proud of it.”
Mamma Mia! plays at Montreal’s Salle Wilfred-Pelletier from January 3 to 8.
Click here for tickets and more info.
Other Canadian cities on the 2012 North American Mamma Mia! Tour include Kingston, Ontario (July 9-10) and Victoria, BC (July 31 to August 5). Click here for all cities and dates on the official Mamma Mia! website.