Quick: Name the London stage import about three somewhat earthy women of a certain age bonding over the music of a 1970s pop band.
Well, Mamma Mia! is the obvious answer. But two years before Catherine Johnson was approached to write the book for the ABBA smash, she had begun work on Shang-A-Lang, a tale of three women on the verge of 40 who attend a Bay City Rollers holiday camp. (“Shang-A-Lang” was the name of the Rollers’ after-school TV show in the United Kingdom.) “Some people think of it as Mamma Mia!’s evil twin,” Johnson says of Shang-A-Lang, which is on its way to the big screen — assuming Johnson can finish it.
“I’ve had a real problem making the leap from stage to screen,” she says of the adaptation. “I’m having a hard time opening up the settings, and I find I’m quite attached to my dialogue, much of which has to go. I’m on about the fourth draft, and I hope to be done in a fortnight or so.”
One thing that may require a bit of explanation for U.S. audiences is the whole concept of “holiday camps,” which Johnson describes as a ghastly middle-class vacation that often involves seeing a lot of bad revivals and/or reincarnations of faded 1970s bands. “I really don’t think you’ve got anything as bad over there,” says Johnson, who revisited the camps in preparation for the play. (The antipathy appears to be mutual: One prominent holiday camp filed an injunction after it was named specifically in the play. Johnson promptly removed the name.)
Johnson’s previous works have been known for their bawdy dialogue and plots — the producers of Shang-A-Lang had a hard time finding 30 seconds of the play suitable for a U.K. television show. It became clear from the very beginning that Shang-A-Lang and Mamma Mia! would differ in this regard. “[Producer] Judy Craymer drily informed me not to forget that this was a family show,” Johnson says of the ABBA musical. “The creative team actually had a little bit of a contretemps over this — it was the first time I’ve found myself arguing against swearing instead of for it.” Johnson is afraid that the “Shang-A-Lang” producers may bristle at the salty dialogue. “They might need a little bit of convincing that this is real life, and these are the things that people really say,” she says. Although she’s been warned that the movie business is notoriously unpredictable, she’s not concerned. “I keep hearing about how wrong things can go,” she says, “but that’s what everyone said about Mamma Mia!”
Johnson would like to see the film go before cameras next year with British actresses like Kathy Burke (“Dancing at Lughnasa”). “I wouldn’t imagine that it would be a big blockbuster, although I’d like if it were.”
Shang-A-Lang has been seen in several countries, including much of Scandinavia, but not in America, despite the success of Mamma Mia!. Johnson thinks the provincial nature of holiday camps may have made the idea a hard sell to U.S. producers: “They might feel it’s too peculiarly British. When I’ve got all my Mamma Mia millions, maybe I’ll set up a few holiday camps in the States. No, I couldn’t do anything so awful.”
His Carmen update Car Man may have run aground during its U.S. mini-tour, but London choreographer/director Matthew Bourne (the male Swan Lake of a few years back) doesn’t seem too fazed. “Stage to Screen” favorites Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are inching toward signing Bourne to a deal with Disney. Bourne has already started working on stage incarnations of “The Little Mermaid” and “Edward Scissorhands” for Disney, so the movie deal isn’t a big surprise. And while we’re on the topic of acclaimed stage directors with Disney experience, Julie Taymor’s in post-production on “Frida,” her Frida Kahlo biopic starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina. Look for Geoffrey Rush — as Trotsky, no less — in the 2002 release.
Cutting-Room Floor: Did anyone else see a reference to a film version of the Central Park “Seagull” somewhere? Ina Kevin Kline interview, maybe? For the life of me, I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but it’s completely unfounded. Public Theatre representatives practically had to stifle laughter at the prospect. Ah, well. ... Alec Guinness always seemed to resent his “Star Wars” notoriety, but several other U.K. stage legends appear to be following in his footsteps and signing up for sci-fi/fantasy films. First up is “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (Nov. 16), which features Fiona Shaw, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Zoe Wannamaker in prominent roles. And don’t forget Ian McKellen and Ian Holm starring in all three “Lord of the Rings” movies, beginning Dec. 19. ... Sissy Spacek’s been getting a lot of attention for her work in “In the Bedroom” (Nov. 21), but keep your eyes peeled for Karen Allen (Speaking in Tongues) as well. Nov. 21 will also see the rerelease of “Moulin Rouge” in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Yes, it’s Oscar time again, despite the fact that no good movies have opened yet. (Well, almost no good movies.)
Your Thoughts: Would you rather see the Bay City Rollers or ABBA on the big screen? Does Matthew Bourne have what it takes to match Julie Taymor’s success on stage? What dance piece would you like to see rethought for film?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at email@example.com.