The cynics are defeated; Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again has won the war. On track for a near-$40m opening weekend, critics couldn’t escape if they wanted to, and audiences have promised to love ABBA jukebox musicals forevermore.
It’s another remarkable achievement for Littlestar chief Judy Craymer, who produced both films in the expanding Mamma Mia! Cinematic Universe (with Gary Goetzman) and has been the architect of bringing ABBA’s music to the stage and screen for more than 20 years. She had spent a decade convincing Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to trust her with the rights to ABBA’s songs before Mamma Mia! debuted on the London stage in 1999. When I went to see the show on stage earlier this month, it was clear that interest hasn’t abated in the 19 years that have followed.
Still, mounting a sequel to the 2008 feature film couldn’t have been easy. That film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Catherine Johnson, who had both collaborated with Craymer on the stage version, was almost a direct lift from the stage play. Continuing the story in a sequel would mean coming up with a new story to tell. With Lloyd and Johnson ready to move on from ABBA, Craymer instead turned to Richard Curtis and Ol Parker, who came up with the idea of exploring the backstory of Donna—Meryl Streep’s character—and her first visit to the picturesque Greek island on which the story is set.
But how to involve the original cast, who had proven so popular in that first film? As Craymer explained to me when we sat down shortly before the movie opened, Curtis’s brainwave was to treat Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again as the Godfather Part II of jukebox musicals and tell that origin story in flashback form. But there was a big hurdle to overcome: Meryl Streep says Craymer, “doesn’t do sequels.”
A few story spoilers follow for those who have yet to finally face their ‘Waterloo’.
Mamma Mia! is 20 years old next year and it’s still packing the house in the West End, with people on their feet clapping and dancing. What’s the secret?
I think there’s always been a spirit to it that engages the audience. They always think that they see a bit of themselves up there on stage. There’s nothing pretentious about it. They love the music but they love the story and the characters, I think. They love the chance at the end to come join in.
The London show is the flagship show that opened in April 1999 and continues on, but we’ve always been blessed with a great casts because it’s unusual to have a musical that has major roles for women, really. The three Dynamos—the three lead characters that were then played by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters in the movie—and Sophie. But it’s true with the men too, because actually, you’ve two generations of cast, so you do get great actors of a certain age that really enjoy coming to do Mamma Mia! and what they also enjoy is they do get, every night, a wonderful audience and great applause. It’s very rewarding for them.
It was unusual in cinema to have such a strong female cast when the first movie opened in 2008, and it’s sadly not much more usual today. In 2008 you had a movie starring women, directed by a woman, written by a woman and produced by a woman. It was unheard of.
Well, of course, it started with the stage musical, so when we entered into Hollywood and the idea of making a film, Phyllida Lloyd had directed Mamma Mia! on stage and Catherine Johnson had written it, and we three were the original architects if you like. We also knew very much the kind of cast we wanted to go for, and I think they were always seen as slightly kind of, “Oh, they’re not 36-year-olds that you’re going for.” No, these had to be women that are fun and that have lived, and the fun of them is the fact that they’re kind of slightly naughty and slightly saucy and have a lot of energy. And the wonderful feeling of hope and second chances that the Donna Sheridan character falls in love or meets again the man that she always loved.
It isn’t really a chick flick in the traditional sense. It really does have mass appeal because I think it’s a date movie. Everyone sees themselves in this story. I think everyone can just see something and a sense of fun, but men definitely love it. And since the last film, now with the show and hopefully, with the new film, we have got a whole new generation of fans.
We have, I think, a broad demographic with this film and the stage show. We always used to say, “Everyone loves ABBA.” Now, everyone loves Mamma Mia!. We’re getting really a young audience; 10-year-olds are going. They come with their parents, they come with their grandparents, and they get very involved. I remember popping in to see the matinee one day and a little girl saying to her father, “You don’t understand, daddy. She doesn’t find her father.” And it was with such intensity!
The first movie was a monster hit, yet it’s taken 10 years to come back to it. Was there pressure in those years to hurry up with a sequel?
I don’t know. The way Mamma Mia! has rolled out has always been carefully considered and a kind of waiting game to make sure it was positioned in the right way. I can’t take the credit for being a marketing genius, but, for example, the way we opened the show and we didn’t go onto Broadway first, we actually went through North America via Toronto and in that way, we built a huge word of mouth. We waited, we never jumped straight into doing anything.
You know, we were offered opportunities to work with studios in the early 2000s, but we wanted to get the show right on Broadway and other countries, so that was nearly ten years before we did the first movie.
Nobody ever sits down and says, “How are we going to pursue the brand?” But I knew doing another film would be something that would be good to do for Mamma Mia! and for me. I knew it was something I was excited to do.
From the moment the first film released?
Not from the very first moment, but I was always encouraged by Universal and Donna Langley has always championed us doing a sequel. We’ve always worked closely together.
But it was a matter of what. There was no way to bring all that cast together; to bring, as we call them, the legacy cast, together. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus always have a very firm approval of how the songs are used. It’s still a big thing for them, and I’m also very protective of Mamma Mia!, and very protective of ABBA. I think, in a way, that’s been a kind of secret weapon to success, in some ways, rather than just saying, “Let’s do as many shows as possible, let’s do more films.”
And I also think the waiting game worked in the sense that everyone came back with great enthusiasm 10 years on. I think if we had embarked three years later, there would have been a certain cynicism and everyone would have argued about which song they were singing.
But also a much harder story to tell; the idea of catching up a decade later provides an impetus for a narrative.
I think it did, very much. I mean I think the kind of maturity of it… It was very ripe to do a prequel, but how could we do a prequel and not involve our wonderful, original cast? So that was when I called Richard Curtis. I mean, to give you some context, I had talked to Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson about doing another film on and off over the years, though not every day. I didn’t think Phyllida really wanted to revisit doing another big film version of Mamma Mia!. She’s very constantly busy working in the theatre, and Catherine the same.
What I love about the prequel idea is the backstory is so rich because that is the story that’s told onstage and in the last film, from Donna’s diary. You want to understand the odyssey of how everyone comes together. How those men got to the island. How Donna got to the island. But how to involve the legacy cast as well, that was Richard Curtis saying, “Well, it’s The Godfather: Part II, really. You go back and forth in time.” That was genius. But then he said he hadn’t got time to write it because he’s very busy with his own projects. But he’d sit in the corner for me. So he suggested Ol Parker. And I met with Ol, having liked his writing in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I met him as a writer, not as a writer/director. But he really got the Mamma Mia! factor, as we call it.
What I thought was really interesting in taking it further with Richard Curtis and Ol Parker was their work does take you on that journey of emotion, even in comedy. With Richard, whether it’s Love, Actually or Four Weddings, you’re dealing with sadness, you’re dealing with loss. Ol has made two small films, and one of them is called Now is Good, and I thought it was very clever in its sense of it is a romantic comedy about a young girl who’s dying of leukemia, and it’s her last wish to fall in love.
The biggest revelation of the film is that Donna—Meryl Streep’s character—has not survived this past decade. That seems like a bold choice, given the love and passion there is for that character from the fans. But the story of the original show is all about the mistakes that people make, and how life isn’t always easy. Does that give you the latitude to make as bold a choice as that?
Well, I think that’s true because I think the first film at its core is about people’s lives that aren’t perfect. There are certain imperfections, but then the optimism is how one deals with those imperfections and finds second chances and hope. That’s real life, really. You do really feel it as a companion piece because you also feel the friendship of the actors in real life and you feel a friendship that they’ve all come back to. For Sophie, who in the first movie had discovered her three possible fathers, now those three men are great friends and they’ve got their own family unit with her. And that’s very important in this movie I think.
Was the decision about Donna purely story-driven or was Meryl reticent to return?
Meryl is a huge part of Mamma Mia! in the sense that her performance and ambitions for the last film were a key part of the success of the last film. So there was never going to be a move forward without a conversation with her. Over the years she’d get the odd call saying, “You know, we might have something, we might not.” And she was never really going to say, “Yes I’ll jump in,” until she knew there was a good script and that was something that hadn’t developed in the right way. There had been different ideas until Ol’s script.
She loved the idea of prequel because she loved the idea of revisiting the young people. But Meryl Streep doesn’t do sequels. She never said that to us, but she wanted to be part of it without being the hugest part. To be honest, she did say, “I’m not going to be singing nine songs, running across the hilltop, doing my Sound of Music moment. I’ve done it. But I love Mamma Mia! and have a big affection for it.”
So I think what was important to her was how impactful was that role going to be and what song. I think those were the things. ‘My Love, My Life’ was never in the last film, but 25 years ago when I started trying to work out how these songs could work, it was always a favorite and a big story song. It’s very big, very heartfelt.
When she arrived on set, we had all just come back from vacation and everyone was having a great time, and she was like, “I wish I’d been here more.” But she was there, and we were all together for a few days, and it was fun, let’s face it. She had, as extras for her song, Cher, Pierce, and Colin. And all of them had signed on with the same proviso. “If Meryl’s in it, I’m in.”
I’m not sure she realized that Cher would end up as her mother! That’s the kind of madcap Mamma Mia! reality. When we first showed the script to Meryl, I think there was a moment when Meryl said, “Am I playing my mother as well?”
Cher. ‘Fernando’. How?
Well, obviously I’m a massive fan. She’s Cher! I knew that she always liked Mamma Mia!, because she had seen the show a few times. When you’re producing a show and you hear, “Cher’s been in three times,” you think, wow! And there was a thought in the first film of whether there was a role for her. She is the ultimate rock chick, isn’t she?
In the origins of the stage play and in the last film, Donna Sheridan refers to her mother, she refers to the fact that she moved to the island because she didn’t really have any great family ties and all these things. But we never knew who her mother was. She could have been a puritanical kind of mother living on another continent but Ol and I talked about it and I always said, “I think if we’re going to introduce her mother character, it’s got to be somebody that is pure to come into a musical film. It’s got to be Cher or Bette Midler, or someone like that.” But I didn’t know if she would do it.
I knew Ron Meyer of course, he’s always been incredibly supportive of the first film, and of this film, and he was her agent back in the ’70s and ’80s at CAA. So it fell to me to ask him, and he was like, “OK, I told her she could sing ‘Fernando’.” She’ll tell the story that he called her and went, “You’re doing Mamma Mia!,” then hung up the phone. “Well, he told me I had to do it!”
Fortunately, everyone who works for Cher, from the managers to assistants and everything, loves Mamma Mia!. Cher has huge respect for ABBA songs, though she has never sung ABBA songs. But she is a musician. That song and the fact that she loved the script and the role, it all kind of made sense. It was incredible when she was on set. She was… Well, she is a kind of goddess. But having her and Meryl was amazing.
Now she’s had a bite of the apple do you think she’ll do a whole album of ABBA covers?
Well, she’s very into ABBA at the moment!
What comes next for Mamma Mia! now? Could this film’s story find its way to the stage?
It might. I mean, there’s so much. There’s producing the film and the shows and overseeing everything, but it has become a kind of small industry. Or quite a big industry, because always, there are shows going out around the world, there are secondary rights, there are amateur rights. New productions, licenses, and it all comes from Littlestar. And even the soundtrack is ours, you know, so we produced this soundtrack that just released. And Benny Andersson remains incredibly hands-on. I mean, he produced the soundtrack for the movie and obviously for the cast.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s always evolving. There’s always something happening. Next year is 20 years of the show in London, and I know somebody sometime soon is going to say, “What are you planning for that?” I’ll go, “Well, we just did this big film…”
It’s an enterprise that I’m very proud of. But at the same time, there are many things to say no to. Yes, people have already said, “Oh, will there be a Mamma Mia! 3?” But I think that’s just because we all think we’re going to get so old that we can’t wait another 10 years. And people have said, “Will there be a new show?” Again, I would never want to presume that there’ll be either, but, you know, I think we’ll see. I think it’s incredible that the music is still so irresistible to people.