PLAYBILL ON ANNIVERSARY NIGHT: Mamma Mia! Celebrates Five for a Wedding That Wasn't

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON ANNIVERSARY NIGHT: Mamma Mia! Celebrates Five for a Wedding That Wasn't
Catherine Johnson and Bjorn Ulvaeus showed for the fifth anniversary performance of Mamma Mia! on Oct. 18. That’s two-thirds of the creative team that delivered the show. She is the book writer, traditionally low person on the creative totem pole, and he is half of ABBA, the songwriting team that filled the show with 22 of their prize evergreens. His partner, Benny Andersson, opted to lie down and rest a while in Stockholm rather than proceed on to New York after successfully launching their Mamma Mia! in Moscow. Russia, it seems, has elevators, and, by implication, Musak, and, thus, easy access to ABBA standards. Thus, another blow was resoundingly struck for One Worldism.

“I’ll tell you something else Russia has,” Ulvaeus said, his happy I’ve-got-a-secret eyes twinkling. “They’ve more millionaires per square mile in Moscow than they have here.”

Just when our star scanner was starting to slip and sag, a huge white stretch limo pulled up ostentatiously as all get-out at the Winter Garden and out stepped—read no deep, dark political meaning in this—Martina Navratilova, the great tennis star and Czech defect, with two friends. What brought her to this show on this night? “My birthday.” (Her 50th.)

You’d think Greg Edelman would lend some of his Drama Desk Award-winning clout to the evening—but no! He was home baby-sitting the children for Mamma Mia! herself, Carolee Carmello—“but he’s here in spirit,” she postscripted sweetly at the after-party at Bar Americain on W. 52nd Street. She said having the composer in the audience “made me nervous. He saw me do the show before a year ago. Then I left for a year and came back a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to be good for him.” As if she could be otherwise.

Ulvaeus seemed a little nervous himself when he faced the anniversary audience—no stars, just contented customers—and he was very humble: “I think you may take it for granted, but, for someone from the Old World like me, Broadway is like a shimmering pearl—unreachable and wonderful, especially for someone from the way North in Europe. You’ve heard the expression ‘the dumb Swede,’ haven’t you? To have a show here at all is absolutely fantastic, and to have a show go five years is beyond my imagination.”

At Bar Americain, he admitted he knew he was among friends at the theatre. It could be his big clue was that, when the cast went into the protracted finale and Day-Glo colors, they were quite literally dancing in the aisles. (This included The Shuberts’ Phil Smith and wife Trish at the back of the house. “This was my mom’s favorite show,” she said.) “Dancing in the aisle was something they started doing in London,” said Ulvaeus, “and it’s not something we have sorta urged them to do. They just do it. It was a good house. There were quite a lot of fans there tonight, I think. Plus, the people from the charity.”

The performance benefited The Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of The Actors’ Fund of America. “It was all their idea, y’know,” Newman noted. “They came to us and said that they would love to do a benefit for the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative and would it be okay?’” She did a “duh” pause. “I said, ‘I think so.’”

I asked Newman what words she brought me of the Colonial (that being the Rialto in Boston) where High Fidelity is trying out through Oct. 22, prior to moving into Broadway’s Imperial Nov. 20 for a Dec. 7 opening. She got it into one and repeated nine times: “Rewrite rewrite rewrite rewrite . . .” Then, the mother of the lyricist, Amanda Green, admitted, “It is so good. It is going to be something. The show is great, and that theatre is great—great old theatre.” The Colonial saw lift-offs of such Comden & Green shows as Do Re Mi, On the Twentieth Century, the ‘44 & ‘71 On the Towns and Subways Are for Sleeping; Newman was in the last two, and to Tony-winning effect in the latter.

Judy McLane, who’s playing long-stemmed “bosom buddy” to Carmello’s Donna, is obviously having a high old time of it as the tarty Tanya. “She’s a party girl. Life’s is always positive and good and fun for her. I have a good time with the role. I’ve just finished two years. This is my two-year anniversary, and I’m doing a third. And you know what? The only other person they’ve ever asked for a third year for Joe Machota—the original Sky—and that’s kinda nice. I have a great time. It’s a great part. What’s better? You get to have fabulous clothes. You get your pedicures and your manicures. You get to be funny and sing some fun songs. How much more can you ask for? Hello?”

The designated bride and groom of the show—Carey Anderson and Andy Kelso—are also marking an on-stage anniversary: their first year, a fifth of the show’s run. Trilled Anderson: “It’s such a personal story. It really is. You have this amazing music, but the story behind it is what makes it all work and makes it really, really special. It’s full of a lot of heart.” And Kelso seconded that emotion: “That finale speeds up the audience’s energy. I’ve never been part of a show where the audience has had some much fun.”

Michael Mastro will be entering the Mamma Mia! mix Oct. 25, replacing David Beach, “but you [being reviewers] are not allowed to come until after Thanksgiving. The other guy going in is Pearce Buntin, who’ll play Phil the Australian. We have our first run-through tomorrow with the entire company. Nerve-wracking. But backstage it’s a party. They’re lovely, generous, sweet people to work with.”

Schmoozing up a storm at one booth was Stephen Ivelja and Ted Moriates—Together Again!—in another, and better, life waiters at the much-missed Barrymore’s. Ivelija tears tickets for Spamalot, and Moriates handles the infrared system for Grey Gardens.

Director Gordon Greenberg says his new version of The Pirates of Penzance—that Penzance by way of Johnny Depp’s "Pirates of the Caribbean 2"—is now in previews at the Goodspeed Opera House for a Nov. 1 opening that will run through Dec. 16. Come summer, about the time "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" hits movie screen, it will drop anchor at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Its cast includes Andrew Varela (The Pirate King), Ed Dixon (The Major General), Farah Alvin (Mabel), Jason Michael Snow (Frederick), Joanna Glushak (Ruth), Gerry MacIntyre (The Sergeant) and Julia Osborne (Edith). His revival of Jacquel Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is nearing its ninth month at The Zipper and will be marking the spot Nov. 21 with an cast recording from Ghostlight Records, the theatrical division of Sh-K-Boom Records. Constantine Maroulis, the “American Idol” finalist currently in The Wedding Singer, will enter the four-member cast after the first of the year, replacing Jim Stanek, who will play Paul in the Kennedy Center’s four-week revival of Carnival, which will start rehearsing Jan. 16. Sebastian Lacaust has been cast as Marco, and currently they are looking for Lilis.

Ulvaeus and Andersson were working on a second musical when Mamma Mia! premiered and they still are working on it, he said, but it’s on the backburner now. “We translated it into English and actually did a workshop of that show here in March. It’s called Kristina, and it’s about immigrants coming from Sweden to the U.S. in the 1850s. Since the workshop, we’ve had so many other things to do we haven’t worked on that script—which we need to do, because there were a number of things that Americans didn’t understand. This is a very Swedish story. When we did it in Sweden, everyone knew the story almost. We forgot to explain crucial things for this country, but we’re working on that.”

Commanding his primary attention is the movie version of Mamma Mia!, which will be directed by the original stage director, Phyllida Lloyd, and produced by Tom Hanks’ production company. Who could play Donna, the Mamma Mia! in question? Madonna?

Author Johnson has been riding a whirlwind more than writing since Mamma Mia! opened in London two years before it opened on Broadway. “I’ve just been traveling the world with Mamma Mia! really,” she says, freely agreeing it’s nice work if you can get it.

But she has “been working on theatre shows in Britain,” and will hunker down and do the screenplay for Mamma Mia! “I think it’s all going to go ahead next year, but I’m going to touch wood while I say that because that’s the sort of world where nothing’s definite.”

She was very interested to hear that there was a revival of Carmelia in town this weekend and was thinking seriously about catching it. This Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane-Joseph Stein musical, which played only 17 Broadway performances in 1979, was based on a 1969 Gina Lollobrigida movie called "Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell" about a Italian woman who gets a couple of decades of child support from three World War II servicemen.

The plotline of all three properties possess a certain will-the-real-daddy-stand-up similarity. “I didn’t actually base it on the film,” said Johnson. “I never saw the movie at all. It was only after the production started that people remarked on the similarity.”

The evening was all pleasure, no pain for her—quite a contrast from her first night on Broadway. “It was better than watching it on opening night because I felt so much more relaxed and I could trust the company. It felt like a hit, didn’t it? There were no worries about it tonight. But sometimes when something has been running for years you worry that it might become a little tired and they’re just going through the motions, but tonight I felt the cast was so committed that it felt as fresh as if it were opening night.” One thing you notice in extra viewings is that the entire show is about a wedding that turns out in the final moments not to happen. Rather than waste the congregation and the decoration, Johnson comes up with a new bride in a presto-chango wedding gown.

“She’s going to live to regret that, isn’t she?” laughs the writer. “The change is fantastic. I’ve never been backstage to see what happens, but I imagine that they are tearing her out of one dress to put her in her wedding dress and get her back out again in a minute flat.”

A representative from Mike Bloomberg’s office declared October 18, 2006, by official proclamation of the mayor, "Mamma Mia! Day," and this provided Johnson the perfect ta-ta all evening: “Well, happy Mamma Mia! Day. It’s not often I can that, is it?” Cheeriebye.

Judy McLane, Carolee Carmello and Lori Haley Fox
Judy McLane, Carolee Carmello and Lori Haley Fox Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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