When the hit musical “Mamma Mia!” opens next week on Jan. 24 at Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Theater, we should find out really if Filipinos are not only good singers but also if they can shed their inhibitions enough to jump on the aisle and dance. For mostly anywhere in the world where the musical featuring the songs of the ’70s icon ABBA has been performed, the audience inevitably jumps to its feet and dance, usually to “Dancing Queen.”
The world over, Filipinos are known as karaoke kings and queens; there’s no Filipino who can’t sing, so the world thinks. But dance? Filipinos can surely dance, but they get inhibited sometimes—at least the mature audience—or take some time to warm up. We’re an appreciative, singing audience, as visiting artists learn soon enough, but we don’t exactly shake our booty in a snap.
Filipinos dancing in the somber CCP aisle to “Dancing Queen” in the weeks ahead could be the latest entry in the viral hit that Fun Philippines has become. Graceful dancing as only Filipinos could do, that is.
The Swiss audience did, in the height of winter, in Zurich last December, where “Mamma Mia!” was performed by the same international tour cast that’s now in Manila.
The Zurich performance, which we had the privilege to see, was before a packed audience that obviously enjoyed it. “Mamma Mia!” is a feel-good musical—perfect for a Europe that is going through the economic doldrums (not Switzerland, of course). It should also be perfect for Filipinos who are now determined to feel good about themselves.
Its performance here, which could stretch to a month, comes at a time when Filipinos are hoping for the best for their country, even amid the impeachment hearings.
Thanks to Meryl Streep’s “Mamma Mia!” that hit the theaters years ago, its story is well-known—a young bride living on a Greek island invites to her wedding the three men, anyone of whom, she guesses, could be her father. She does so on the sly, taking her mother by surprise and reviving memories of a past romance.
It’s a love story whose humanness became more endearing and touching on the Zurich stage because of the seasoned acting and singing of the cast, who are all theater veterans. Coming from the foremost theater ensembles in Britain, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, they act, sing, dance superbly, connecting to a cross-generational audience that either has loved ABBA music in the ’70s as they were going into adulthood, or an audience that has been introduced to the ABBA hits only in the last decade as retro music.
The Zurich performance revived your ABBA experience, carried over this time through a heart-tugging love story. There is no doubt that the Manila performance will be just an enriching experience.
As the leads Sara Poyzer (who plays the mother, Donna Sheridan) and Richard Standing (who plays Sam Carmichael, one of the dads) said in an interview with the Philippine media in Zurich after the performance, no two performances in different countries are alike, because the audience relates to the musical in its own way.
Ten years ago, “Mamma Mia!” had its Broadway premiere and enjoyed one of the biggest advance sales in theater history. It became the 10th longest running show in Broadway, surpassing the record held by “Miss Saigon.”
It premiered its English-language international tour in Dublin in 2004, and its world cast has staged more than 2,000 performances—in Dubai, Germamy, Sweden, Prague, New Zealand, Turkey, China, Taipei. The international tour has been seen by over 4 million people the world over.
Its creative producer, Judy Craymer, recalls, in the program, the birth of the musical: “The story begins more than 25 years ago when I first met Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the songwriting geniuses behind ABBA. I was working for Sir Tim Rice, who was collaborating with Benny and Bjorn 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 Bjorn’s classic compositions. The lyrics revealed the roller-coaster story of love and loss that struck me as extraordinarily theatrical, but how was I to bring this to life?….”
She approached Ulvaeus and Andersson, who was unsure of the idea to have a musical.
Craymer adds, “So I sat on the floor of my apartment listening to ABBA late into the night… In 1995 my tenacity finally paid off. Bjorn said, “If you can find the right writer and story, well… let’s see what happens.”
Two years later, she had commissioned the playwright Catherine Johnson to write the story.
Craymer continues, “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.”
It is interesting to note that even in recent years, Andersson and Ulvaeus would continue to visit the cast and look into the details of the performances.
“Mamma Mia!” features 22 of ABBA’s iconic songs, including “Chiquitita,” “Dancing Queen,” “I Have A Dream,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Super Trouper,” “Take A Chance On Me” and “Voulez-Vous.”
Since 2003, “Mamma Mia!” has opened 14 non-English language productions all over the world, including Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow.
For the Manila performance, a whole planeload of sets and theater equipment has been flown in, along with the entire cast and production staff.
It is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has also directed the movie and has directed various theater productions (including “Mamma Mia” in London, Broadway; “The Virtuoso” for the Royal Shakespeare Company; “Mary Stuart”) and opera. Choreography is by Anthony Van Laast. Production design is by Mark Thompson, lighting design by Howard Harrison, sound design by Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken.
Aside from Poyzer and Standing, leading the cast are Charlotte Wakefield as the young bride Sophie Sheridan, Charles Daish and Matthew Lloyd Davies as the two other dads, Jennie Dale as Rosie and Kate Graham as Tanya.
Dale and Graham have some racy scenes; during our interview, they wondered how the Filipino audience would react to them.
David Roberts is Sky, Sophie’s groom-to-be.
After wintry Zurich, the cast is looking forward to, they all said, “the sun and beaches” in the Philippines.
It is interesting that at least two among them have had connections to the Philippines. Davies is a good friend of Pinky Amador; the two met in theater school in London. The young Roberts is a friend of Phil and James Younghusband; they grew up together in London.
Indeed, the cast, too, will have their Fun Philippines.
“Mamma Mia!” is brought to Manila by the UK-based Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterprises, Hi Definition Radio, Inc. and Concertus, Inc.