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[This story contains spoilers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.]
Worldwide musical sensation Mamma Mia! — the brainchild of British producer Judy Craymer — started out as merely an idea. An idyllic Greek island, three potential fathers, a pair of overalls and a soundtrack consisting of songs by pop group ABBA.
Inspired by the theatrical potential of ABBA’s emotional ballad “The Winner Takes It All,” Craymer utilized her production skills to put together a story built around some of the Swedish band’s greatest hits.
It was nearly 20 years ago when Mamma Mia! hit the stage for the first time on London’s West End in 1999. Since then, Mamma Mia! has established itself as the eighth-longest running show in West End history, grossing over $2 billion throughout its run.
Today, the beloved characters from the fictional island of Kalokairi are back — this time joined by a new cast of characters to play their younger selves, including Lily James as a 20-something version of Meryl Streep’s Donna. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, out July 20, explores the rich backstory that originated in Donna Sheridan’s diary from the first film.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Craymer to discuss all things Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!.
After the first film, was a sequel always in the works?
It was something I had explored and talked to the composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus about. I don’t think any of us could completely decide on what it was and I had also talked to the original architects, Phyllida Lloyd who directed the first movie and the stage show, and Catherine Johnson who wrote it. I think it was just a matter of what and when, and I think they felt that they were too close to the material and didn’t want to venture down that path. Of course, the stakes are high when you’re going to do a follow-up film. But Universal has always supported me. They’ve very much championed us. But then it was, ‘How do we get the wonderful original cast back if we’re doing a prequel?’ So that was a phone call I made to Richard Curtis asking him for his thoughts. I love his work and I thought he might love to throw some light on it, and [the prequel] is what he came up with, to go back and forth in time. So that was the lightbulb moment about two and a half years ago.
How important was it for you to stay true to the original backstory that audiences learn about from Donna’s diary in the first film?
It was incredibly important to quite literally mime the origins of the story. We have something that I like to call the “Mamma Mia! factor” and I think the goal was to somehow find that while exploring the backstory and going into the present day, while also giving serious nods to the last film. The location, the island, the sense of place, the sense that you want to join old friends and be back there. It was all important.
Tell me about the decision that was made in regard to Donna’s character, and Meryl Streep, in the sequel. Why did you decide to kill off her character?
Well, she just wasn’t good enough, you know? [Laughs] To be honest, she was always a part of it. Would we have done another film without her? She was so glorious in the first movie and has so much affection for Mamma Mia! So, she was always a part of a conversation of another film. I think for her, it was a matter of what and how, and we also did chat occasionally about it. It was a matter of the right script. Also, Meryl likes to conquer new things, and she had played Donna Sheridan and been singing nine or so ABBA songs in the first movie. I think she felt that she liked the idea of leaving this to the younger ones and she wanted to be involved, but she wasn’t gonna take on such a big role. So, I think that helped explore the emotional heft of what [director and co-writer] Ol Parker wrote in the fact that it’s a story of life and marriage and loss and love, but also it’s very important to Meryl what song she does. If she was gonna sing, “My Love, My Life” is a very, very strong song like “The Winner Takes It All.” It’s a huge storytelling song, it’s got a big emotional punch and, of course, she has this incredible voice. So, I think there were many decisions there, but it came very much from Meryl being a part of all of them.
How did you go about selecting new ABBA songs to fit the storyline of the new film?
Well, I always have ABBA songs in my head all the time, and I knew the songs that we had used in the show and not in the show, and in the film and not in the film that still had great storytelling ability. In the creation of Mamma Mia!, for me, it was always about the more emotional songs that ABBA wrote like “The Winner Takes It All” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” that spells out the story of a breakup. So, the songs kind of wrote the script and the script wrote the songs.
What about the decision to bring in Cher as Donna’s mother? Was that always something you’d hoped for in casting?
That was always kind of on the big dream list when we started working on this one. I always knew that we were going to be writing the character Ruby Sheridan, the mother of Donna Sheridan. Who was the mother? Because she’s mentioned in the original stage show, and in the last film, we never really knew who she was. So, I just always thought that we’re doing a musical comedy and to aim high with the casting to have somebody like Cher. Of course, I love the idea of Cher and the idea that the character would sing “Fernando.” The songs always had to earn their place. They have to be a part of the storytelling, and I think we achieved that with “Fernando.” It really created Ruby Sheridan’s story, so there really was only one choice which was Cher and she said yes. And I know she’s a musician, so she loves ABBA and I knew she’d loved the stage show. I have to say though, once again, she isn’t just a great voice but a great actress and a great comedian. She is quite forensic in her work and her thought process.
What about casting the younger characters? How did you find the right actors to accurately portray such well known roles?
It was just fun trying to find them. They kind of jumped out at us, and, actually, their older selves would laugh about how well their younger selves could sing and dance. You know, for the younger Colin Firth, Hugh Skinner, we needed someone with comedy bones that could bring that kind of sense of innocence and fun. With Josh Dylan, playing Bill Anderson, we’d always imagined that we’d actually cast from Sweden, not from Scandinavia, and we did search. He actually came in to audition as Young Sam and said he wanted to try reading the Young Bill part, and he did it so brilliantly with his Scandinavian accent. So he became our hot Scandy. And then, Jeremy Irvine (Young Sam) is just incredibly handsome and you know that Donna would be falling in love with him. Interestingly, none of them were impersonating.
I love all the ’70s outfits of Donna and the Dynamos. Tell me about the fashion.
Well, I’m hoping that overalls will become will become very fashionable now. It’s funny because in the first film, you know, there was a whole thing. ‘Oh God, Meryl Streep is going to be wearing overalls.’ And now, literally, it’s become kind of a hot fashion item. Michele Clapton was our costume designer. I think what Lily James is wearing, and what they’re all wearing, when they go back to the ’70s is very, kind of clever. It’s not cliched, it’s very much what any twenty-something would want to be wearing. Just as any twenty-something would want to be on that holiday romance. Well, I hope. I would.
What do you love most about seeing Mamma Mia come to life on the big screen, in comparison to something like an on-stage performance?
Well, I think the challenge was, and it always was even in the first film, that people would say ‘Well, are you sure you’re gonna do a film? Can you still capture the fun that the audience has in the theater?’ That’s always been an ambition and I hope that’s part of the connection that audiences feel that they’re up there, that they could be singing and dancing these songs. But I love the fact that it kind of just takes you on this journey. It’s empowering. It’s got roles of three generations of women. I think Cher is empowering and an inspiration in the fact that it’s actually Cher that gets the guy and has her own romance going on in the end.
It celebrates women, but it celebrates friendship and men too. You feel with all those guys coming back — Pierce and Stellan and Colin — that they really are friends. The story that we left off in the first movie was about Sophie discovering her three possible fathers, and now I think you really feel they have a family unit. So, its like saying there’s all kinds of families. It doesn’t matter. You can be a little unconventional, but family and friends are important.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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