Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 | 2 a.m.
For 10 years, ABBA rocked the world with infectious pop tunes and eye-blinding spandex costumes. But the musical “Mamma Mia!” they created as a legacy has now run longer than their onstage, chart-topping 1972-1982 career.
“Mamma Mia!” ran for six years on the Strip — February 2003-January 2009 — and holds the record at Mandalay Bay as the longest running West End-Broadway musical in Las Vegas. On May 8, “Mamma Mia!” makes its triumphant comeback at the Tropicana.
As one of the world’s most popular musicals, it’s been seen by 54 million people playing in more than 40 countries in 14 languages on all six continents from Argentina to Australia, Switzerland to Singapore and Monaco to Mexico.
It recently passed 5,000 performances on Broadway as the 10th longest-running show and is still going strong in London with 6,000 performances in the 15 years since it premiered in April 1999.
The movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth is one of the most successful movie musicals of all time, grossing $600 million worldwide.
The storytelling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs is producer Judy Craymer’s vision of staging writer Catherine Johnson’s sunny and funny tale unfolding on a tiny Greek island. On the eve of her wedding, a daughter’s quest to discover the identity of her father brings three men from her mother’s past back to the island they had last visited 20 years ago.
Songs including “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Money, Money, Money” and “Take a Chance on Me” are all featured in this feel-good musical directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
I talked candidly with Judy about her history with the show and its second life on the Strip.
Remembering “Mamma Mia!” was here in Las Vegas before and was replaced by Disney’s “The Lion King,” was there a moment of hesitation when the Tropicana came to you and made the overture to bring it back? Was there hesitation, saying “Mamma Mia!” had its time in Las Vegas, or did you say it’s perfect timing to redo it on the Strip?
Well, we definitely thought about it. There’s never been any pretentions of rolling out a business plan. It’s always taken on its own journey way back when we first went to Las Vegas. We didn’t have a “we must get back to Las Vegas” plan, so the Tropicana was a great opportunity. “Mamma Mia!” ended its Las Vegas run, and then the film came out, so we’re feeling instinctive about the show.
The film had it blossoming all over again with a new audience, a different generation. I think it was the perfect opportunity. We really didn’t know much about the Tropicana, so we went and met and saw the plans for it, and it seemed great.
How will the show be different at Tropicana from what it was at Mandalay, if anything?
It was the Broadway-West End production at Mandalay at full length. That’s unusual in Las Vegas because everyone was looking for shorter shows, and you can’t cut “Mamma Mia!” down. We need the full show. It’s the Broadway bells-and-whistles production, and I think that we continually work on it to get it lighter and brighter.
Will you use any Las Vegas artists in the production? Any Las Vegas musicians in the production?
I would imagine so. That’s all being put together now with the musicians. I think we very much hope to have the same musicians back. We’re auditioning at the moment. We’ve auditioned for the cast in Las Vegas, L.A. and Broadway. It was one of the first Broadway shows to break the rules by going to Las Vegas. I remember people were doubtful — “Gosh, a Broadway show on the Strip.”
That opened things up for more Broadway shows. Now we’re returning, and people are asking is that the right thing. I think it is because since we were there, the show has been seen by more people around the world, which I think is an important aspect for Las Vegas. People will come to Las Vegas just to see the show again.
After all these years with this show, have you put your thumb on exactly what is its appeal? Or is it many things that all come together in a brilliant recipe?
I think it is. It’s an alchemy starting with the songs, then working in the great story. It has a great appeal that has continued over the years. It transcends; it’s about hopes and dreams. I think it connects people. I remember we were very nervous going from Broadway to Las Vegas, but now I know the audiences, and I know if it’s their first time seeing it by the chatter.
It’s pure escapism; there’s a spirit, a mood. We’re battered continuingly by depressing world news and the economy, so “Mamma Mia!” breaks through with happiness for two hours.
Is there any other music group that you could have applied this formula to by weaving a non-existing story around existing music?
It has been tried, but I don’t think anything has quite worked with the story and music in the same way. “Mamma Mia!” has a story where people can recognize themselves with the characters.
I tried it myself, and it didn’t work with The Spice Girls last year. Our show “Viva Forever” used their songs to create a story, but it didn’t work. I thought about it in a slightly different way because The Spice Girls are not ABBA. ABBA stopped in the ’80s, but there’s a huge world that now when they hear ABBA songs, they think it’s “Mamma Mia!,” which is incredible.
The show took over from the act. The film changed a dynamic because it was such a huge DVD, too. It’s become a household name in Europe, and here in America it’s become what you put on safely for your youngsters and increased family values encouraging people to go to the show.
Did you ever say, “It’s so unlikely that a group of Swedish-speaking people who wore the most ridiculous spandex outfits would ever work”?
Oh, yeah! When we opened in London, we were the outsiders because “The Lion King” was the big show that was going to open. Nobody had any idea, nobody could really understand what we were doing. They thought it was a tribute show. It has become unique; it has become a phenomenon.
The four members of ABBA are still close friends in Sweden. There’s always been stories written about if they’re friends or not, but they all created something huge together. They are connected, but they don’t live in each other’s buckets and are about to celebrate this year 40 years of ABBA.
Four decades! It makes you wonder what they think now looking back when they did this.
They’re all quite serious really. It always makes me laugh that they all wrapped themselves in tin foil at one time. The girls obviously enjoyed performing, but the boys were all serious composers. That’s why it’s wonderful how the music carries the story. Every night somewhere around the world, the show brightens its colors, puts on its spandex, and they earn a royalty.
But remember that when I started it, they thought, “Oh my God, we’re risking that this woman can decimate our catalog of hits.” There was always this joke between Benny (Andersson) and myself when we got close to the time of the first opening, he began to see it all and was really into it.
Then he said, “If it doesn’t work, I’m going to say I told you so. If it does work, you can say it to me.” We got to the final dress rehearsal in London, and he said, “You can say it now.” I said let’s wait until the evening, and in the early night, he leaned across and said, “Say it,” and I said, “I told you so.”
Might we see ABBA in Las Vegas when you open the show at the Tropicana?
When we opened in 2003, Frieda (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) and Ben came. I don’t know at this exact moment as it’s always up to travel. They like living in Sweden and having their life. Benny at the moment is working on a film that he’s producing with his son.
They’re all fully behind the new Las Vegas production because without that, we wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t honestly know if and when they’ll get to Las Vegas, but they are always supportive of “Mamma Mia!”
When you called them all to tell them “Mamma Mia!” was starting up again in Las Vegas at the Tropicana, what was their reaction?
They were excited. They wanted to know everything and were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” They trust the team of people who wouldn’t do anything that we didn’t really think about or consider. … We’ve been running the show and company for 15 years now.
It was a great decision to come here, and the Tropicana and owner Alex Yemenidjian have been fantastic partners. It all started with them saying, “We want to open the new theater with a show like ‘Mamma Mia!” and Alex said, “Well, why don’t we get ‘Mamma Mia!”?
We knows there’s a lot of competition in Las Vegas and things have changed for the younger audience with nightclubs in the last six years. But “Mamma Mia!” has its audience following it, and we are not a new, unheard-of show. We are a brand now. People know that they will get clean-cut entertainment and will leave it singing and dancing.
It will fit on the Strip as a big show that’s loved in a way and has certainly built up its audience. Our brand has expanded, and “Mamma Mia!” will be reflected throughout the property with its own distinctive and immersive feel.
Are you going to bring in name stars or stick with the proven formula of an energetic ensemble?
We’ve never gone that route except in the movie. The success of the show has always been the chemistry of the three women and two generations of Sophie and Sky and Donna. We haven’t in any production gone for lead stars. We’ve always said ABBA and its music are the stars.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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Tropicana Las Vegas sits on the south-east corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, an intersection which has the most adjacent hotel rooms in the world, also making it one of the most busy. The hotel has 1,658 rooms, three restaurants, a 62,011-square foot casino and a spa.