THRASHER-HORNE LONG READS: The story of how MAMMA MIA! became MAMMA MIA!

MAMMA MIA!’s creator Judy Craymer tells how this magnificent record-breaking musical first triumphed in London and then conquered the world…

As Creative Producer of MAMMA MIA!, my job started long before any script had been written. The story begins more than 25 years ago when I first met Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the songwriting geniuses behind ABBA. I was working for Sir Tim Rice at the time, who was collaborating with Benny and Björn on his musical Chess, and I was immediately smitten – after all, these were the men who had written ‘Dancing Queen’, one of the greatest pop songs of all time – but it was another of their songs, ‘The Winner Takes It All’, that first suggested to me the potential of an original musical using Benny and Björn’s classic compositions. The lyrics revealed a roller coaster story of love and loss that struck me as extraordinarily theatrical, but how was I to bring this to life?

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First I had to approach Benny and Björn, who were understandably a little unsure of my intentions. I explained that the project I had in mind would focus on a new and exciting story; it wouldn’t be a tribute show, or the ‘ABBA Story’, but a truly original ‘book’ musical. They weren’t 100% convinced at the time, but they didn’t absolutely close the door so I took hope.

So I sat on the floor of my apartment listening to ABBA late into the night. I may have driven my neighbors to despair but as time passed I became more and more certain of my idea. In 1995 my tenacity finally paid off. Björn said, “If you can find the right writer and story, well… let’s see what happens”…

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A year later I was on location with a film I was producing when the director mentioned Catherine Johnson. I was aware of her work as a playwright and, even better, I knew her agent. We met in January 1997 and soon I was confidently telling Björn that we had found our writer and that my co-producer Richard East and I had commissioned her to write the story.

My brief to Catherine was that no lyrics could change, the story should be a contemporary, ironic, romantic comedy and that if she listened carefully to ABBA’s songs, she’d notice how they fell into two different generations: the slightly younger, playful songs like ‘Honey, Honey’ and ‘Dancing Queen’, and the more mature, emotional songs such as ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’…and so the idea of a cross-generational love story was devised.

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By the end of that year Catherine had finished the first draft of MAMMA MIA!’s script and I persuaded Phyllida Lloyd to come on board as our director. Her background was serious, legit theatre and opera and her secret weapon was her ‘Dry Martini wit’. We discovered we all shared the same birth-year and soon firmly bonded.

It was unusual, if not unheard of, for three women to be the collaborative creative force behind what was to become such a commercial success. From a personal point of view, I think it readdressed the balance and had a great nurturing effect on the production. We were all happy to jump in and make the tea. Appropriately, MAMMA MIA! features three strong women in the story. Their characters are completely different – slightly bossy, a bit chaotic, extremely practical, and very high maintenance! We have a lot of laughs about who is who in real life, and, as time goes by, it’s a little worrying that we have become even more like those characters on stage.

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Suddenly it was time to give up my day job as a television and film producer and prepare for the white-knuckle ride of making the dream a reality: money to raise, a theatre to find, artwork to create, ticket agents to seduce, deadlines to meet. It was the summer of 1998 and we had to open by April 7th 1999 or we’d lose Phyllida, who’d been booked years in advance to direct an opera at The Coliseum in London. The suggested opening dates were April 6th or April 9th. April 6th happened to be the anniversary, to the day, of ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’ 25 years before. It seemed a good omen.

Although Björn was enthusiastic and shared the vision for the musical, Benny was a little more cautious and at any time both could have put an end to the whole project. It was a tense time, as their emotional backing as well as their creative input was very important to me. If they were going to trust me with their fabulous songs I didn’t want to let them down. Benny and I agreed that on our First Night one of us would be able to tell the other “I told you so”.

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By now we had a date for opening but we had no theatre. We’d been looking at smaller venues when suddenly the rather large and prestigious Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End became available, the very same theatre at which Chess had opened ten years earlier – another omen perhaps? But its sheer size meant that the scale of the production had to expand dramatically too, with cast, crew, set and budget all having to be reworked. A lot of fingers were crossed for the big night.

And so… April 6th 1999, a night I will never forget – the World Premiere of MAMMA MIA! The audience were charmed and one British critic wrote, “MAMMA MIA! could put Prozac out of business”.

Benny heartily accepted his defeat: with the entire theatre dancing in the aisles, he turned to me and said, “You can say it now”. I flashed back, “I told you so!”. We still joke about it.

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On the Road with MAMMA MIA!

The idea of MAMMA MIA!’s international appeal had never been seriously considered when the show was in its infancy, but with a certifiable hit in London came the chance to recreate the show in other countries, and over the past 17 years we have certainly done that. The statistics are mind-boggling and defy comparison with any other musical production in history.

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Our very first North American premiere was in Canada at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, where we were booked in for six months. The production ran for five years. The first US Tour ventured into the United States, opening at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco also in 2000. We were warned that America wasn’t as familiar with ABBA’s music as their European counterparts, so we should consider Broadway a cautious dream. Not for long. Having celebrated over 12 years and 5000 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre, MAMMA MIA! transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in late 2013. As of its final performance in September 2015, MAMMA MIA! was the 8th longest-running show in Broadway history.

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It’s been a similar story wherever we’ve been: in Las Vegas the show ran for six solid years at the Mandalay Bay Theatre. Across Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore it ran for four years.

And then we began translating MAMMA MIA! into other languages, beginning with the German-language production at the Operettenhaus in Hamburg in 2002, where 2.5 million people saw the show over the following five years. Similarly, audiences have flocked to hear their favorite songs sung in their own language in Utrecht, Antwerp, Moscow, Gothenburg, Oslo, Mexico City, Copenhagen, Sao Paolo, Aarhus, Rome, Milan and Buenos Aires, as well as throughout Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Japan, Korea and France. Benny and Björn certainly had their work cut out in the build up to the Stockholm production, which ran for over two years. We were delighted to launch the English-language International Tour, which premiered in Dublin in 2004 and has been enjoyed by over 5 million people.

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And then there’s China, Shanghai to be precise, where MAMMA MIA! opened in July 2011 and what an extraordinary achievement by the whole organisation that represents. It took literally years of planning and negotiating as well as actual political change within the People’s Republic to reach this goal…to reach the point at which MAMMA MIA!’s technical complexity and artistic excellence – leaving aside the challenges of translation and casting – can be staged and performed to the highest professional standards by an entirely Chinese company yet still under the direction of the British associate creative team who work on MAMMA MIA! around the world. With a Chinese language version of the show flourishing, the potential is astronomical: in effect, another 1.3 billion people or one-fifth of the world’s population now have their very own version of MAMMA MIA! to enjoy.

On the Big Screen with MAMMA MIA!

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And let’s not forget MAMMA MIA! – The Movie. What a thrill to work with Universal Pictures and the same brilliant team of Catherine and Phyllida, augmented for some glorious weeks in 2007-2008 by movie stars of the caliber of Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper. The film had its worldwide premiere in London on 30th June 2008, in the city where the stage play had celebrated its premiere nine years before, and rapidly made history as the highest grossing movie of all time at the UK and Irish box offices.

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One thing I’ve learnt from seventeen fun and frantic years of overseeing and coordinating the many productions of MAMMA MIA! is that the potential and possibilities are continuously exciting and seem to be limitless. The way our film was received and taken to heart by so many people throughout the world seems to confirm that.

For me, the whole experience of MAMMA MIA! has been totally life-changing and would simply not have been possible without an amazing creative team and the trust and co-operation of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. My special thanks must also go to the wonderful actors, musicians, stage management, crew and theatre staff who make MAMMA MIA! happen on stages around the globe, night after night after magical night…

Enjoy the show!

 

JudyCraymer

SEEN AT THE SCENE – Trace Adkins

At the Thrasher-Horne Center, the only thing more beautiful than our shows is our audiences. Our crowd last Thursday night put on their best cowboy boots and their fanciest ten-gallon hats and moseyed on down to catch Trace Adkins live on our Main Stage. Trace definitely didn’t disappoint, launching into a high-energy set packed with all the hits. It was a night the audience won’t soon forget. Pick up your tickets today for our upcoming shows at THcenter.org and who knows… you may be the next beautiful person to grace our blog!

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SEEN AT THE SCENE – Steve Trash: Ecology Is Awesome

At the Thrasher-Horne Center, the only thing more beautiful than our shows is our audiences. This morning was a delight as over 1,200 local students packed into our Main Stage to catch Ecology Is Awesome, the latest nature-themed magic show from Steve Trash. For over an hour, Steve taught the kids about pollution, recycling, and how to help save the planet through an array of illusions and zany sight gags. Afterwards, Steve magically appeared in the lobby to greet and take pictures with all the kids. Pick up your tickets today for our upcoming shows at THcenter.org and who knows… you may be the next beautiful person to grace our blog!

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SEEN AT THE SCENE – Todrick Hall presents Straight Outta Oz

At the Thrasher-Horne Center, the only thing more beautiful than our shows is our audiences. Just witness our crowd last Friday night as we welcomed Todrick Hall and his troupe of sensational singers and dancers of Straight Outta Oz to our Main Stage for a high energy musical spectacular that included laughter, tears, singalongs… and even a surprise on-stage marriage proposal (SPOILER ALERT: She Said Yes)! Pick up your tickets today for our upcoming shows at THcenter.org and who knows… you may be the next beautiful person to grace our blog!

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Todrick invited a few people on stage at the end of the show, including his “most energetic fan”, a fan celebrating his birthday, and a third fan who had her life changed with a surprise engagement from her fiancee.

How do you know Todrick Hall?

Chances are you’ve seen Todrick Hall sometime in the past eight years and may not have even realized it. From season nine of American Idol, to the Virgin America pre-flight video, to over 403.5 million views of videos on his YouTube channel, you’ve probably seen Todrick around.

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At the Thrasher-Horne, we’ve known about Todrick for a while. Executive Director Denton Yockey remembers hiring him for one of his first stage gigs, long before his meteoric rise to fame had begun. When he was still a relative newcomer to show business, Denton cast a young Toddy as the Doormat in a Ft. Worth, Texas production of Beauty & the Beast. Now a full-fledged star, he owes much of his fame to people like Denton who took a chance on him early in life. As a result, Denton was able to reach out to Todrick’s people and arrange a performance of his brand new, fully updated version of Straight Outta Oz especially for all the Toddlerz in Northeast Florida.

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Todrick has an infectious sort of personality that seeps out into everything he involves himself with, whether it be music, movies, television, or stage. This personal brand is all over Straight Outta Oz. His YouTube signature style involves re-imagining fairy tales into modern mini-Broadway extravaganzas, replacing their tried and true musical standards with arrangements that speak more directly to today’s pop charts. So it’s no surprise that his first large scale musical outing takes the classic story of The Wizard Of Oz – one of the most well known and revered Broadway creations of all time – and spins it into a tale of Todrick’s journey from Plainview, Texas to the bright lights of Los Angeles, California (cast in Straight Outta Oz as Oz Angeles).

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Todrick Hall is one of those names that isn’t going away any time soon. Since landing in Los Angeles, he’s found representation with Scooter Braun at UTA (aka Justin Bieber’s agent), co-starred in videos with Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and can count folks like Beyonce among his growing roster of Hollywood friends and collaborators (the Queen Bey herself recorded a video segment featured in Straight Outta Oz).

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This tour represents a turning point for Todrick. His star is headed to the stratosphere, catapulting him to fame at a level equal to the very musicians and stars he’s spent the first part of his career both parodying and idolizing. And with his recent stint as the lead in Kinky Boots on Broadway, this should be the last time Northeast Florida is asking itself, “How do I know Todrick Hall?”

Tickets for Todrick Hall presents: Straight Outta Oz are available to the general public TODAY. Prices range from $29 to $39 with all fees included. Tickets and more information are available at (904) 276-6815 or online at THcenter.org.

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The Thrasher-Horne Center is a not-for profit performing arts venue and conference center owned and operated by St. Johns River State College.  It is located on the Orange Park campus at 283 College Drive in Orange Park, Florida.

 

Ten Outrageous Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Trace Adkins

Trace Adkins has led quite the interesting life. He’s been present on country music charts since 1996, following the release of his debut album ‘Dreamin’ Out Loud’. But surrounding his musical fame is a life full of extreme variety that has found the roughneck crooner in some of the most unexpected places. Check out the facts we’ve complied below for an alternative view into the life of one of country’s most exciting names.

 

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10.  He’s A Damn Good Author. Trace wrote a book in 2007 called A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck. Besides the long title, it has received great reviews and is rated 5 out of 5 stars at amazon.com.

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9. Trace Adkins is 6’6″.
Ever wondered how tall Trace actually is?  With some research we can confirm that yeah… he’s a big dude.
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8. His ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ charities were very personal.
During his first appearance on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ Adkins played for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network because his daughter Brianna suffers from severe allergic reactions to peanuts, milk and eggs. His second time around, he played for the American Red Cross, an organization that came to his family’s rescue after their 2011 house fire.
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7. He’s a big fan of ’80s rock and roll.
Adkins idolizes country stars like Merle Haggard and Ronnie Milsap, but also rock bands like the Eagles, Journey and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He believes that “the best rock ‘n roll was made between ’75 and ’85.” He also prefers the Rolling Stones over the Beatles. Adkins once said that he “was never a Beatles fan.”
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6. He’s scarred — literally.
He was shot by his second wife through the heart. During a domestic dispute in 1994, his second wife Julie shot him.  The bullet passed through both chambers of his heart and through both lungs.  He crawled into the bathtub while waiting for help so he wouldn’t bleed all over the new carpet (in Trace’s own words).  He believes the reason he survived is because he lived near a Trauma Center.  He never pressed charges against Julie, but the pair divorced shortly after. He has a number of scars on his chest from this and other incidents.
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5. No, seriously … he’s really scarred.
Trace lost his pinky finger on his left hand. After he graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a degree in petroleum technology, Adkins’ left pinky was cut off while he was working on an oil rig cutting open a bucket with a knife. Doctors were able to reattach the finger, but it is permanently bent at an angle so he could still play the guitar. This makes it difficult for the singer to play many guitar chords.
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4. He’s animated.
He voiced the recurring handlebar-mustached character Elvin Mackleston on the animated series ‘King of the Hill.’ He also voiced Big John in the episode ‘Livin’ on Reds, Vitamin C and Propane.’ In addition, Trace has starred in his own comic book series playing superhero Luke McBain.
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3. Tractors are his guilty pleasure.
Adkins says that the best piece of advice he’s been given that he actually follows is “don’t spend your own money” — except if it’s on tractors. He loves tractors, and he cites them as his guilty pleasure. “I’ve got three [tractors], and I can’t justify having three. I guess that’s a guilty pleasure,” he dishes.
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2. As far as his hair, it’s all or nothing.
If Adkins ever cut his hair, he says he’d choose a buzz cut because it’s a similarly low-maintenance ‘do. He’s been growing his mane since 1991.
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1. Worst. Gig. Ever!
The worst gig Trace Adkins ever played was at a wedding reception. “We played the song for the bride and groom to dance to, and the next song was going to be grandparents and the parents and all that. So, we started the second song and about halfway through, Grandma fell dead on the floor,” Adkins spills. “And we were still playing, and finally, the father turned around and yelled, “Stop! For God’s sake, stop playing. My mother’s dead.”

 

Special thanks to B105 and Taste of Country for providing these outrageous Trace Adkins facts!

SEEN AT THE SCENE – Rhythm in the Night: The Irish Dance Spectacular

At the Thrasher-Horne Center, the only thing more beautiful than our shows is our audiences. Just witness our crowd last Saturday night as we welcomed the dancers and musicians from Rhythm in the Night to our Mainstage for a proper Saint Patrick’s Day celebration! Pick up your tickets today for our upcoming shows at THcenter.org and who knows… you may be the next beautiful person to grace our blog!

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