The Winner Takes It All: Why Mamma Mia! Continues to Enchant Audiences 25 Years On | Playbill

Special Features The Winner Takes It All: Why Mamma Mia! Continues to Enchant Audiences 25 Years On

In 1999, Mamma Mia! opened in London's West End, kicking off one of the biggest (and longest) parties in musical theatre history.

The cast of the current tour of Mamma Mia!

These days, the near ubiquitous joy of Mamma Mia! can feel like a foregone conclusion. The ABBA-inspired jukebox musical is an undeniable success, bringing in billions of dollars from the millions of audience members that have streamed through its doors. On Broadway, when it ran from 2001–2015, it became the 9th-longest running show; the 25th anniversary national tour is currently running Stateside. On the West End, where it opened April 6, 1999 and continues to run today, it's the 6th-longest running show.

The musical has also been adapted into a major motion picture starring some of the world's biggest screen stars, including Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth, and more. The film has become a touchstone of 2000s culture, inspiring one of the few successful musical theatre sequels in the form of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a 2018 prequel to the narrative of Mamma Mia! which became the highest grossing non-Marvel film of that year in the U.K.

Strange, then, to think of how close the phenomenon came to never happening at all.

Judy Craymer

While Mamma Mia! is based on the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA, the creation of the piece should be credited to producer Judy Craymer, who began working toward convincing the band of their songs' narrative potential in 1983. 

The name ABBA is a play on the names of the four artists who made up the group: Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Having disbanded in December 1982, both Fältskog and Lyngstad pursued solo careers while Ulvaeus and Andersson pursued a collaboration together, writing for both the stage and the screen.

When Craymer met Ulvaeus and Andersson, less than a year after ABBA's disbandment, they were in the middle of developing the musical Chess with Tim Rice. Inspired by the lyrics of the band's 1980 hit ballad "The Winner Takes It All," Craymer was certain that a story could be crafted from ABBA's songs of love and loss. Ulvaeus and Andersson were less sure.

"She approached me with an idea to produce a TV special," Ulvaeus shared with Playbill in celebration of the show's 25th anniversary. "A standalone TV special with a story loosely based on ABBA songs. I don't know why that didn't work out, but she came back later with the same idea, but now it was going to be a panto." Pantomime is a popular genre in the U.K., a live show, mainly for children, which involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story—and usually produced around Christmas.

Neither Ulvaeus nor Andersson were particularly energized by the ideas. But Craymer was committed to bringing her idea to fruition, in whatever way was necessary. As Ulvaeus remembers, "We looked at several scripts, but none of them really worked. But Judy didn't give up."

As Craymer observed Ulvaeus and Andersson's willing journey into the world of musical theatre with Chess, which played London's West End in 1986 and Broadway in 1988, she changed tactics.

"She introduced me to dramatist Catherine Johnson, and now we were talking about a full-fledged musical," Ulvaeus recalls. "I had just seen a production of Grease with two of my kids, and I thought maybe this is what it could be. An uplifting rom-com musical with lots of hit songs. But could you really write a musical backwards, that is to weave a credible story around existing songs without changing the lyrics? Having met Catherine I thought, if anyone can pull that off she can."

Catherine Johnson

A British playwright and screenwriter known for her ability to capture intensity in drama (her debut play, Rag Doll, centered on incest and child abuse), Johnson wasn't exactly an obvious fit for a musical based on dance-pop hits. In fact, she had never written a musical before. Still, Craymer saw the potential, and commissioned Johnson to write the book for Mamma Mia! in 1997.

By 1998, the narrative had emerged. A young girl, Sophie, discovers her mother Donna's diaries in the lead-up to her own young wedding. Through them, her burning curiosity as to the identity of her unidentified father is reignited, leading her to contact the three potential men revealed within the diary, inviting them all to her mother's small Grecian inn with hopes that their reunion will somehow reveal her parentage. Hijinks ensue, no biological father is revealed. But by the end of the piece, a five-pronged family has been formed.

The story, which plays on numerous classic tropes (including mistaken identity, the power of three, audience participation, and even a literal Greek chorus), had its director by 1998 when Phyllida Lloyd came on board. Then known as an opera director, her ability to mould and shape epic stories served her well with Mamma Mia!, elevating the piece alongside Johnson to what felt like a modern fable before it had even seen an audience.

With Ulvaeus and Andersson now wholly on board (with their names preceding the title to boot), Mamma Mia! opened in the West End at the Prince Edward Theatre on April 6, 1999 to mixed reviews. As audiences went wild, many critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain away the appeal, ashamed to admit that a show that had been branded the stage's answer to the Chick Flick had actually captured the popular imagination.

For many critics, it was beyond taboo to admit to liking the romantic comedy. In the late 1990s, as reflexive backlash to third-wave feminism mounted and all things girly were deemed frivolous, Mamma Mia!'s female gaze-centered narrative had many of the theatre industry's critics turning away in discomfort. As Alastair Macaulay put it in The Financial Times, "There are certain predilections to which one does not lightly confess... herewith vanishes my social life—I actually enjoyed Mamma Mia!"

In spite of the reviews (many of which were amended in the intervening decades), audiences flocked from across the world to visit Villa Donna. With 21 ABBA songs cleverly interwoven with the narrative—including a sing-along encore reprise of "Mamma Mia", "Dancing Queen", and "Waterloo", the show was the hottest party ticket in town, with lines looping around the block several times just in hope of claiming a cancellation ticket.

Björn Ulvaeus, Sandi Toksvig, Ingrid Sutej and cast of Mamma Mia! The Party Dewynters London

While everyone involved had certainly hoped for a success, no one had anticipated just how big of an impact Mamma Mia! would have. "You never know beforehand if something is going to be a hit or not," Ulvaeus states. "Before the release of 'Dancing Queen', I had no idea if it was going to be a hit!" 

The overwhelming success of the London run led the production to cross the pond, first opening in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in May 2000, where it played for five years. Prior to coming to New York, it played San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago—perfecting the piece for an American sensibility before opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on October 18, 2001. The production, which began previews October 5, was exactly what audiences where reaching for in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks: something joyous and hopeful, providing an escape from the horrors outside. 

While the show received five Tony nominations, it was shut out of any wins by its main competitor, the equally nostalgic romantic comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie. Though Mamma Mia! outlived its competition; Thoroughly Modern Millie closed after two years and 903 performances.

Mamma Mia! ran on Broadway for 5,758 performances, transferring from the Winter Garden to the Broadhurst in 2013. Last fall, the show launched a 25th anniversary national tour, which recouped its $4.25 million investment in just 13 weeks

Back home, 25 years on, the show is still running in the West End to sold-out crowds. In September 2012, the production moved to the Novello Theatre, where it remains to this day. The production has even inspired a U.K. reality show: Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream, a casting competition to find the show's leads.

Josie Benson, Mazz Murray, Gemma Goggin, and cast of Mamma Mia! Brinkhoff Moegenburg

Broadway and the West End has hardly been the end-all be-all for Mamma Mia! In the last 25 years, Mamma Mia! has played in more than 60 countries on all six continents, and continues to tour around the world. More than 65 million people have seen the show worldwide.

With more than a quarter century of joy in its wake, Mamma Mia! has become one of the most recognizable musicals of the 21st century. Through its countless stage productions and two beloved films (with a third potentially on the way), the show has embedded the music of ABBA into the hearts of generations that weren't even born during their initial height. 

For many, the songs of ABBA captures the hearts of its listeners while inspiring them to dance along (or sob along, as is the common audience reaction to Mamma Mia's o'clock number, "The Winner Takes it All"). Love at first sight, heartbreak, everlasting friendship, overwhelming desire—whatever you're going through, chances are there is an ABBA song to help you through it.

Demand from younger generations for more music even led to ABBA briefly reuniting from 2016 to 2022, producing the augmented-reality concert tour Voyage and accompanying new album for the first time in decades. Their music continues to go viral on digital platforms, 50 years after its composition, with new fans flocking to the fold every day.

When Ulvaeus considers the band's impact, he naturally becomes introspective. "Hardly a day goes by without my being reminded of how we have managed to touch millions of people around the globe. I know you're not supposed to quote yourself but I'll do it anyway. From the song 'I Still Have Faith in You' on our last album: We stand on a summit, humble and grateful to have survived."

Look Back at the Opening Night of Mamma Mia! on Broadway

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