Mamma Mia! and the Rise of the Jukebox Musical

Mamma Mia! is one of theatre’s biggest success stories, and it is credited with launching an entirely new genre of musicals, but it took over a decade for the production to get off the ground. ABBA was one of the biggest-selling bands of the 1970’s, and after the band dissolved songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus teamed up with acclaimed lyricist Tim Rice to write Chess, a new musical. A critical success upon its premiere in 1986, it ran in London’s West End for over three years. However, after significant changes were made to the production, it failed on Broadway and closed after less than three months.

Around this time, Andersson and Ulvaeus met producer Judy Craymer, who had an idea to create a musical based on ABBA’s many hits. The former bandmates were reluctant, and it wasn’t until 1995 that she finally convinced them to go ahead with it. Craymer hired playwright Catherine Johnson to come up with a completely unique storyline, using the band’s songs as inspiration. The initial production team was completed when acclaimed stage director Phyllida Lloyd joined. It was one of the first instances where an all-female leadership team was put together for a major West End production.

As opposed to previous pop music-inspired musicals like Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, Mamma Mia! had a completely unique fictional storyline that was not based on the lives of the members of ABBA. Johnson’s script focused on a single mother living on a remote Greek island. On the eve of her wedding, her daughter secretly invites her mother’s three former lovers to the island in the hopes her real father will be revealed. Mamma Mia!’s creators remained focused on the narrative, and Andersson and Ulvaeus supported them by amending some lyrics to fit the script, ensuring that the story was the priority.

The result was a critical and commercial success. Widely praised on its opening in 1999, it has remained in the West End ever since, spawning a Broadway production that has been running for over 10 years, as well as international productions in Canada, France, Germany, Australia, China, and Japan. The musical has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. Its film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Amanda Seyfried, was released in 2008 to similar acclaim, and became the highest grossing British-made film ever with more than $602 million in ticket sales.

As Mamma Mia! took its place as a West End juggernaut, many producers sought to replicate the jukebox musical model that contributed to its longevity. We Will Rock You and Our House successfully used a similar format to place Queen and Madness’ hit songs respectively in purely fictional storylines. Others, like Desperately Seeking Susan with the music of Blondie and The Times They are A-Changin’ with music by Bob Dylan, have been critical and commercial failures. Still, Mamma Mia! proved that jukebox musicals could go the distance, and that this genre is here to stay.