EXCLUSIVE: As the West End production of Mamma Mia! enters its 25th year on stage, Judy Craymer, its creator and driving force, is expanding the MM! universe with ITV’s Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream talent show. Set on an idyllic Greek island, it’s aimed at finding MM! stars of the future. There’s definitely a desire to see MM! back on Broadway in 2025, Craymer confirms, and she says she’s also pushing to make the dream of a third MM! film a reality.
“It’s in its earliest stages,” she says, revealing that she has come up with a way to bring back all of the previous movie’s favorite characters. Which is no mean feat given that those parts involve stars such as Meryl Streep, who played the independent, fierce and spirited Donna Sheridan onscreen, and Cher, who played Donna’s vivacious mother Ruby in 2018’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
More from Deadline
So far, there’s nothing “official” about MM!3, cautions Craymer. “I don’t want to over-egg it, but I know there’s a trilogy there,” she says brightly.
“There is a story there, and I do think Meryl should come back —— and if the script is right, she would, I think, because she really loved playing Donna,” Craymer tells me as we settle into a comfy banquette at Charlie’s, a delightfully swanky restaurant located at Brown’s hotel in Mayfair.
Later, as I walk along Piccadilly, I find myself smiling at a memory from possibly 28 years ago, when I was due to lunch with Craymer, at her invitation. But all of her money, including an apartment in London’s posh Holland Park area, was tied up in trying to put Mamma Mia! together. Funds were low — she couldn’t even afford to fix her car — so we scratched that lunch and went for tea and coffee instead. She remembers using her first royalty fee to get the car mended.
The story of Mamma Mia! is as much about the three women behind it as it is about the three women who perform it on stage: Craymer chose Catherine Johnson to write the book and Phyllida Lloyd to direct. “If you had a woman director and a woman writer and a woman producer now it’s seen as, ‘Wow, you ticked the diversity box,’ and yet it just seemed completely natural at the time back in 1997 when we were first working together. People would be laughing into their hand, going, ‘They’re all women — it’s going to fail!’ But we did, to use a cliché, break the glass ceiling.”
There have been an arsenal of women integral to Mamma Mia’s success in all spheres. “I don’t even think about whether I’m a feminist or not, it’s just part of my makeup,” Craymer says, as she lists the women who have been there for Mamma Mia! over the years, from the many casts that have played the roles all over the world on stage and onscreen, her longtime colleagues and associates.
She has fond memories also of Universal chairwoman Donna Langley making an early pilgrimage to London to see the show and then returning later on with fellow Universal executives to seal the deal with Craymer’s company Littlestar — which she founded two years before the mothership production opened at the Cameron Mackintosh-owned Prince Edward Theatre — and her film partner, Gary Goetzman at Playtone.
Thus far Mamma Mia! shows, movies and albums have generated grosses in excess of $4 billion.
The pandemic shut down the London show for two years but it’s now back on its feet, breaking records at the Cameron Mackintosh-owned Novello on the Strand. There are several overseas productions, and there’s even a full production playing to 1,000-seat houses on a Royal Caribbean cruise.
A first-class U.S. tour is set to launch in Denver this October. It will continue across the country until 2025, which is when Craymer would like it to return to Broadway. The show has a history there, having opened in October 2001 — just weeks after 9/11 — and ran for 15 years.
She sees the return to NYC as perhaps a limited six-month season. But then, that’s what she — or rather the naysayers — thought two and a half decades ago about the original London run. It’s highly likely that revival is likely to run a tad longer…
The newest addition to the MM! cosmos is Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream, which sees Littlestar — which Craymer founded in 1997 with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus plus Australian -based producer Richard East — link up with Thames Fremantle.
Craymer and the two ABBA stars each control 50 percent of Littlestar, which owns the grand rights to all things Mamma Mia! ”We have this wonderful relationship where I can’t do anything without them [Andersson and Ulvaeus], and they can’t do anything without me. Sometimes it works and sometimes…” She chooses her words carefully. “Sometimes it can be frustrating.”
But the two ABBA dudes liked the sound of I Have a Dream, and gave Craymer the go-ahead to proceed with the eight-part series, launching in this fall on ITV, which aims to find two musical-theater performers to play the roles of Sophie (Donna’s daughter) and her beau Sky at the 25th anniversary performance of Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre on April 6, 2024.
Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream is executive produced by Amelia Brown, Charlie Irwin and Ashley Whitehouse for Thames Fremantle and Craymer for Littlestar.
Katie Rawcliffe, head of entertainment commissioning at ITV, Lily Wilson, commissioning editor for ITV and Louise Major, commissioning editor for ITV, gave the program the green light.
Craymer admits that before being approached by Thames Fremantle she had always been “being slightly hesitant” about doing a Mamma Mia!-themed show, but the TV executives showed such enthusiasm that she was won over. “They’re Mamma Mia! crazy,” she declares. Plus the idea of a casting show appealed to her “not just as a way of celebrating 25 years — it also shines a light on the West End,” where business has obviously suffered since the pandemic.
I Have a Dream will be different from past TV talent shows, she says, because “we’re going to make it on location, so it’s going to have that cinematic Greek isle feel.” The show has been in production for several months already with creatives from Thames Fremantle, ITV and Littlestar’s own team of creative stars: Anthony Van Laast, the global choreographer on stage and screen versions of Mamma Mia!, David Grindrod, the show’s casting supremo, and orchestrator and music supervisor Martin Lowe have all played a part in helping to assess the 9,000 applicants who sent in self-tapes.
That figure was whittled down to 500, though Craymer didn’t sit in on auditions until the lineup was a more manageable 50.
Beginning next week, 14 artists will be on location in Corfu for several weeks vying for the roles of Sophie and Sky.
“It’s been a huge jigsaw puzzle. Obviously ITV and Thames Fremantle have done it all, and I’m relieved I don’t have to put it together myself,” Craymer sighs with a smile.
She’s impressed by the dynamics of what she’s seen so far. “Zoe Ball is the presenter,” Craymer reveals, performing a drumroll on the table top.
Ball, an actress and a noted TV personality and radio presenter, will host the show, interviewing the contestants and interrogating the I Have a Dream judges. On the panel are comedian and broadcaster Alan Carr; recording artist Jessie Ware; Glee and West End Dreamgirls star Amber Riley; and Samantha Barks (Les Misérables), star of Disney’s Frozen at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
“Zoe’s great because she is very much a rock chick,” Craymer enthused. “She’s a complete music fan and, I understand, a complete Mamma Mia! fan.”
She hailed Carr as the show’s “voice of the people, the national treasure.”
Suddenly Craymer burst into laughter as she recalled Carr’s comic turn in a special version of Mamma Mia! for Comic Relief with Jennifer Saunders as Donna, Sienna Miller as Sophie, and Carr as one of her possible dads. “Sienna’s Sophie says to Alan, ”Are you my father?” And he goes, ”Are you insinuating I’m not gay?!”
We realize that we’re attracting attention. Craymer lowers her voice and announces that she’s dreaming of putting Carr in a pair of dungarees “or on a donkey.”
Craymer is equally generous with praise for Ware and Barks. She notes that Barks came to fame via the 2008 casting show I’d Do Anything, which had Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and others searching for an artist to play Nancy in the musical Olivier!. Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Women Talking) was a discovery on that show, which was won by Jodie Prenger (Coronation Street, The Walk-In).
Craymer will have an as yet unspecified onscreen role on I Have a Dream. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing. It started off as, ‘Would you be in an episode? We’ll introduce you as the woman behind it.’ Now, it has ended up that I’m in each episode in some form. I like to see myself as the Alan Sugar (The Apprentice UK) of the show, but, of course, I’m not quite the Alan Sugar. I won’t be saying, ‘You’re fired,’ but they’ll probably say, ‘I think we have to ask Judy’.”
Craymer also hopes to be able to entice Ulvaeus onto an episode as a guru.
On that note, will she be having special outfits designed for herself? “No, I’m just turning up with my steamer trunks, basically,” she guffaws.
I have long been on record as a non-fan of TV talent shows, but I have long admired both Barks and Buckley — and, yes, I have a soft spot for Mamma Mia! that goes back a long way. It was sometime during the mid-’90s that whispers reached me that someone was attempting to put a musical together involving ABBA. It took a while to track it all the way to Craymer’s door. Upon hearing her name I realized there must be a grain of truth to the rumor, because I remember her being close to Andersson and Ulvaeus when they were working with Tim Rice, Robert Fox and Michael Bennett on the musical Chess.
However, Craymer was keeping her head down because she had yet to secure agreement from Andersson and Ulvaeus. She was urging them to, in the words of their song, “Take a Chance On Me.”
“I think they said ‘no’ a lot,” Craymer recalls.
“Quite rightly, I had to prove that this was going to be an original story musical. I hate the term ‘jukebox musical.’ This was not going to be an exploitation of the ABBA songs for the sake of it. This had to be a genuine musical. And Bjorn liked the idea. Because he’s the lyricist of the Benny/Bjorn partnership, his lyrics would be very much a kind of basis for our story,” she tells me.
Craymer had the idea that the way to present the ABBA songs within the story was to have “a kind of wink. That has been the wonderful ingredient, I think, that’s taken this through, and the fact that these songs have been reinvented. But we didn’t know that at the time.”
The ambition back then hadn’t been to create a universe. The two ABBA writers figured that Mamma Mia! would be “a small little show in London,” Craymer says. “They possibly hoped it would be, and then I would get off their backs. Benny and Bjorn were exploring other projects of their own,” she adds. “ABBA wasn’t together as a band anymore, and they weren’t even together in their marriages, either.”
Craymer persisted. “It was like, ‘She won’t go away!’” She laughs. “It was all a bit kind of awkward, but the feeling on their side was, ‘But, hey, if she can get it right that’s interesting.’ So it was a process, and then we created the company so that everyone could have a kind of control. It wasn’t just a license deal, where you go to the record company and say, ‘I want to put on a show, and I want to a license a couple of ABBA songs…’ I think I’d learned about the setting up of a company structure because of my days working with Tim Rice and Benny and Bjorn, and how they had set up Chess.”
Craymer realized that this “process” would require patience, particularly when collaborating with Benny and Bjorn. ”We want to do another movie, and they’re [being cautious]. But that’s the story of the last 25 years — there’s always a sense of caution from them, and we’re all getting older now.” She laughs. “Obviously, anything to do with the music, they have to be OK with.”
“But they’re very proud of Mamma Mia!, very proud of the business, and very proud of how its all worked. I mean, there was a big risk there. These are amazing songs, it’s a canon of incredible work, and at the same time you’re running a business with controlling brand rights on music, theater, movies and television. It’s a big deal,” she declares, while conceding, “I’m not Disney. I’m not a big major company. We built this asset ourselves.”
That’s something Universal’s Langley admires about Craymer and why she has built up ”a long-lasting friendship and strong business partnership” of nearly two decades.
“It was easy working with Judy on Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again because she, more than anyone, deeply understood that this was a global, multi-generational story and that we weren’t limited to to singular audience,” Langley wrote of Craymer in an email to me.
Langley recalls seeing the show in the late ’90s. ”I’m a huge ABBA fan, so I didn’t mind going along. I ended up sitting next to a lovely older woman — we shared snacks and had a great time.
“This was the first time I was on my feet, dancing, during the finale of a West End theater show, and I told myself then I would find a way to make this movie.”
Langley said that Craymer wasn’t doing meetings right away. “I was told she wasn’t doing anything with the rights at the time. Shortly after, I wound up at Universal, where Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s Playtone had a deal. As fate and great minds would have it, they had forged a relationship with Judy.”
Later, “Stacey Snider, our then-chairman, and I flew to New York for a meeting. Jimmy Horowitz hammered out the film deal, and the rest is history.”
Langley concluded, “I look forward to all that’s to come for Judy and Universal.”
Craymer says she was cautious about signing on to do a movie because “you don’t want the movie to harm the show.” However, the opposite turned out to be true: the films have boosted the shows, wherever they’re running.
I’ve also noticed over the ensuing decades that whenever there’s an event involving a new Mamma Mia! movie, or a show or even the ABBA Voyage show, there’s a huge spike in sales of ABBA albums. In fact, my sense has always been that Mamma Mia! has been one of the reasons ABBA retained its popularity. Oftentimes I hear friends, usually in party mode, say, “Let’s have some Mamma Mia!” rather than, “Let’s have some ABBA.” They’re interchangeable, of course, but it’s fascinating — to me at least —that it’s often Mamma Mia! that leads the way.
David Grindrod, the casting director, remembers seeing early previews of Mamma Mia! and having a sense when watching the young Sophie and Sky (played then by Lisa Stokke and Andrew Langtree) interact with Siobhan McCarthy’s Donna and her pals Tanya and Rosie (played by Louise Playwright and Jenny Galloway), that the show would catch on because of its inter-generational interplay.
The three “dads” — Sam, Harry and Billwas, played by Hilton McRae, Paul Clarkson and Nicolas Colicos — was another nice touch, adds Grindrod. “It hits you when you don’t think it’s going to.”
“It really does have a joyous quality to it but the also the script is so clever,” he says, noting that he could see that audience members during those early previews could clearly relate to the conversations that the characters were having on stage. “That’s never changed.”
The show was previewing in the days before Instagram and Twitter. “Word of mouth was key,” he says. “After the first preview, the box office started to go crazy.”
I know this to be true because I monitored Mamma Mia! closely. Just before it opened, some wags were telling me that another show was close to being booked into the Prince Edward theater because there were concerns about whether Mamma Mia! had legs.
Mackintosh has always dismissed such talk as tosh. He told me years ago that he knew Mamma Mia! would work which is why “we booked it.”
Mamma Mia! has now played in three of his houses — the Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales and now the Novello.
Craymer is busy overseeing the Mamma Mia! and her Littlestar empire with its full-time staff of 10, many of whom have been with her from the beginning. But there’s also work to be done on what she calls a “biopic” about Cher’s extraordinary life. The film is being made with Universal under Craymer’s Judy Films banner with the singer’s full cooperation.
Indeed, on the day of one of our many conversations for this Breaking Baz column, Craymer has an appointment for a midnight Zoom call with Cher. “Well, it is 4 p.m. in Los Angeles,” she reasons.
Craymer is crazy about the 76-year-old entertainer, and was especially enthralled by the “moxie” Cher gave Ruby in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
She has no details to share on the film as yet, because there’s no script and no director. “It’s in the works and, as I’ve said, process takes time.”
What is the Cher film about? “Well, it’s her life. Her incredible life. I mean, she has glitter in the veins.”
It’s clearly too early for any hints about casting, and she admits it will be a trick process. ”Is it about singing, or is it about acting? A bit of both, probably. Would it be Cher singing? Do we use her original tracks? Or could somebody else sing it? All these things that are in discussion, really,” she tells me.
I’m suddenly compelled to know how Craymer refers to Cher. Does she call her by her name?”I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “Cher.” although I am known by a few people as the Cher Whisperer.
“To her, I’m Jude, and if I need to address her formally I call her Madam,” Craymer shares.
It’s clear we’ll be seeing a lot of Cher in the near future — Mamma Mia! Movie 3 and Madam Cher!
If anyone can make it happen, Judy Craymer, the “Super Trouper” herself, can. Why? Because, well, that’s “The Name of [Her] Game“…
Best of Deadline