'Mamma Mia!' Musical gets new lease on life
NEW YORK -- During one of her last visits to the Winter Garden Theatre, Judy Craymer took in the empty seats, the elegant gilding and the ghost light quietly burning onstage.
"I love an empty auditorium," she said peacefully. Then without missing a beat, her inner producer took over from her inner romantic. "Well, not if the show's on, of course."
Both sides of Craymer -- the canny and the creative -- are being revealed as she takes her beloved musical "Mamma Mia!" from the Winter Garden, its home of 12 years, to a new location six blocks south at the Broadhurst Theatre, where it begins pierformances Saturday.
"We get to have another party," says Craymer, who has helped shepherd the London version of "Mamma Mia!" through two moves since it opened in 1999. "I always like to have an excuse for a party."
The move, which comes on the eve of "Mamma Mia!" racking up 5,000 Broadway performances -- a landmark it will reach Nov. 9 -- is being done with the hope that it can lengthen the show's life. The 1,182-seat Broadhurst is more intimate than the 1,498-seat Winter Garden and costs can be lower.
"Economically, it benefits the longevity," Craymer says.
While "Mamma Mia!" was doing fine business at the Winter Garden, Craymer looked down the road and took advantage of the empty Broadhurst -- both are owned by the Shubert Organization -- as well as relishing a chance to shake off any cobwebs.
"Every time the show moves it gets reinvigorated," she says.
No one -- including Craymer -- expected the show to have lasted this long. A hit in London, it opened in New York in dark times, just a few weeks after the 2001 terror attacks.
Craymer admits being nervous at one dress rehearsal at how New Yorkers would react to her fairy tale. She needn't have worried. "There was this huge kind of cheer and feeling of ‘We want this to work,' " she recalls. "It was electric."
New Yorkers turned out to be much like everyone else -- the feel-good show featuring more than 20 classic ABBA hits, including "Dancing Queen" and "S.O.S." -- has been a hit in dozens of countries, including South Korea, Italy, Denmark, South Africa and Spain.
Along the way, the show has navigated new cultures and languages. One lesson was learned in Japan, where it was rude for the cast to leave while the audience was applauding and yet also rude for the audience to applaud if the cast wasn't onstage. "So the curtain calls would go on forever because nobody left the stage or the auditorium," Craymer says with a laugh.
In America, the show has grossed some $622 million and become the 10th longest-running show in Broadway history. Another national tour -- and an international tour -- will be on the road by the end of the year. A version also opens in the spring in Las Vegas.
"I call it the antidepressant," says Judy McLane, who has been a star in the show in two different characters since 2004. "You cannot leave our show and not feel good."
The musical also prompted Craymer to produce a movie version starring Meryl Streep that boosted the show's box office. The musical has resonated so much that it has in some ways become better known than the people who created the songs.
It was Craymer who conceived of the show in the 1980s and approached members of ABBA. Instead of doing a musical about the band, she insisted their songs help tell an original story.
"I love musicals and I loved ABBA's songs and I genuinely believe that those songs were very theatrical," she says. "To me, ‘The Winner Takes It All' was the big 11 o'clock number. That has to be sung onstage by a woman. That is the ‘Don't Cry for Me Argentina.' And that's where it started."
Craymer teamed up with playwright Catherine Johnson and a story set on a Greek island was born: A young woman who is about to be married wants her father to give her away. But she discovers that he could be any one of three men, so she invites all three, knowing sparks will fly. It's a story about second chances, love and the importance of family.
Fitting in the songs was hard since there were so many hits. It was impossible to get "Fernando" crammed in there -- though it's hummed by a cast member -- and "Waterloo" shows up only in the encore. ("The lyrics were ridiculous," Craymer says.)
After Craymer launched her show to great success, her phone started ringing with other offers to turn music catalogs into viable stage shows.
"It is more difficult I think than people realize," she says, and cites her own difficulty in mounting the Spice Girls musical "Viva Forever," which closed this year after a disappointing six-month run in London.
"What I think is ABBA is a one-off," she says. "The songs have such brio and the show has such brio. I don't think there are that many catalogs like that out there."
"Mamma Mia!," directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has endured plenty during its long life -- 9/11, wars, the 2008 financial meltdown and critics, who have never warmed to the show's high-energy sweetness.
But Craymer, who will get to see her portrait hung in the venerable restaurant Sardi's next month, sees people who saw it years ago returning with their own kids and dancing in the aisles. And McLane, who is proudly leading the cast to its new home, sees young people making "Mamma Mia!" their first theatrical show.
"That's something that urges me to look for every fresh moment that I can each night," says the actress. "If there's someone in the audience who's seeing a Broadway show for the first time, I feel a responsibility to do the best I can and give them a theatrical experience so they will come back."
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