Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Broadway Buzz: How Detroit Became Hitsville U.S.A.

Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy (center right) & Cast.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour. (C) Joan Marcus, 2015
On January 12, 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. obtained a loan of $800 from his family and founded an enterprise he called Motown. He set up his Detroit headquarters in a modest house emblazoned with an immodest sign, “Hitsville U.S.A.” The slogan was premature, but prophetic. The company had its first hit record in 1960, and between 1961 and 1971 landed 163 singles in Billboard magazine’s top 20, including 28 songs that reached No. 1.

Gordy discovered, developed, and launched the careers of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Diana Ross and the The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye – to name just a few – and Motown became the most successful business owned and operated by an African American in the United States.

What Gordy accomplished had ramifications far beyond the world of music. Now his legacy is celebrated in Motown the Musical. “Berry Gordy is the Steve Jobs of the music field,” says Doug Morris, CEO of Sony Music Entertainment and co-producer of the show. “He’s the No. 1 creative executive in the history of the industry, an amazing American success story who changed the culture of the country.”

Although Motown was home mostly to black artists, Gordy envisioned the music as “the sound of young America” – and by that he meant Americans of all colors and ethnicities. He started Motown just before the civil rights movement was in full flower, when neighborhoods throughout the country remained segregated and music by black artists was mostly relegated to black radio stations.

But Gordy “endeavored to reach across the racial divide with music that could touch all people,” as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acknowledged. And so he did. Motown’s success didn’t happen by wishful thinking, and it didn’t happen by magic. A brilliant entrepreneur with impeccable artistic taste, Gordy signed the best singers, hired the best musicians, the best songwriters, the best producers, and the best staff to “create, make and sell” irresistible songs with universal appeal.

It began, of course, with the sound, a thrilling amalgamation of gospel, blues, jazz, doo wop, and country. “I may not have always known what I was looking for exactly, but when I found it I knew it,” Gordy has said. The instrumentation was unique, incorporating distinctive bass lines with everything from tambourines to saxophones to drums to three or four guitar lines, to orchestral strings. “Long before there were electronic synthesizers, I was looking for new ways to create different sound effects. We would try anything to get a unique percussion sound: two blocks of wood slapped together, striking little mallets on glass ashtrays, shaking jars of dried peas – anything. I might see a producer dragging in bike chains or getting a whole group of people stomping on the floor.” 

In the early ’60s, when Motown was evolving and beginning to hit its stride, radio play was crucial to a song’s success. And to that point, white pop radio stations had only sporadically embraced recordings by black artists. Gordy recognized that he needed an experienced, respected, well-connected point man who could infiltrate and shatter the      color line of the airwaves, and in 1960 he brought on Barney Ales as vice president of distribution and sales. Ales had been a branch manager at Capitol records in Detroit, then had his own record distributorship, and had relationships with disc jockeys and stations, black and white, all around the metropolitan area.

“My feeling, long before I went to Motown, was that music was music,” says Ales. “I never considered Motown a black company. It was owned by a black guy and had black artists, but it wasn’t a black company. It was a record company. And it was easy to sell the sound because people liked the sound.”

Robin Seymour, Detroit’s most popular radio personality of that era, was perhaps the only white disc jockey in the city to feature black music on his shows in the ’50s, prior to the founding of Motown. “When Berry Gordy came along, I started playing his records,” says Seymour. “Some of the sponsors hated the music, but they had kids and their kids thought it was the greatest music ever. The sponsors were getting results, so they were happy. The music really took off. Being a Detroit company, they started getting noticed and became part of the city. And then the music spread all over the country.”       

In those days, according to Seymour and Ales, radio stations on the East and West Coasts would not play a new record until it had been a hit in Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland. “The record had to be pretty high on the charts before a song was played in New York, regardless of whether the singer was black or white,” says Ales. “Later in the ’60s, when Motown had made it big, that changed. Stations would play a new record by a new artist.”
Seymour adds, “White disc jockeys around the country were eager to get and play this music. We communicated with each other. If I had a record I really liked, I’d call a disc jockey, say, in Boston on the big station there, and say, ‘You’ve got to hear this record.’ And he’d call the distributor to get a copy. Because the disc jockeys wanted to be connected with records and artists and songs that became hits, so they could say, ‘First introduced on our show.’”  

Motown’s artists not only became a staple on mainstream white radio stations, but the top venues around the world. Success bred success, the result of outstanding product and strong marketing and promotion. “What happened with Motown wasn’t natural,” says Ales. “People think Motown was lucky, but that wasn’t true. We worked at it. For instance, I signed a deal with Columbia Record Club, a mail order club that had a lot of prestige. No other black company ever had a deal with them for an entire label. So we were seen as a major record company as opposed to a company that just had hit records.”

 Motown gradually became part of the fabric of America. “Music really makes the world vibrate,” says Morris. “And when multi-cultures vibrate together, it’s a great thing. That’s what Berry Gordy made happen. His music changed the world.”

Come share in the celebration of the Motown hit parade this July 14-19. live on our stage. Find more information at

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Spotlight: Dance the Night Away On Stage at the Backstage Bash

Enter through the famous “Stage Door” on Beale Street and experience life backstage and onstage at the Orpheum!
We hope you’ll join us August 7 for our second annual Backstage Bash, a casual evening of food and fun.

Thanks to our generous partners, you’ll enjoy delicious food from Central BBQ and Hard Rock Cafe, local craft beer, desserts from Frost Bake Shop and a specialty cocktail from Buster’s Liquors & Wines.

If you really want the star treatment, our VIP ticket holders will also enjoy upscale appetizers provided by The Majestic Grille as well as a private bar with complimentary beer, wine and cocktails.

And it wouldn’t be a party without a band! You can dance the night away on stage as local band The Super 5 plays with the historic theatre as its backdrop. Plus, Q 107.5 is our media partner for the evening!

If you’ve been admiring the art behind our logo, it could be yours! The original painting gracing our poster and artwork was graciously donated by Memphis artist and FM100 radio personality Ron Olson and will be included in the night’s silent auction.

Party where countless stars have performed! All proceeds from this evening support our education and community programs, including the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education. Tickets are only $40 in advance, or $45 at the door. VIP tickets are $125.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Broadway Buzz: The Inspiring Women of Motown

Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes
(Diana Ross) & Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson).
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour. (c) Joan Marcus, 2014
They were two diminutive dynamos, one a couple of shades under five feet tall, the other a shade over. But what they lacked in size they made up for in stature. Smart and wise, tough and tender, super confident and super competent, Esther Gordy Edwards and Maxine Powell were two towering figures in the history of Motown.
Berry Gordy was, of course, the visionary leader and driving force behind Motown. As Motown the Musical indicates, Gordy methodically plotted Motown’s course, and one of his great skills was choosing the right people to help him build a company that would ultimately break down barriers and achieve mass market success. That several of the key players were women was unusual: Motown took off in the early ’60s, a time when women were largely invisible in the business world unless they were secretaries.

In the beginning, Gordy employed all four of his sisters. On the surface that might seem like nepotism run amok, but it wasn’t. At the time that Motown was founded, Esther, Anna, Loucye, and Gwen were all far more accomplished than their younger brother. They brought sophistication and considerable entrepreneurial skill to a variety of roles when Motown was getting off the ground.

But it was the remarkable Esther Gordy Edwards (1920-2011) who had the greatest impact of all the sisters. Edwards, who had attended Howard University and Wayne State University – the first of the eight Gordy children to go to college – was involved in virtually every aspect of Motown and served for many years as senior vice president and director of international operations, negotiating deals with EMI to distribute Motown records in Europe and the Far East. “She had a head for business,” says her granddaughter, Robin Terry, Chairwoman of the Motown Museum. “She understood how to grow a business, how to be smart in business, and how to protect a business.”

In fact, she had doubts that her brother, Berry, was a good risk when he asked for an $800 loan from the family’s co-op to start a record company. “She was the voice of reason,” says Allen Rawls, the museum’s interim CEO. “She was a savvy, professional woman, he was a dreamer, and dreams didn’t always come true.” As Motown the Musical illustrates, it was Edwards who insisted her brother sign an IOU, “and it had to be paid back with six percent interest.” The promissory note is on display at the museum.

Terry says her grandmother referred to herself as Motown’s “Gal Friday,” because when she initially joined the company she did whatever was needed. As Motown evolved, her responsibilities grew more specific. She managed and mentored many of Motown’s young artists and, together with Maxine Powell, served as chaperone when her underage charges went on tour. “She got a lot of fulfillment from personally managing artists because she loved them,” says Terry. “She was responsible for getting Stevie Wonder accepted into the Michigan School of the Blind. She set up his trust fund and got him a tutor. She and Stevie had a very special bond; he truly considered her a second mother.” 

 Edwards was a force not just in Motown, but in Detroit and beyond. She was the first woman elected to the board of both the Detroit Bank of the Commonwealth and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Politically aware and involved – her husband was a Michigan state representative – she traveled to Washington, DC with Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams to urge John F. Kennedy to run for president.   

Perhaps her greatest legacy is the Motown Museum, which she founded in the Hitsville USA house that served as the original studio and company headquarters. Without knowing why, Edwards had saved all sorts of documents and memorabilia from the earliest days of Motown. “She somehow knew that what she had was unique and important,” says Terry. 

When Motown made the move to Los Angeles, Edwards stayed put – Terry says she was “a fierce Detroiter” – and one day in 1981 she looked out the window and saw dozens and dozens of British sailors on the Hitsville lawn. “It was at that point that the meaning behind all that she had saved became clear. This was actually something people wanted to see.” The museum was established four years later. 

The artists of Motown were known not just for their talent, but for the classy and professional way they presented themselves on- and offstage. This was very much part of Berry Gordy’s strategy. He decided that Motown should have a finishing school – something no other record company has ever done – and his sister Gwen suggested he hire Maxine Powell (1915-2013) to supply the finish. Known for her elegance and class, she had established the very successful Maxine Powell Finishing and Modeling School in 1951, and counted Gwen and Anna among her students. Through Powell’s efforts, Gwen became the first African-American model at the Detroit auto show.

Powell closed her school and joined the Motown team in 1964, teaching what she called “personal development and growth.” Says Terry, “One word you never used in conjunction with Maxine Powell was ‘etiquette.’ It would ruffle her feathers. Even though what she taught had to do with how you walked and how you sat, she was teaching people how to just be. She believed that if you worked on what’s on the inside, it would show up on the outside, and that made you more dignified, more graceful, more beautiful, more natural.”

Most of Motown’s artists came from humble beginnings, and Powell saw them as diamonds in the rough that needed polishing. “Some of them were from the projects, some were using street language, some were rude and crude,” she said in an interview. “With me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.”

Powell mentored her charges in social graces and comportment, and worked closely with choreographer Cholly Atkins when he created dance routines. “She made sure the routines for the women were ladylike,” says Rawls. “She’d say, ‘Young women dance with their feet and not with their buttocks.’ She told the artists she was preparing them to perform before kings and queens. The response from many of them was, ‘We don’t care about that. All we want is a hit record.’ But the proof is in the pudding, when you see a picture of the Supremes being presented to the Queen Mum. So I think all of them, to a person, appreciated the mentorship that they got from her.”

Powell was instrumental in improving the showmanship of a resistant Marvin Gaye, who tended to sing with his eyes closed. “It looked like he was into himself as opposed to the audience,” says Rawls. “He was a handsome guy with a great voice, but she recognized that there was something missing from his stage presentation, something that could take him to the next level. It took some convincing, because Marvin was a stubborn person. But if you look at clips of him, you can see that he got it.” 

Powell left Motown in 1969 and went on to teach courses in personal development at Wayne County Community College for almost 15 years, More recently, she worked part time as an assistant to Martha Reeves, one of her former Motown students, when the one-time lead singer of the Vandellas served on the Detroit City Council. Until the end, Terry says, “Professor Powell never stopped teaching.”

Both Powell and Edwards left behind countless numbers who benefited from their tutelage and wisdom. A few years ago, Rawls and his wife escorted Powell to a show about the early days of Motown called Now That I Can Dance. “About a dozen Motown alumni showed up, and they were introduced at the end of the production,” he says. “Then they introduced Maxine Powell, and she got a standing ovation. She’d become a legend.”

Terry says that to this day she hears from people, especially women, whose lives were impacted by her grandmother. “Very influential women, CEOs, come up to me and tell me how my grandmother helped them or mentored them,” she says. “Black, white, it didn’t matter. They credit her with helping them navigate uncharted waters. She was a true pioneer.”

Motown the Musical plays live on the Orpheum stage July 14-19. Learn more at

Monday, June 8, 2015

Spotlight: Generosity and Golf Make Hole-in-One Partnership

On Friday, June 5, 128 players joined us for a tremendous day of golf to support the 70,000 students, teachers, and families who come through our community and education programs each year.

With morning and afternoon tee times, tournament play continued throughout the day, with contests located at holes along the course, including a longest drive, putting, and a closest to the pin competitions for each round.

ServiceMaster’s Trafford Seymour enjoyed the variety of activities during his first Orpheum golf tournament.

“We try to sponsor the Orpheum and this is one of my first opportunities to do it,” he said.

A lot of praise rightly went to Mirimichi itself, our wonderful course partner for this year’s tournament.

“They have turned this into an incredible golf course and the greens are just in perfect shape,” said David Wootton. “The people here have just been extremely, extremely helpful. From the time I took my clubs out of the car to even while we’re playing here on the course, they’ve been very hospitable.”

The 14th Annual Ken Sossaman Memorial Golf Tournament was one of the most successful in the Orpheum’s history, and we’d like to acknowledge the day’s winners, as well the sponsors who made it all possible.

Morning Round Winners


Team Awards:
First Place: The Crump Firm, Inc. — Sue Madden Jennifer Pedigo, Debbie Richmond and Holly Elkins
Second Place: NIKE — Willie Gregory, Clarence Scott, Lionel Lowe and Dickie Allen
Third Place: Thomas & Betts — Brian Herington, Dan Lee, Greg Rhodes and David Ekmark

Longest Drive:
Hole #6: Sue Madden
Hole #18: Jennifer Pedigo

Putting Contest:
First Place: Tom Courtney
Second Place: Ken McDonald
Third Place: George Cogswell
Fourth Place: Holly Elkins

Closest to the Pin (Hole #3):
First Place: David Ekmark
Second Place: George Cogswell
Third Place: Hank Johnson

Afternoon Round Winners

Team Awards:
First Place: Realty Capital Management — Mike Simpson, Doug Meyer, Matt Durand and Daniel Gafford 
Second Place: Jim & Gina Wiertelak and Don & Mary Heezen
Third Place: Renasant Bank — Michael Montgomery, Jay Joel, Jason Hollingsworth and Justin Nicholas

Longest Drive:
Hole #6: Don Heezen
Hole #18: Don Heezen

Putting Contest:
First Place: Chad Hall
Second Place: Doug Meyer
Third Place: Michael Montgomery
Fourth Place: Warren Milnor

Closest to the Pin (Hole #3):
First Place: Chirag Chauhan
Second Place: Greg Cavill
Third Place: Justin Nicholas

The generous sponsors for this year’s tournament are:

  • True Temper Sports
  • Southland Park Gaming and Racing
  • Nike
  • Kroger
  • Ring Container Technologies
  • Scott and Carol Hennessy
  • The Barnett Group
  • Cumberland Partners
  • Barbara and Stefan Smith (Drink Cart)
  • Grinder, Taber & Grinder, Inc. (Lunch Sponsor)

A special thank you goes to the members of the Memphis Development Foundation board’s Golf Chairman: Scott Hennessy and Golf Committee: Willie Gregory, Andrew Taylor, Gary Smith, Philip Gould, Chirag Chauhan, and Bill Stegbauer.

Our annual tournament was started in 2002 in memory of a great Orpheum board member and officer, Ken Sossaman.  Ken served on The Orpheum’s Board of Directors, Executive Committee, and he chaired the 2001 Annual Auction. 

Check out more photos from Friday’s tournament on Flickr!

We’ll have more chances to get involved with Orpheum fundraisers later this year, and we’d love for you to join us next year at the 15th Annual Ken Sossaman tournament. Stay tuned for details!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Spotlight: The Rewards of Learning at the Orpheum

Special Guest Column by Alex Kesner, the Orpheum's spring education intern

For the past two years I have served as the Spring Education and Community Relations Intern. At first, I thought it would be like any other internship where you make copies and fetch coffee but, boy was I wrong! This internship was been more valuable than anything I could have imagined. I have learned everything from making spreadsheets to cutting music, from creating a craft for a Family Series show to assistant stage managing the High School Musical Theatre Awards.

The majority of each of my internships were focused on preparing for the HSMTAs. In the months prior to the awards I was in charge of creating and updating rehearsal and performance schedules, making name tags and sign-in sheets for all of our performers, editing the script, and other small tasks here and there. I was given a lot of responsibility and placed in charge of a lot, and that is why I am now more confident in all that I do. The Orpheum's education department did not look at me as an intern that could only do small tasks that needed to be supervised -- Alice, Lindsay, Brittany, and Rachel looked at me as a part of their team, and because of their trust I was able to succeed.

Alice and Lindsay let me shape each internship directly to what would be best for me and challenge me in my future as a stage manager. It is incredible how dedicated the entire staff is to teaching the upcoming generation. I was never afraid to ask questions or say I didn't understand because they took every moment as a teaching opportunity that I could grow from.

My time at the Orpheum has been invaluable because of the people that I have worked with. Each staff member at The Orpheum is not only focused on their day-to-day job but also on how to make the interns succeed. The staff truly cares about making sure you leave your internship learning everything you want and more. I strive to be as go-getting, fearless, and all-knowing as Alice. I wish to be as kind, patient, and loving as Lindsay. I wish to be as light-hearted, and creative as Brittany. I wish to be as passionate and put-together as Rachel. I have learned not only how to work in an office but I have become a better human being because of the lessons I have learned from the Education Staff.

I believe because of my internships I will be able to go on and do whatever I want with my future, because they believe in me and have taught me so much. I truly will miss spending every day at The Orpheum. 

Alex Kesner will be a junior at the University of Memphis this fall and is working toward her BFA in Theatre with a concentration in Design and Technical Theatre with an emphasis in Stage Management.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spotlight: Summer Movie Series Revs Up in the Danger Zone

Opening night of the 2015 Summer Movie Series has been tremendous! We have a theatre full of patrons enjoying "Top Gun" after exploring a lobby full of activities.

Guests had a chance to find out who their inner fighter pilot is -- Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Viper, Jester or Merlin. (Lots of Icemans and Mavericks in the Orpheum tonight!) We also had our prop-filled selfie station and a great drink special.

But we wouldn't have nearly as much fun without our community partners. Big thanks to local band The Passport who held a meet-n-greet to help us kick off the series. By now we hope you've been able to enjoy their song "Reruns" from our series announcement video. Check out their performance on Local Memphis Live this week, and see more photos from Top Gun on our Facebook page.

We have some fun movies and events planned for you this summer with the help of some amazing Memphis organizations. Here's a quick rundown of what to expect in June:

Back to the Future
Friday, June 5, 6pm: Pick up a pair of Choose901 sunglasses if you're one of the first 100 people and take your picture in the Choose901 photo booth. Read more about the night at
Sponsored by Renasant Bank

Thursday, June 11, 6pm: We’re bringing back the 50s craze that was the bee’s knees! Join our hula hoop contest for a chance to win prizes! Keep the hoop spinning for just one minute and you’ll be in the running!
Sponsored by Semmes Murphey

Space Jam
Friday, June 12, at 12:30pm: We'll have some really special guests here to celebrate the best cartoon-alien basketball game of all time -- Grizz and the Grizz Girls! Come hang out with the Memphis Grizzlies' Claw Crew for giveaways and fun, and take your photo with lifesize cutouts of the players.
Sponsored by Kroger

Friday, June 12, at 6pm: A classic film deserves a classic game. We'll be asking trivia questions in the lobby before the show, and choosing three people to compete on-stage for prizes! How's your Casablanca knowledge?
Sponsored by Semmes Murphey

Thursday, June 25, at 6pm: Cher loves fashion, so what better than a fashion show? Check out some hot styles with CrazyBeautiful Clothing right in the lobby.

James and the Giant Peach
June 26, at 12:30pm: We have not one, but two special events planned for Roald Dahl's classic. We'll be helping the Mid-South Food Bank gather donations -- plus, each donated item gets you a $5 discounted ticket. The Memphis Farmers Market will also be on hand with info about their wonderfully fresh foods.

Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
Friday, June 26, at 6pm: Get sorted into your Hogwarts house and find out what your patronus is (with a souvenir button to remember it)! We'll also have a giant Marauder's Map of the Orpheum to add your feet and signature to. 
Sponsored by Semmes Murphey

Of course, Orion Federal Credit Union deserves a big shout-out for helping us present the series for a fourth year in a row. The Orpheum is lucky to be a part of such a vibrant and supportive community, and we hope you'll join us and our partners for a terrific movie series.

Evening movies begin at 7pm for each evening movie, and our two afternoon matinees begin at 1:30pm, with doors opening an hour before the show. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for children under 12. A 10-pack of tickets can be purchased in-person at the box office or at The Booksellers at Laurelwood ticket counter. Learn more about all of our movies at

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Broadway Buzz: A Truly Original Musical

We came across this wonderful first-person account of the making of Mamma Mia!, written by the show's creator, Judy Craymer. We wanted to share her story of how this magnificent record-breaking musical first triumphed in London and then conquered the world...

As Creative Producer of MAMMA MIA!, my job started long before any script had been written. The story begins more than 25 years ago when I first met Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the songwriting geniuses behind ABBA. I was working for Sir Tim Rice at the time, who was collaborating with Benny and Björn on his musical Chess, and I was immediately smitten – after all, these were the men who had written ‘Dancing Queen’, one of the greatest pop songs of all time – but it was another of their songs, ‘The Winner Takes It All’, that first suggested to me the potential of an original musical using Benny and Björn’s classic compositions. The lyrics revealed a roller coaster story of love and loss that struck me as extraordinarily theatrical, but how was I to bring this to life?

First I had to approach Benny and Björn, who were understandably a little unsure of my intentions. I explained that the project I had in mind would focus on a new and exciting story; it wouldn’t be a tribute show, or the ‘ABBA Story’, but a truly original ‘book’ musical. They weren’t 100% convinced at the time, but they didn’t absolutely close the door so I took hope.

So I sat on the floor of my apartment listening to ABBA late into the night. I may have driven my neighbours to despair but as time passed I became more and more certain of my idea. In 1995 my tenacity finally paid off. Björn said, “If you can find the right writer and story, well... let’s see what happens”...
A year later I was on location with a film I was producing when the director mentioned Catherine Johnson. I was aware of her work as a playwright and, even better, I knew her agent. We met in January 1997 and soon I was confidently telling Björn that we had found our writer and that my co-producer Richard East and I had commissioned her to write the story.

My brief to Catherine was that no lyrics could change, the story should be a contemporary, ironic, romantic comedy and that if she listened carefully to ABBA’s songs, she’d notice how they fell into two different generations: the slightly younger, playful songs like ‘Honey, Honey’ and ‘Dancing Queen’, and the more mature, emotional songs such as ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’...and so the idea of a cross-generational love story was devised.

By the end of that year Catherine had finished the first draft of MAMMA MIA!’s script and I persuaded Phyllida Lloyd to come on board as our director. Her background was serious, legit theatre and opera and her secret weapon was her ‘Dry Martini wit’. We discovered we all shared the same birth-year and soon firmly bonded.

It was unusual, if not unheard of, for three women to be the collaborative creative force behind what was to become such a commercial success. From a personal point of view, I think it readdressed the balance and had a great nurturing effect on the production. We were all happy to jump in and make the tea. Appropriately, MAMMA MIA! features three strong women in the story. Their characters are completely different – slightly bossy, a bit chaotic, extremely practical, and very high maintenance! We have a lot of laughs about who is who in real life, and, as time goes by, it’s a little worrying that we have become even more like those characters on stage.

Suddenly it was time to give up my day job as a television and film producer and prepare for the white-knuckle ride of making the dream a reality: money to raise, a theatre to find, artwork to create, ticket agents to seduce, deadlines to meet. It was the summer of 1998 and we had to open by April 7th 1999 or we’d lose Phyllida, who’d been booked years in advance to direct an opera at The Coliseum in London. The suggested opening dates were April 6th or April 9th. April 6th happened to be the anniversary, to the day, of ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’ 25 years before. It seemed a good omen.

Although Björn was enthusiastic and shared the vision for the musical, Benny was a little more cautious and at any time both could have put an end to the whole project. It was a tense time, as their emotional backing as well as their creative input was very important to me. If they were going to trust me with their fabulous songs I didn’t want to let them down. Benny and I agreed that on our First Night one of us would be able to tell the other “I told you so”.

By now we had a date for opening but we had no theatre. We’d been looking at smaller venues when suddenly the rather large and prestigious Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End became available, the very same theatre at which Chess had opened ten years earlier – another omen perhaps? But its sheer size meant that the scale of the production had to expand dramatically too, with cast, crew, set and budget all having to be reworked. A lot of fingers were crossed for the big night.

And so... April 6th 1999, a night I will never forget – the World Premiere of MAMMA MIA! The audience were charmed and one British critic wrote, “MAMMA MIA! could put Prozac out of business”.

Benny heartily accepted his defeat: with the entire theatre dancing in the aisles, he turned to me and said, “You can say it now”. I flashed back, “I told you so!”. We still joke about it.

On the Road with MAMMA MIA!
The idea of MAMMA MIA!’s international appeal had never been seriously considered when the show was in its infancy, but with a certifiable hit in London came the chance to recreate the show in other countries, and over the past 15 years we have certainly done that. The statistics are mind-boggling and defy comparison with any other musical production in history.

Our very first North American premiere was in Canada at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, where we were booked in for six months. The production ran for five years. The first US Tour ventured into the United States, opening at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco also in 2000. We were warned that America wasn’t as familiar with ABBA’s music as their European counterparts, so we should consider Broadway a cautious dream. Not for long. Having celebrated over 12 years and 5000 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre, MAMMA MIA! transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in late 2013.

It’s been a similar story wherever we’ve been: in Las Vegas the show ran for six solid years at the Mandalay Bay Theatre. Across Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore it ran for four years.

And then we began translating MAMMA MIA! into other languages, beginning with the German-language production at the Operettenhaus in Hamburg in 2002, where 2.5 million people saw the show over the following five years. Similarly, audiences have flocked to hear their favourite songs sung in their own language in Utrecht, Antwerp, Moscow, Gothenburg, Oslo, Mexico City, Copenhagen, Sao Paolo, Aarhus, Rome, Milan and Buenos Aires, as well as throughout Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Japan, Korea and France. Benny and Björn certainly had their work cut out in the build up to the Stockholm production, which ran for over two years. We were delighted to launch the English-language International Tour, which premiered in Dublin in 2004 and has been enjoyed by over 4.3 million people, and is now back on the road again.

And then there’s China, Shanghai to be precise, where MAMMA MIA! opened in July 2011 and what an extraordinary achievement by the whole organisation that represents. It took literally years of planning and negotiating as well as actual political change within the People’s Republic to reach this reach the point at which MAMMA MIA!’s technical complexity and artistic excellence – leaving aside the challenges of translation and casting – can be staged and performed to the highest professional standards by an entirely Chinese company yet still under the direction of the British associate creative team who work on MAMMA MIA! around the world. With a Chinese language version of the show flourishing, the potential is astronomical: in effect, another 1.3 billion people or one-fifth of the world’s population now have their very own version of MAMMA MIA! to enjoy.

On the Big Screen with MAMMA MIA!
And let’s not forget MAMMA MIA! – The Movie. What a thrill to work with Universal Pictures and the same brilliant team of Catherine and Phyllida, augmented for some glorious weeks in 2007-2008 by movie stars of the calibre of Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper. The film had its worldwide premiere in London on 30th June 2008, in the city where the stage play had celebrated its premiere nine years before, and rapidly made history as the highest grossing movie of all time at the UK and Irish box offices.

One thing I’ve learnt from fifteen fun and frantic years of overseeing and co-ordinating the many productions of MAMMA MIA! is that the potential and possibilities are continuously exciting and seem to be limitless. The way our film was received and taken to heart by so many people throughout the world seems to confirm that.

For me, the whole experience of MAMMA MIA! has been totally life-changing and would simply not have been possible without an amazing creative team and the trust and co-operation of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. My special thanks must also go to the wonderful actors, musicians, stage management, crew and theatre staff who make MAMMA MIA! happen on stages around the globe, night after night after magical night...

Enjoy the show!