In Sydney for the premiere of Mamma Mia!, we weave our way to the theatre and find our seats among a packed auditorium. There are a lot of ABBA fans in the house – the vibe is intense – and from the moment the show begins, they clap, cheer and howl with pure unadulterated joy.
The scale of Mamma Mia! is incredible. This is a production that has reportedly grossed over $4 billion and been seen by 60 million people in more than 450 cities around the world. Since opening at London’s Prince Edward Theatre in 1999, after a relatively long gestation period by creator Judy Craymer, the show has been performed in more than 20 languages, with many people seeing it multiple times.
The Lyric Theatre production boasts an impressively large cast, a striking set and light production, and an excellent live band. All of which is quietly ironic, given that this is the story of a single mother navigating a financially precarious existence, worn out by manual labour and social exclusion.
An interesting element of Mamma Mia!’s creation is that it could very easily never have happened, considering the extent to which the experiences of the production team who drove the musical are reflected in the lives of the main characters. In the early days, Craymer was reportedly so broke that she used to work out of other people’s offices, hoping that no one would notice the strange woman sitting in the corner using the phone. Craymer hired writer and single-parent Catherine Johnson to work on the book of the show, and the two women used to meet halfway between their respective houses as neither could afford a full train fare.
There are stories about Johnson almost missing an important pitch because she couldn’t find a babysitter, constantly worrying about money, barely being able to afford nappies and staying home in Bristol to write a story set on a beautiful Greek island because she couldn’t afford to travel. At one point, Craymer sold her flat to finance the production, yet eventually managed to raise £3 million to open the show. When it was a hit, and Hollywood came calling, Craymer and Johnson fought hard to retain their vision of a movie about ‘real older women who are overweight, over-stressed, drunk and needing each other’.
Mamma Mia! tells the story of Donna Sheridan, a British woman who escapes a restrictive upbringing to live on a Greek island with her daughter Sophie. The story begins on the eve of Sophie’s wedding, an event accompanied by Sophie’s increasing desire to discover more about herself, particularly her father’s identity. Unbeknown to Donna, Sophie invites three of Donna’s former lovers to the wedding in the hope of finding her lost father. The story boasts a number of strong female characters, particularly Rosie and Tanya, two old friends and former members of Donna’s band.
There is much to love about Mamma Mia! – an early review of the show commented that it ‘could put Prozac out of business’ and the remark still rings true. ABBA’s music is a delight, spanning a lyric base that encompasses the effervescent rush of first love through to more mature reflections on things that went wrong, and with an earworm quality that will have you humming the choruses for days afterwards.
The multigenerational love story promises a happy ending for young and old, comments on the various barriers to intimacy, and ramps up dramatic tension as the wedding day approaches. This is wholesale, feel-good, international music theatre at its most polished.
The Sydney production has excellent choreography – highlights include the ensemble work during ‘Does Your Mother Know?’, ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ and ‘Chiquitita’ – and the use of colour throughout the production is remarkable. Visually, the bright hues of the wedding and beach scenes align beautifully with the score, and the lighting design is immaculate throughout. Standout performances include those by music theatre veterans Bianca Bruce and Deone Zanotto, with great ensemble work by Etuate Lutui, Jordan Tomljenovic and newcomer Lauren Goetz.
Mamma Mia! appeals because of its upbeat exploration of family dynamics, friendship, romantic love and commitment. The eve of a wedding is a naturally performative space to which many people can relate, as are its themes of belonging and identity. It champions a conception of love as an expansive, empowering fairy tale force, with a banging soundtrack to drive the point home. Even if there are occasionally times when the show feels a little cynical or insincere, it’s almost impossible to escape its joy.
Mama Mia! is currently performing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre until 30 July before touring to QPAC’s Lyric Theatre in Brisbane from 6 August and Melbourne’s Princess Theatre from 4 October 2023.