LONDON — When the musical "Mamma Mia!" opened in London on April 6, 1999, few expected that a mother-daughter drama set on a Greek island and scored to the songs of ABBA would go very far.
After all, it was merely "filler" at the Prince Edward Theatre until the much splashier "Ragtime" transferred from Broadway. "Ragtime," though, eventually came to a different London theater in 2003, where it quickly folded despite decent reviews.
And "Mamma Mia!" became an international phenomenon. It celebrated its fifth anniversary with 11 productions playing around the world and six more due to open in the next 18 months.
"It's like having a child that won't stop growing," Catherine Johnson, author of the musical's book, says.
Currently generating more than $8 million a week in ticket sales, "Mamma Mia!" has grossed more than $750 million worldwide, including $200 million on the West End and $150 million in New York. If the current box office activity continues, the show should easily pass the billion-dollar mark set by "The Phantom of the Opera."
Still, solid business is one thing; stratospheric is another. "Mamma Mia!" has yet to open in a city or country where it hasn't clicked, whether you're talking Korea, the Netherlands, or Australia. The show claims to have been seen by almost one in every 10 Australians.
That's not bad, given that many musicals — "The Producers," "Rent" or even "Les Miserables" — don't always connect with the public.
Why, then, does "Mamma Mia!" — which uses songs from a Swedish pop group that disbanded in the early 1980s — work?
Director Phyllida Lloyd, points to the genuine affection and seriousness of purpose with which the show was conceived.
"We never ever imagined that we were working on a hit," she says. "We treated it very humbly.
"We were absolutely ferociously trying to mine a drama, and we treated it very seriously and not remotely cynically; none of us thought, this is going to be a gravy train."
Designer Mark Thompson agrees. "The thing is, I don't think 'Mamma Mia!' was ever approached as a way to make money; it was always approached as a new book musical."
Johnson is modest about her contribution — to shape a narrative on which to hang such clap-happy songs as "Super Trouper," "Money, Money, Money," "Dancing Queen" and the title number.
Her solution was to create a family drama about 20-year-old Sophie, who invites to her island wedding three men, determined to discover which one was her father. Her sleuthing prompts various showdowns, including an emotional reckoning with the hard-living mother, Donna, who raised Sophie on her own.
"I think people still don't realize 'Mamma Mia!' has a book, at least the people who haven't seen it," Johnson says.
In fact, says Lloyd, the book is the musical's secret weapon. "A lot of people have written the show off as being not particularly cunningly achieved, when it's actually an incredibly difficult job to suddenly be given this catalog of songs and asked to find a structure," Lloyd says.
If some of the ABBA songs seem incongruous, so be it. "For me," says Lloyd, "the charm of the show is that the songs don't fit; that's the point. That's why it tickles me."
And while blockbusters such as "Les Miz," "Cats" and "Phantom" tend to clone the same show throughout the world, the "Mamma Mia!" team tries to make the musical unique to every territory. "It's never the same twice," Lloyd says.
"We never went and made the London 'Mamma Mia!' in other countries: It's completely an Australian version with Australian characters and Australian jokes. In Hamburg, it's been done completely in German."
In London, the musical moves May 27 to the Prince of Wales Theatre, which is smaller than the Prince Edward. The shift in theater guarantees "Mamma Mia!" a continued West End life while freeing up the 1650-seat Prince Edward for "Mary Poppins," opening in December.
There are still other cities around the world to consider as well as a movie version that producer Craymer says is still "very early days."