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‘Mamma Mia!’ West End Producer Wants Greta Gerwig For Third Movie


EXCLUSIVE: Judy Craymer would just love it if Barbie filmmaker Greta Gerwig could just make herself available to complete the Mamma Mia! movie trilogy.

“Hey, Greta, if you’re free to do anymore projects…” jokes Craymer, the driving force that has kept the “Money, Money, Money” pouring into the box office for musical Mamma Mia!, featuring the songs of Swedish pop stars ABBA, for a quarter of a century.

Saturday night will mark an incredible milestone for a show that has taken over $5.685 billion at the box-office worldwide in ticket sales and is responsible for a further $17 billion in supplementary expenditure from spending on hotels, restaurants, transport and merchandising globally in the 25 years since opening night at the Cameron Macintosh-owned Prince Edward Theatre on April 6, 1999.

Those figures do not include the hundreds of millions of dollars that movie offshoots Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again have amassed.

Saturday also marks the 50 years since ABBA won the 9th Eurovision Song Contest, held at the Brighton Dome in East Sussex, with their hit “Waterloo.” 

Many wonder whether ABBA would have remained as huge as they’ve become without Mamma Mia’s firepower driving record sales.

Amazing to reflect now that many in the West End back in 1999 didn’t give Mamma Mia! much hope of lasting a year, let alone 25.

The most Craymer prayed for was to recoup its $4 million production costs “and then you hope that you might do a year or two and be in profit but you never anticipate 25 years.”

It’s now the third longest-running musical in the West End after Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.

Craymer notes that Mamma Mia! has played in three houses controlled by Mackintosh: the Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales and its present home for the last decade, the Novello.

That’s not nothing. 

(L-R) Björn Ulvaeus, Judy Craymer and Benny Andersson

Courtesy of Littlestar

As we sip mocktails at the newly opened Arlington restaurant on the site of the old Caprice, a favourite hangout of Princess Diana’s — ours too — the producer laughs as she says, ”I mean, I don’t think Cameron would have said, ”Now darling I know you’re going to run 25 years so that’s marvelous.”   

Craymer and her team are relentless in ensuring that Mamma Mia! at the Novello’s coffers are brimming plays. The whopping advance it boasts now is the best it’s been since 2010, a hefty percentage of takings in recent months are, in part, down to the ITV talent show I Have a Dream aimed at discovering MM! stars of the future.

The West End is brutal, same with Broadway, says Craymer. “People are queuing at the door to take over your theatre. If anything happens and you don’t really break even, that’s it.”

She’s well aware of the criticisms aimed at theatre blockers, the long-running shows that occupy theatres for decades. ”I kind of go, well, you know, they are part of the soft economy here in London.”

Musicals have always been important to the West End’s ecosystem but three, four and more decades ago they didn’t run as long because, as Craymer puts it, ”they didn’t have the optics” in the sense of marketing and advertising. And back then there was no internet. 

The turning point on marketing was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in 1981, produced by the composer and Mackintosh.

Craymer was a young stage manager at the New London [now renamed the Gillian Lynne Theatre after the legendary choreographer of Cats] and she took note of the show’s deceptively simple cat’s eyes poster and logo design with silhouettes of dancers for pupils. “Just the image, the icon, everything about Cats captured me.”

The happy, fresh-faced young girl in the Mamma Mia! advertising campaign offered punters a sense of hope and the promise of having a good time. The logo had allure, but also without words, conveyed a language that all could understand. That’s one of the reasons the show has enjoyed success in so many countries. 

Travel provided a lot of its audience and the West End is such an artery. Tourists from all over the UK head there and so do visitors from overseas.

Having worked with Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the musical Chess, Craymer was keenly aware of the group’s hits. Winner Takes It All was a favourite and she saw dramatic possibilities in it and other numbers. But she dismissed the idea of a mere juke-box show; she loathes the term.

The show Craymer imagined would boast a book upon which ABBA songs could be dramatically applied.

It certainly wouldn’t be the ABBA story, neither she nor Andersson and Ulvaeus wanted that.

Craymer met with several writers but their treatments disappointed until she met with Catherine Johnson, a single mother of two who’d written an award-winning play called Rag Doll and some episodes for BBC series Love Hurts.

The two women, both 39, discussed various scenarios in which to introduce ABBA’s songs. Johnson had an idea of the story involving a mother raising her daughter. 

As Johnson got up to leave, the writer articulated a stray thought. ”What if the mother in our story had slept with three men and she didn’t know which one of them was the father?”

Craymer told her to “sit back down!”

Mamma Mia! was on its way.

They were soon joined by the Birmingham University and regional theatre-trained director Phyllida Lloyd who brought incredible structure and themes to the piece. Particularly, Craymer recalls, the note that action has to take place in 24 hours.

“It had a kind of strong Greek mother-daughter tempest, lost love foundation, and there was a two- generational aspect of the story. It has a kind of bohemian intellect but it is also incredibly playful and has Phyllida’s sense of humour and wit.”

I can attest that it has a lot of Craymer’s wit in there too. 

“There’s a lot of all three of us in there,” Craymer allows. “We all had a similar sense of humour that was brought to Mamma Mia! The sense of irony, slightly saucy, a bit wicked, a bit naughty. It’s just a wink at the audience all the time that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. I mean, not us as producer, director and writer, but the show.”

(L-R) Anthony Van Laast, Phyllida Lloyd, Björn Ulvaeus and Martin Koch

Catherine Ashmore

But I have always contended that the show’s underpinned by the socioeconomic and feminist status of Donna [the show’s heroine], her family and friends. Johnson’s book and the contributions made by Craymer and Lloyd have been forged in steel.

”Underneath the Lycra,” Craymer argues “are some very strong foundations.”

And it created great roles for women “because often in musical theatre they aren’t there because you’re usually either the ingenue or an actress who is probably in her 30s. To have three leads, Donna and her friends Rosie and Tanya,is incredible,” Craymer observes.

Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski played them on the big screen though they were created on the London stage by Siobhán McCarthy, Jenny Galloway and Louise Plowright.

Original Super Troupers: (L-R) Louise Plowright, Siobhán McCarthy and Jenny Galloway

Catherine Ashmore

Let’s not forget the daughter Sophie [created by Lisa Stokke on stage and Amanda Seyfriend on screen], the ingenue, and bride-to-be, seeking her real dad.

Thats’s where the blokes get a look-in.

The trio of possible fathers, Bill, Harry and Sam — played by Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan in the two movies — and Sophie’s fiancé Sky [Dominic Cooper in the film versions].

Nicolas Colicos, Paul Clarkson and Hilton McRae originated the three “dads” at the Prince Edward with Andrew Langtree as Sophie’s beau Sky. Interestingly, Joe Machota, now Head of Theatre at CAA, created the role of Sky on Broadway. His clients include Craymer.

“He probably won’t thank you for mentioning he was our first Sky on Broadway,” she jokes.

Having broken the major Mamma Mia! stories back in the day, I caught, along with my wife and young son, an early preview at the Prince Edward in March 1999.

First day of ‘Mamma Mia!’ rehearsals in London

Catherine Ashmore

During the interval, I opined that it’s a great, fun show and muttered something about it being superior fluff.

Mrs. Bamigboye gave me a look that could kill and admonished me for daring to call it, fluff!   

I duly paid far more attention to the second act and I began to see what she meant which goes back to my belief in the structure of its powerful book. What really clicked for me is that although Sophie wants to know who her father is, her mother doesn’t particularly care who it was. Having returned to the show far too many times to confess here, I’ve often eavesdropped on conversations exiting the theatre where audiences, specially the women, debate, full-on, all the points my wife raised about feminism, paternity and the fact that women get stuff done.

Of course, the songs are the icing on the delicious wedding cake. They make you happy and some, in the Nordic tradition, make you sad. 

My test is always to listen to how the Donna of the day interprets the number “Slipping Through My Fingers.” As my son grew older, I really began to understand the message behind it. Siobhán McCarthy did it so movingly the first time, and I’ve always admired how more recent Donna’s like Sara Poyzer and current Donna, Mazz Murray, have handled the number.

Mazz Murray as Donna in current London cast of ‘Mamma Mia!’

Brinkoff & Mögenburg

Streep performed it beautifully too. Of course she did.

Streep and the company of the Mamma Mia! movies want to return for MM! 3. I revealed that last year but it’s still the case, Craymer nods her agreement. However, more about MM! 3 she will not say. I know when she means it, so I stop prodding lest I am prodded with a fork.

Likewise, with the Cher biography movie she’s producing via her Judy Films banner.

Eric Roth’s script was not accepted by Cher.

But I hear a new screenwriter has met with Cher twice and all is well but a director has yet to be appointed.

The MM!3 movie will be a big deal and it’s clear, even though Craymer won’t say this out loud, she and fellow producer Gary Goetzman wants to get a wriggle on with it. She has a story outline for the piece but I gather many more conversations need to be had with Andersson and Ulvaeus about a song list.

And who would direct it?

She won’t say the names on her mind, but agrees with me that Greta Gerwig would be great. “I love her, I love her work.”

She adds that clearly, “I’m a big fan of Greta Gerwig and I’d like to think that she grew up on Mamma Mia!. Barbie is so influenced by musicals, so influenced by musical theatre, from Mamma Mia! to Les Miz in the score, in the writing. Even in Billie Eilish’s writing and in Mark Ronson’s writing.”

Also, Craymer believes that Barbie has been influenced by the “female empowerment that Mamma Mia! has and because we are an all girl team,” just as Gerwig and Margot Robbie are.

Smiling a little wickedly, she adds “and the men are the bits on the side. The men are happy to be the sidekicks and the women take the lead roles and dominate. So, you know, Stellan Skarsgaård, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth are our Kens.”

There’s something deeper here, I say.

“Maybe we’ll have a Mamma Mia! Barbie baby,” she quips. ”We’ll call it Marbie.”

Not necessarily in jest, Craymer adds “I’m going to pitch it to Universal, Marbie.”

It’s okay to talk about female empowerment now, she tells me. ”Twenty-five years ago, people were like, oh really? People laughed. I’m really proud of it. We talk about the young generation coming, all the girls. There really is a kind of good solid young teen female empowerment through Mamma Mia!.”

Mamma Mia! tour has been winding its way across America since October and her team in New York are working to welcome it back to NYC. “I think Broadway would like a bit of Mamma Mia!.”

There are university studies written about Mamma Mia! and how it’s still relevant after 25 years. How it embraces families, all kinds of families and how it puts the ABBA songs in context.

“Well, there is a psychological expression, like the Mozart effect,” says Craymer.

“It’s the effect of whether it sets off the dopamine, it’s like Mozart’s music soothes children and ABBA music sets off the kind of endorphins. It is an endorphin.”

It takes a lot of navigation, intuition and experience to have kept Mamma Mia! on stage all these years.

“I mean in the wrong hands it would have gone very wrong,” says Craymer, hand over her mouth.

Many of her close-knit team have been with her for the past quarter of a century helping her run Littlestar Services Ltd, the company she established with Andersson, Ulvaeus and Australian-based producer Richard East to manage all things relating to the Mamma Mia! universe. Craymer and the two ABBA stars each control 50 percent of Littlestar.

The creative team of director Lloyd, writer Johnson, designer Mark Thompson, choreographer Anthony Van Laast, lighting designer Howard Harrison, sound designers Bobby Aitken, musical supervisor Martin Koch and casting director David Grindrod have also remained on the good ship MM! The show’s key publicists Amanda Malpass [who worked on it from the very beginning when she was at the mighty Peter Thompson Associates], Adrian Bryan-Brown of Boneau/Bryan-Brown and Dee McCourt from Mark Borowski PR have stuck by Craymer too. For many years the late Andrew Treagus executive produced and general managed but now those duties are overseen by Philip Effemey. Day to day, Amanda Brewster runs Craymer’s office as her EA.

Five hundred guests will join a sold-out audience at the Novello on Saturday where original cast members will greet the present cast. There are likely to be plenty of surprises but Craymer is keeping those under wraps until the big night.

Though, I do believe there’s a 15-minute film to kickoff the proceedings.

Ouch! I feel a fork prodding me in the ribs for revealing that one.

Mamma Mia! How can I resist you?

SHERIDAN SMITH AND PATRICIA CLARKSON LOCATE THE POETRY OF HEARTBREAK

It’s not an understatement to note that Opening Night, a new musical with a book by its director Ivo Van Hove and music, lyrics, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Rufus Wainwright — and based on John Cassavettes’ 1977 movie which starred Gena Rowlands as Myrtle, an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she approaches the Broadway opening of a new play — opened to a high level of vitriol from London theatre critics.

I was away in Perth, Western Australia, oblivious to it all. Well, okay, not totally oblivious. A trusted friend wrote me that while they wanted to love it, they instead found it “a mess.”

‘Opening Night’ at the Gielgud Theatre

Baz Bamigboye/Deadline

Of course, friends texted me choice lines from the notices.

Oh, dear.  

But, I was kind of switched off, plus I was thousands of miles away and my wife forbade me from looking at my phone except to make restaurant bookings at the Il Lido Italian Canteen across the road from the beach at Cottesloe. Yeah, it was great. Sorry you weren’t there.

So, when I caught up with Opening Night at the Gielgud Theatre on Thursday night my head was clear because I’d been away from all the noise.

And I loved it. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the book’s structure. In a way, its imperfections added to the sense of Myrtle’s unravelling.

Myrtle here is played by Sheridan Smith and wow, does she capture an artist coming unglued.

We watch aghast at what has driven Myrtle to breaking point. We who follow the goings on in London theatre also know that Sheridan Smith herself has endured her own ups and downs while performing a major role on stage.

It’s a breathtaking performance as Smith careens around the wide stage ad-libbing dialogue while the author of the play-within-a-play, played by Nicola Hughes, sits offstage trying not to lose her own mind.

The show boasts a super ensemble and they include Hadley Fraser as the drama’s director, Amy Lennox as his wife, John Marquez as producer, Shira Haas in a key role, and Benjamin Walker as Myrtle’s real-life estranged husband who plays a similar role in the play within-the play. 

Yes, that’s Broadway’s Benjamin Walker who broke through in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. I thought he’d been lost to movies and television. Great to see him treading the boards again.

Sheridan Smith with the ‘Opening Night’ company

Baz Bamigboye/Deadline

Opening Night is messy. It is raw. But it’s also fresh.

Van Hove and Wainwright continued working on Opening Night after it opened, so I’m wondering whether they fixed whatever it was that so upset the critics and those audience members who walked out of previews.

It may well be that, perhaps I got it more than most because I know the Cassavettes film pretty well.

The shock of the new often, well, shocks. That’s something theatre should do. It need not be the usual formula all of the darn time.

Eugene O’Neill’s landmark drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night opened at Wyndham’s Theatre earlier this week. 

It was written in “tears and blood” in 1941 but O’Neill, who died in 1953, decreed that it not be staged in his lifetime. It reached Broadway in 1956.

I’ve seen many iterations that have featured actors playing James Tyrone, the tight-fisted thespian summering in a house he loves but his wife, the convent-educated Mary Tyrone, loathes. Over many years I have caught the following thespians play James and Mary Tyrone: Jack Lemmon and Bethel Leslie [Kevin Spacey played James Jr.]; Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst; Brian Denney and Vanessa Redgrave [Philip Seymour Hoffman played James Jr.] and Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange [Michael Shannon as James Jr.]. And that’s just on Broadway. I’ve watched several versions here in London.

Director Jeremy Herrin brings Succession’s Brian Cox as James Tyrone and Patricia Clarkson as Mary Tyrone. Daryl McCormack and Laurie Kynaston play their sons James Jr and Edmund. They’re a fractured family; all of them gripped by one addiction or another.

(L-R) Louisa Harland, Daryl McCormack, Brian Cox, Patricia Clarkson and Laurie Kynaston at opening night of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’

Baz Bamigboye/Deadline

But it’s Mary, the blessed mother, that they tip-toe around. She tries to hide her dependence on her medicine -morphine- by claiming it soothes the rheumatism in her hands. The causes are deeper than that. The cause is her family.

I had an interesting conversation during the interval. An actress friend wondered whether the going was a tad slow. She asked whether we expect things to happen right now. Should she slow herself down and let the play come to her.

I suggested she sit still and take in the play. She apologized and told me that of late she and her children have watched a lot of fast-paced movies and that she’d forgotten that real life isn’t like the movies.

In the acts that followed I could see the actress I conversed with totally absorbed, hypnotized even, as she watched Patrica Clarkson give Mary’s poetic soliloquy.

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ with Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson

Johan Persson

I turned back to watching Clarkson and I too was soon under her spell.



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