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'Mamma Mia!' dances into theaters

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MY 9-YEAR-OLD son asked me the other morning why I was dancing around the breakfast table singing "Take a Chance on Me." I don't usually sing in the morning. I definitely don't dance. And I didn't know I knew any ABBA songs (I've never actually bought an album), but there they were -- "S.O.S," "Dancing Queen" and "Mamma Mia" -- bouncing around in my subconscious, like unmoored neurons, suddenly revitalized by an infusion of "Mamma Mia!," the big-screen adaptation of the musical, which I'd seen the night before.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Mamma Mia!": The Hollywood Brief column about "Mamma Mia!" in Wednesday's Calendar section said that Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice had worked on the 1983 musical "Chess." The "Chess" album was released in 1984 and the musical premiered on stage in 1986. —


The movie, in theaters this Friday, stars a singing-dancing over-all-clad Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried (the young beauty from HBO's "Big Love") as her daughter, and a dream team of middle-aged men that women still want to sleep with: Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard. Meryl has her choice among James Bond, Mr. Darcy and the Swedish hunk from "Good Will Hunting." (According to the plot, the three guys are called to a Greek isle by the daughter, who believes one of them is her father, but she's not sure which one. Ah, the '70s.)

OK, LAUGH all you want. I've had to endure snickers from almost every man I've told about my passion for this movie. And I'm not even the target demographic -- but I would be if I were Greek, Spanish, German, Scandanavian, Australian, Japanese or from any foreign country that truly appreciates insanely catchy tunes and big-hearted camp.

Although "Mamma Mia!" stage shows have toured the continental U.S. since 2000, it's primarily an international sensation, with albums in a multitude of languages (from Swedish and Dutch to Korean and an estimated $2 billion in gross ticket sales). Every night, some 17,000 people watch "Mamma Mia!" somewhere in the world, joining the more than 30 million who have already seen it.

In their barnstorming to promote the film, Streep and company aren't focusing on the U.S. but instead have hit locales like London, Melbourne, Stockholm and a gigantic junket in Athens. (Meryl is only talking to domestic press for a mere four hours in New York.) And the plan is working; the film has already opened No. 1 in the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Greece, where the movie was shot (it also premiered strongly in Iceland, New Zealand, the Middle East and the Philippines). Total take in 12 international markets? A strong $24.3 million.

"It's huge abroad," says Universal President Donna Langley, who's hoping for a "Sex and the City"-type smash by appealing to mothers and daughters. "It's absolutely mega. It's a multi-billion-dollar franchise worldwide. We were pursuing the rights probably as long as the show has been running in the U.K."

While the film may have been greenlighted with the international potential in mind, Langley notes, "I think it's a bigger U.S. title than one may have suspected in the beginning, now that people can see the movie. It has such playability."

I recently asked Judy Craymer, the impresario behind "Mamma Mia!" (both the musical and the movie), whether she ever finds herself singing ABBA songs in the shower. She thought I was nuts. "Not anymore," she says. But if "Dancing Queen" comes on, "I might dance around a bit," she admits. "It's pretty irresistible." However, she denies having "a picture of Bjorn and Benny on my walls."

That would be Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the songwriting duo behind ABBA, which has sold some 370 million albums worldwide. Craymer famously met the duo back in early '80s, when she was working for lyricist Tim Rice, and they were all making the 1983 musical "Chess." "I remember having to go pick up Björn from the airport. I couldn't think of what to say," says Craymer. About getting them to agree to the musical "Mamma Mia!," she says, "It was the years of trust. They got to know me, which is how I convinced them that this would work. They weren't looking for this."

WITH A basic idea in her head about an intergenerational musical about women, Craymer talked to a lot of writers about ideas for the plot before enlisting Catherine Johnson, a struggling single mom who'd written a musical that was never produced because she didn't have the rights to the music. "She said, 'What about a mother and a daughter set on the night of the daughter's wedding?' That was it," says Craymer. "She had no track record as a writer of original musicals, but she had a great understanding of music and ABBA songs and a lack of pretension, which was incredibly important. We were both so broke we had nothing to lose."

The duo were later joined by Phyllida Lloyd, a prominent opera director. "I took Catherine and Phyllida out to dinner the first time we got together, about a year into working on the creative development. And Björn. I just prayed they would go with the set menu and not (a la carte) or I couldn't afford to pay for it."

After the success of the musical, which premiered in London in 1999, Craymer initially turned down all of Hollywood's entreaties, in part to let the show run its course. But she was also adamant that if there was a movie version, the trio would make it themselves and would keep control. "We could never let that music out of our sight," she says. "We could never just sell the rights. That's the way it was set up. Catherine, Phyllida and myself were party to that. Couldn't do it without the girls."

Of course, the movie idea really got a boost, and became an inevitability, when Streep became interested. Craymer and company had made a pact never to use big-name actors in the stage production, because the ABBA songs were the star, but were willing to take a chance with the movie version so it could travel in the international marketplace more easily. (Personally, I probably wouldn't have gone to see the movie without the Meryl Streep seal of approval.)

In discussing the casting, Craymer refers repeatedly to their "music police" -- i.e. spies in the entertainment world who can ferret out whether actors can really sing, especially because many A-listers don't audition. Of Streep, Craymer says, "We kind of knew [from] 'Postcards From the Edge' that she had a great belt and a great voice."

And then there was the letter that Streep wrote to the Broadway cast after seeing the show in 2001. It said, "I loved the show so much. I took my daughter, and much to my children's embarrassment, I wanted to go on stage afterward to feel what it was like to be 'Mamma Mia,' " recalls Craymer. "It came on Meryl Streep paper. We all kept copies like school girls, and it stayed pinned on the notice board backstage forever."

rachel.abramowitz@latimes .com

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