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Mamma Mia! The Musical for People who do not do Musicals

In the UK, a small but significant proportion of the population seems to have an ingrained aversion to musicals. While one half of a couple may squeal in unutterable delight at the procurement of the much in demand Mamma Mia tickets, their other half will cast their eyes heavenward and probably wish that they would get called into an emergency at work on the day of the performance.

Then the day will arrive and they'll enter the theatre, sit down in the seat and as the show begins to unfold, a slow transformation occurs. Before they have realised what is happening, they notice that their feet are tapping to the beat of yet another glorious Abba track. Before long they are joining in with the wealth of classic songs from the Swedish superstars and entranced by the story unfolding in front of them.

It is a transformation that occurs regularly in theatres across the globe every night, and that is the power of the story behind Mamma Mia and Abba's vast repertoire of instantly recognisable songs.

The general idea behind Mamma Mia had its genesis in 1989. Producer Judy Craymer was working on a new musical and wanted to use Abba's vast catalogue as the basis for the soundtrack and feel of her project.

Unfortunately for Craymer, despite Abba's sumptuous collection of musical gems, putting a selection of the songs together within the confines and structure of a musical is not a particularly easy task. Former Abba member Bjorn Ulvaeus had direct experience of that after his involvement post-Abba when he worked on the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Chess, and his comments summed up the problem Craymer was facing:

"What I understood after Chess is that a story is number one, number two and number three, as they say on Broadway. A lyric should take a story forward, and a lot of pop songs are static; they have no drama in them whatsoever."

The idea festered and grew for several years and eventually believing that they had a workable idea and enough songs to take any story forward, playwright Catherine Johnson was commissioned to write the book for the film. Johnson began by looking at the Abba back catalogue and made a discovery that would shape her writing and the course of the subsequent show and film forever.

For all the outstanding writing and script produced by Johnson, it was perhaps her innately noting that Abba's early catalogue of songs had a younger, teenage, feel-good factor to them that would give her show the energy and youthful vibrancy that Craymer had foreseen in her vision for the project. Johnson also discovered that Abba's later work was often on a more adult theme and contained pieces that reflected on some of the more harrowing moments in life. In doing this she had found the key to Mamma Mia's eventual success. The youthful energy that infects the show and audience cannot be denied and yet there is also time for a reflective pause to inject that sense of emotional gravitas to hold the show together and engage an audience.

When it came to writing the show, Johnson was adamant that "we didn't want to have those awful clunky moments where people burst into song," clearly identifying one of most often cited criticisms of poorer musicals. "To me it was very important that I created believable characters and gave them all a true story line and I absolutely worked to get the story and the songs to work together."

The result was spectacular. After 10 years since the original concept, the show opened on March 23rd 1999 in London. Producer Judy Craymer noted: "We really had no idea how it was going to be received," while there was still a niggling worry for those involved in the creation of Mamma Mia as to how the audience would react.

Twelve years and 45 million delighted audience members later, Mamma Mia remains the ultimate feel-good musical. Currently, there are more shows playing simultaneously around the world than any other production. The original began in London and quickly moved to Broadway; however, such has been the demand for tickets that the show has played in Germany, Spain, Belgium, Mexico, Holland, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil and as well as enjoying long-term residencies in the West End and Broadway. In addition, there are now touring companies around the UK and Europe and North America to satisfy the insatiable demand. It is a truly phenomenal record.

The ultimate confirmation of the show's success came in the form of a ringing Hollywood endorsement. Universal Pictures, along with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, purchased the rights to make the movie, assembled a stellar cast including Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Julie Walters and the rest is history. Mamma Mia, the film, became the highest grossing musical movie of all time worldwide. The DVD release was equally spectacular, with 1,669,084 copies of the film sold on its first day of release, smashing the previous record by over half a million copies. By the end of 2008, one in every four households in the UK owned a copy of the film.

It is therefore unsurprising that the public's demand for tickets to the outstanding musical that gave rise to the film remains undiminished. In 2011, Mamma Mia will hit theatres in Glasgow (5th March to 3rd April), Geneva (8th to 17th April), Manchester (26th April to 11th June), Oostende (19th to 31st July), Dublin (4th to 15th October) and Zurich (from 26th October).

With Mamma Mia now being taken around mainland Europe and the UK, the opportunity exists for everybody to enjoy this spectacular celebration of the music of Abba, even for those who claim they do not like musicals. Demand for tickets will likely be intense but that is part of the inestimable magic of Mamma Mia; the instantly recognisable songs, the uplifting story and unforgettable climax can turn even the most fervent musical sceptic into a Dancing Queen!

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