On Monday evening I was in Bradford town centre, finally getting around to seeing Joker (brilliant, by the way. People who love cinema are going to be inspired by it for years to come).
In a restaurant before the film I was told I would have a lengthy wait for food because the restaurant was so busy. Fortunately I hadn’t seen Joker already so was simply curious and not angry when I inquired as to why so seriously long a wait for the meal.
‘Everyone’ according to the waiter, was going to the Alhambra theatre to see Mamma Mia.
I relate this story because it demonstrates something for which I have advocated over and over in these pages: building a city around a strong cultural offer makes not good business sense.
Those people who very nearly made me late for Joker while enjoying their pizzas were going to witness not just a piece of theatre but a cultural phenomenon.
Mamma Mia, the theatrical behemoth that has spawned two movies is far more than just another musical. In many ways it has shaped and redefined what musical theatre is and can be.
“It was the first of its kind,” says Steven Paling, backing up what might seem like my hyperbole above.
“There was Taboo (the musical, which featured the music of Boy George, opened in 2002, but
had been mooted for some time) but there really hadn’t been anything like it before. It opened the door.”
Paling is the associate director of the show which arrived in Bradford this week and will play at the Alhambra for the rest of this month. He first heard about Mamma Mia when he was a West End performer in the London production of Chicago.
“There was a buzz about the show and I was lucky enough to see it at a preview performance back in 1999.
“It was like nothing I had seen before. Before I saw the show I thought that maybe I could name a couple of Abba songs, but as I watched it I realised that I recognised pretty much every song in the show.”
It is one of those ideas that you know is good because the question is always ‘why on earth had nobody thought of it before?’ Take music that is already known and loved by millions and build a show around it.
There is a theatrical tradition of it happening the other way around: Grease sparked several hit singles and The Rocky Horror Show had a big slice of chart pie with Timewarp.
Evita had a breakout hit thanks to Madonna and there are other examples, but they serve to demonstrate that, oddly enough, music for musicals exists in one sphere and music for the music charts in another.
Until Mamma Mia.
Taking the music of Abba, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus asked playwright Catherine Johnson to come up with a story around which she could weave the Abba songs they had created.
Producer Judy Cramer also engaged director Phyllida Lloyd, who would go on to direct the movie of the musical and to direct operas with Opera North, to work on the production.
It was theatrical magic. The results were fast and impressive.
The show opened at the Prince Edward Theatre on April 6, 1999 before transferring to another West End theatre, the Prince of Wales, in 2004, where it played until 2012.
It continues to play in the West End to this day, with Paling as the resident director.
“It’s the kind of show that forever pulls you back to it,” he says.
“I was only going to do it for a year and use it as a springboard for something next in my career. That was 14 years ago.
“It’s like that, though. We always say that when people join, they become part of the Mamma Mia family and even if they go off to do other things they always want to come back.”
The combination of the Abba music, Catherine Johnson’s script and Phyllida Lloyd’s direction created something new. Since then other ‘jukebox musicals’ have arrived on the scene, with Ben Elton’s scripted We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen and American Idiot with the music of Green Day, but Mamma Mia seems to have something special, other than being the progenitor of all the others.
“It’s the music. I think the thing about Abba’s songs is that they are stories in themselves, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It means that, while in some jukebox musicals you have people suddenly stop the story and start singing the songs, the music in Mamma Mia works like it does in a musical with original songs where you get halfway through a scene and then a song is song which progresses the story,” says Paling.
“With Mamma Mia you already had these songs by Abba that contained stories within them, so if the story is right then the music can actually move the story along.
“Plus I think the script by Catherine is what makes this stand out from the others. It really is a very strong story and that is the thing that has brought audiences back.”
That the production has been running for 20 years now and has two Meryl Streep-starring movies is the reason that people were filling up the Bradford restaurant earlier this week and the reason why it pulls such a crowd.
“What’s amazing is that we are now seeing a third generation of people coming to see the show,” says Paling. “That is something really special.”
At Bradford Alhambra, to November 23. Tickets from the box office on 01274 432000 or bradford-theatres.co.uk