Mike Davies discovers Meryl Streep is a super trouper.
Having spent almost a decade persuading Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that she wasn’t looking to either do an ABBA tribute show or tell the band’s story, in 1995 producer Judy Craymer finally convinced them to let her use their songs for a stage musical.
Four years later on April 6, the same date ABBA had won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976, Mamma Mia! opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, hitting Broadway in the October of 2001. Since then it has gone on to become theatre history.
One of the longest-running Broadway plays in Las Vegas, there have been 20 different productions in over 170 major cities around the globe, nine still running, and it’s been seen by more than 30 million people. Even today some 17,000 see it every night.
Now it finally makes it to the big screen, reuniting Craymer with the writer of the show’s book, Catherine Johnson, providing the screenplay, and its director, Phyllida Lloyd.
There have been a few tweaks and, not gelling with the revised romantic slant of the plot, some songs didn’t make it across, but otherwise this is the stage show writ large.
About to marry, never having known who her father was, Sophie secretly invites the three potential candidates, all of whom had a thing with her mother, Donna, 20 years earlier, to her wedding.
When mom finds out, she’s both horrified but also finds old flames rekindled, to the tune of some of ABBA’s greatest songs.
In an inspired choice of casting, Donna is played by two time Oscar winner (and multiple nominee) Meryl Streep who, as anyone who saw her belting out country songs in A Prairie Home Companion will know, has a very respectable set of pipes.
Indeed, her cinematic musical debut dates back to 1983 when she sang Amazing Grace (which was even released as a single) and duetted with Cher on Pretty Little Horses Lullaby for the film soundtrack. She also sings, either on screen or on the soundtrack, in Postcards From Edge, Heartburn, Ironweed and Death Becomes Her, but this is her first full-on film musical. However, as she says, she’s no stranger to the form.
“My first Broadway show was Happy End and I did a lot of musicals in high school (at 15 she received a standing ovation playing the librarian in The Music Man), so it was more like coming home to something I’ve always loved.”
She was, too, already a big fan of Mamma Mia!
“I saw it in New York right after it opened,” she recalls. “I was looking to find something for my 10 year old’s birthday party and wondering what to do with all these kids. I saw an ad in the New York Times for this new British musical saying it was ‘buoyant fun’. It was just after 9/11 and everyone was feeling low, so I thought ‘I’m there!’.”
While co-star Colin Firth describes how he, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard were filled with blind terror at the prospect of not just singing but working with Benny and Bjorn (“I’d heard they were hard taskmasters and I imagined myself in floods of tears as they shook their heads and demanded another take”), Streep had no such worries.
“In drama school we used to use ABBA songs to rev everyone up for dance class, so I had no problem reinserting myself into the moment. I must have sung them 100s of times but I never got sick of the songs.”
Even so, filming in both Pinewood and Greece (“far nicer”), she cheerfully confesses it was probably harder work than she’d expected.
“I was told that I was going to climb up the goat house wall while singing Mamma Mia! I thought, ‘How big could a goat house be?’ The goat house turned out to be this sheer wall. I was basically doing a Spider-Man stunt, and I got in shape really quickly.”
Wall-climbing was nothing compared to mounting the Voulez-Vous sequence.
“It’s the only number in the film where the whole cast is dancing at once,” she explains. “It was so hard to do on set. The song’s also a lot trickier than I thought when I first sang along to it on the radio, and that made me appreciate how sharp it is so much more.
“We spent three weeks in the Pinewood barn rehearsing it before we began shooting. It was all we thought about and it was everyone’s bete noir. In the film it goes by so fast, but we were all out of breath and when they’re playing the disco lights eight hours a day, the migraine soon sets in!”
Hard work but, she beams, still great fun and integral to the cast bonding process, something that infectiously comes across on screen. For Streep, that sense of joy was essential to the success of the whole project and, most importantly, not disappointing the songs creators or the Mamma Mias that have gone before.
“Benny and Bjorn were there with us all the time, when we did the pre-recordings and when we sang live with the body mics. They were very generous in letting us own the songs as long as we were exact on the words and the timing.
“I’m really doing this to embarrass my 20-something-year-old children. The dancing part will mortify them.
“Just the overalls will do it. And when my son sees me in the white spandex, he’ll be appalled!”