From Louise Pitre to Judy McLane, 10 Donnas of Mamma Mia! Recall Their Moment in the ABBA Spotlight

Diva Talk   From Louise Pitre to Judy McLane, 10 Donnas of Mamma Mia! Recall Their Moment in the ABBA Spotlight
 
Before Mamma Mia! takes its final Broadway bow, the actresses who starred as Donna look back at their time in the show, including what it felt like to open a light-hearted musical comedy in the days after 9/11; these stellar performers also recall Christmas decorating competitions, onstage weddings and belting "The Winner Takes It All."
Judy McLane
Judy McLane

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Oh, Donna, How Could We Resist You?: On Sept. 12 Donna Sheridan will walk down the aisle of her Greek island resort one final time when the international hit musical Mamma Mia! plays its final performance at the Broadhurst Theatre.

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The role, which was created by Louise Pitre — who received a Tony nomination for her work — has been played by a host of multi-talented actresses, including current leading lady Judy McLane. Playbill.com reached out to several former Donnas to reflect on their experiences in the long-running musical that features a book by Catherine Johnson and the songs of ABBA (Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus). Their memories follow:

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Tony nominee Louise Pitre, who created the role of Donna…
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
I think the thing I enjoyed in a very special way was singing "Slipping Through My Fingers" while putting Sophie's hair up in a bun. I loved the bittersweetness of that moment. I took particular pride in making the hairdo look fantastic…and then they cut Tina [Maddigan's] hair so short that all I could do was put barrettes in it.

Louise Pitre (center) and cast
Louise Pitre (center) and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
I have countless memories but #1 has to be the overwhelming response we got during previews. It was so soon after 9/11, and I was not ready for the reaction. I would come out at the stage door and be hugged, kissed, thanked by crying, appreciative fans who kept saying: "Thank you for giving us two-and-a-half hours of joy and allowing us to forget!!!!" It was a heightened and special time. I have never felt so loved as a performer.

The other thing I think of often is my bow on opening night. I went to centre stage and got down on my knees and hit the floor hard. I had finally stood on a Broadway stage in the lead role. It was a valorizing moment for me. And I hit the floor so hard that I actually hurt my hand … but I didn't care.

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Judy McLane, a long-time Tanya, who is Broadway's current and final Donna…
What is your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
I'd have to say singing "Winner Takes It All" — it's the time when I have the most freedom for interpretation. Every night is a different emotional journey.

Judy McLane
Judy McLane Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory (or memories) of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
After 11 years, there are so many. For the 10th anniversary, we performed the finale outside on a stage, in the middle of Broadway, with fireworks going off on top of the theatre. That was pretty exhilarating! And, of course, all backstage shenanigans, such as Christmas door decorating competitions, in-house Olympics, "Da Mamma Code" quests and horoscope club! They were ridiculously fun!

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Lisa Brescia
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
There are so many favorites, but the ones that stand out to me are consistently those which include the entire company. For example (spoiler alert!), the wedding at the end of the play. Shakespeare knew that every great comedy ends with a wedding, and Mamma Mia!, even with its modern narrative and pop score, just may have thematically borrowed from the Bard. And, of course, it doesn’t disappoint. Everyone is onstage together, united in a single purpose, which is to support and celebrate the coming together of a man and woman who have been in love with each other (from a distance) for 20 years. The audience has been rooting for this couple the entire night, so they’re onboard, too. I relished those moments when every company member was onstage together. It’s my favorite thing about theatre — telling the story collectively, as an ensemble, when every character in the play is necessary to have an impact.

Lisa Brescia
Lisa Brescia Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
Whenever a company member was leaving the show, there would be a “Happy Trails” celebration in the green room. There was profound generosity, affection, fondness and love for each other in that company. And humor — they were wickedly funny people, both the cast and crew. Someone always wrote some sort of original material, whether it was “Top Ten Reasons So-and-So Is Leaving Mamma Mia!” or spoken word or a song. People always stepped up enthusiastically to celebrate each other.

Another favorite memory was of the annual Christmas (Dressing Room) Door Competition. With celebrity judges and prizes, the decorations and even full-out production numbers were so creative…ranging from over-the-top spectacle to the wardrobe department’s ingenious designs to simple elegance and profundity, such as Jen Perry’s tribute to the fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (she won that year, and rightly so). I miss seeing those carefully decorated doors, those clever original production numbers put on right in the hallways of the Winter Garden. And I miss the belly laughs, which were a daily occurrence in those halls, in those stairwells, and on that stage. Mamma Mia! had a way of reminding all of us to lighten up, to connect with our own personal inner clown and to remember our purpose, which was to bring pleasure to the patrons, which it never failed to do.

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Tony nominee Carolee Carmello
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
I think my favorite onstage moment has to be singing the end of "Winner Takes It All." It was so fun and satisfying to pour all that raw emotion and vocal strength into those notes. The crew used to laugh about how they could go out for a beer when I started that last note and get back before I finished.

Carolee Carmello
Carolee Carmello Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
The memories that are strongest all these years after I left the show are the ones with my friends who played "Tanya" and "Rosie." Every night after the bedroom scene, we would huff and puff our way to the costume change, and laugh and gasp and wonder how it never got easy. Those girls made it the most fun aerobic workout I've ever had.

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Leah Hocking
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
Singing "The Winner Takes It All" every night was such a cathartic experience I quit therapy. For a while. I'm sad to see it go. It has imparted a tremendous amount of joy to the world.

Leah Hocking
Leah Hocking Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
When I was playing Donna, my daughter Mabel (who was five at the time) and my husband Jim (who was alive at the time) came to see a matinee. It was her first time seeing Mamma Mia! She used to have a hard time sitting still, so they were sitting on the stairs in the balcony. At this point she's let everyone around her know that her mommy is on stage. In the second act when Donna and Sophie (the glorious Carey Anderson at the time) are saying goodbye to each other, as Sophie is going off to see the world, Mabel stands up and loudly exclaims, "I'm feeling a little bit sad right now." Not only one of my favorite Mamma Mia! memories, but one of my favorite life memories.

The funniest thing that happened (although stage management may beg to differ): Before my entrance, I was backstage chatting with the dance captain, of all people, when I realize it's oddly quiet out there. Before I could move my feet Judy McLane (Tanya way back then) yells, "DONNA!" Yeah, I missed that cue so thoroughly that Judy and Olga ran out of adlibs. Never happened again! In that show....

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Tony nominee Dee Hoty
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?…What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
When I first saw Louise Pitre in the tour in Chicago (I was there to begin rehearsals to replace her, July 2001), during Act 2, she helps Sophie get ready for her wedding, and I'm watching, and Donna begins singing "Slipping through My Fingers," and I'm watching, and she begins to do the child's hair! On stage, in real time, she puts her girl's hair up in a French twist....whaaat? I'm thinking, "Oh, this is a mistake, this is Louise showing off, this is... really happening…I will never be able to do this, I'm so fired, etc..." And then, oh-so-suddenly, fast forward, it was me, in the show, doing just that. And, may I say, loving every minute of it!

Dee Hoty
Dee Hoty Photo by Joan Marcus

Consequently, that is also my favorite "moment-to-do" in Mamma Mia!, too. I loved that whole "Slipping" scene and song, kneeling to straighten the wedding dress, all of it.

(Unless you count the time we thought a guy at the Forrest Theatre in Philly was having a heart attack and almost fell out of the balcony while I was singing "The Winner Takes It All," but it turned out he was drunk and missed a step… And the rest of the show, while the ushers, etc., got him out... Hilarious. Me and Gary Lynch, sort of frozen onstage, me singing, not knowing if I should stop, looking between Gary and the conductor...who kept playing along...so we did, too!)

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Tony winner Beth Leavel
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
My favorite on stage moment as Donna! There are so many, but one that comes to mind is right before the mega mix at the end, the Dynamos ride a lift upstage in our power poses! The audience always went crazy! I felt like such a rock star! One particular night, the lift came up, we turned around to sing "You Can Dance….," and it was a sea of pink feather boas! What a shared joy between us and the audience! Wow!

Beth Leavel
Beth Leavel Photo by Joan Marcus

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
Mamma Mia! was such a fun place to work....and play. Always such a sense of play. Our stage managers created wonderful games — such as our own Olympics — which included an interpretive dance competition. You can only imagine. Amazing memories. Always grateful to have been on the island in my fake tan!

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Corinne Melancon
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
My favorite onstage Donna moment has got to be singing "The Winner Takes It All"! The song kind of comes out of nowhere in the show, and when it starts, there's often a palpable audience reaction. Donna takes a wonderful emotional journey as the song builds to that wonderful climax at the end, where the drums come in and our fantastic band is rockin' it out! For a singer and actress, it's absolutely thrilling every night, as I hope for the audience as well.

Felicia Finley, Corinne Melancon and Lauren Cohn
Felicia Finley, Corinne Melancon and Lauren Cohn Photo by Monica Simoes

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
For me, these past 11 years with Mamma Mia! Broadway have really been a gift. Of course I've enjoyed immensely the artistic challenges and the backstage shenanigans! But I've worked with and can now call my friends an incredible group of people. We talk about "family" a lot in the theatre. A while ago I was having a very rough time when I was faced with one challenging personal issue after another for a period of several years. Through it all, I had this wonderful second home to come to, where I felt supported, comfortable, safe and valued. For all of it, but especially my huge extended Mamma Mia! family, I am forever grateful.

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Lauren Mufson
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
My favorite moment was always "Slipping Through My Fingers." I was not yet a mother when I did the show and really wanted to have children. Donna's love, devotion, craving to resolve conflict and connect with Sophie just before her wedding is urgent and always resonated strongly for me. Now I have two daughters, ages five and seven. I took them to see the show last week and wept as the scene unfolded — it's so deeply poignant.

Lauren Mufson
Lauren Mufson

What memory of your time in Mamma Mia! most stands out in your mind and why?
Mamma Mia! inspires pure joy. To see an audience singing, swaying and smiling at every single performance...just a spectacular experience as a performer and a person. Theater as a joyful gift — that's Mamma Mia!

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Tony winner Michele Pawk
What was your favorite onstage moment as Donna and why?
Without a doubt my favorite moment onstage as Donna was getting to marry my husband, John Dossett, who was cast as Bill, again and again. I will cherish that.

Michele Pawk
Michele Pawk

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The Broadhurst Theatre is located at 235 West 44th Street. For more information visit mammamianorthamerica.com.

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens Their Favorite Things and Best in Show.

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