Mamma Mia! versus Across The Universe

A common accusation on film discussion boards such as the IMDb is that the film Mamma Mia! is a copy of the 2007 film Across The Universe, which was built around the songs of The Beatles – as if the concept of making a musical from existing songs was unique to that film.

Of course this is not true, as the Mamma Mia! stage musical premiered in 1999, and had been in development for several years before that. But the idea of using an existing catalogue of songs goes back much, much further.

In the 1970s, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band(also using the songs of The Beatles, but not limited to the songs on the album of the same name) played on Broadway and was an infamous movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. In 1967 the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie made use of songs from the 1920s, along with a couple of original songs.

But the idea of a full musical using one writer’s existing catalogue can probably be traced back to the 1954 movie There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethel Merman, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe and featuring songs by Irving Berlin.

Mamma Mia! kept its ABBA references to a minimum. Aside from a poster advertising “Fernando’s night club” and the cameos by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, there were nothing to do with ABBA aside from the songs.

Across The Universe on the other hand was filled with references to The Beatles – most major characters were named for characters in songs, so that the songs featuring those names would feature at some point in the narrative – Jude, Prudence, Sadie, Jojo, etc. Scenes appeared to take place simply to stage a song, for example ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ when the cast stumble across a circus in the middle of nowhere. For the most part the songs sounded nothing like the original Beatles’ recordings, unlike Mamma Mia! which faithfully replicated the ABBA arrangements.

There were other subtle in-jokes aimed at Beatle fans, such as a character cutting a granny smith apple in half, a reference to The Beatles’ Apple Records logo and label.

To me, despite having a more “serious” story than Mamma Mia!(youth rebellion in the 1960s), the whole thing was like one of those exercises in threading songs and references into a story that we all did when we were teenagers – “Fernando and Chiquitita were going on a holiday to Happy Hawaii. Their friend Alice said it was fun. Elaine asked Cassandratake a chance on me and tell me the name of the game“. People need love on arrival in Waterloo.” That sort of thing.

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2 Responses to “Mamma Mia! versus Across The Universe”

  1. Samuel Inglles Says:

    Hi Ian

    An article on Mamma Mia!

    Kind Regards
    Samuel Inglles

    ‘Mamma Mia!’ 10th Anniversary
    Posted: Thurs., Apr. 2, 2009, 2:36pm PT

    Abba’s ‘Mamma’ means business
    Show gives jukebox musicals a good name
    ‘Mamma Mia!’

    More Articles:
    Phyllida Lloyd directs a non-musical
    Looking at the global phenomenon that is “Mamma Mia!,” it’s hard to believe, but, prior to its 1999 opening at London’s Prince Edwards Theater, the show wasn’t regarded as a sure-fire hit.
    The landscape for tuners back then was rather different. London theater commentators were much more excited by the prospect of “The Lion King,” which arrived later that same year. And although compilation shows utilizing a band’s ready-made greatest hits did exist, they tended toward having little plot, less imagination and virtually no budget, and they were relatively few and far between. And only much later were they termed “jukebox musicals.”

    Even a back-catalog as musically strong and well-loved as that of Abba was no guarantee. It has largely been forgotten, but the sublimely named compilation “Abbacadabra” premiered Dec. 8, 1983, at London’s 550-seat Lyric Hammersmith theater and, after resoundingly indifferent notices, closed eight weeks later.

    Which isn’t to say the outlook for “Mamma Mia!” was ever gloomy. Ten days before its preem, the box office advance nosed toward £2 million (about $3.2 million then), a seriously impressive sum in those days when ticket prices were considerably lower. That’s largely because Abba had, on and off, been a phenomenon throughout Europe for decades.

    “Mamma Mia!” was carefully developed through workshops over 18 months. Catherine Johnson was the third writer to work on a book for the show, and she delivered a minimum of seven drafts.

    “We’re trying not to take ourselves too seriously,” helmer Phyllida Lloyd said at the time, “but the ballads in particular are like little theatrical tales. We want to create an extraordinarily festive, witty, ironic, surprising bed for these wonderful songs and to make a story that releases them in a sometimes surprising way. We hope to create pure pleasure. We’re not splitting the atom.”

    Cut to 10 years later.

    Now that “Mamma Mia! The Movie” has grossed north of $602 million, it’s hard to recall why anyone questioned whether this stage smash would work on the bigscreen.

    But doubt some did. Hit musicals have a checkered record of screen transfers. For all its popularity, “Mamma Mia!” was never regarded as the acme of sophistication. And its British creative team — Lloyd, Johnson and producer Judy Craymer — had never made a movie before.

    No wonder Universal kept the budget tight, at $60 million, offset by an $8 million tax credit. The studio got burned by “The Producers,” whose stage director, Susan Stroman, failed to reinvent her show for the cinema. It was determined to avoid the same mistake again.

    Fortunately, Craymer was equally resolute. “No way was it going to be the stage show,” she says. “We wanted movie stars.”

    Craymer spent several years deflecting all interest from Hollywood while she rolled out the stage show in seven languages across 19 countries. It was only after the original London production reached its fifth birthday that she felt the timing was right for a movie version.

    Film as biz plan for legit

    “I looked at it as a business plan — what would be the biggest marketing exercise one could possibly do for the 10th anniversary?” she says. “It’s worked very well. All the shows have lifted, and there’s a new teeny fanbase.”

    She was determined to make the movie herself, with Johnson and Lloyd. She teamed up with Gary Goetzman at Playtone to help guide her. Universal, where Playtone has a first-look deal, presented itself as the natural partner.

    Craymer found two key allies within the studio: Donna Langley, the studio’s English-born production prexy and No. 1 Abba fan; and David Kosse, president of the international distribution arm in London.

    “It was serendipitous for me that Kosse was suddenly there in London for Universal,” Craymer says. “Film musicals weren’t that popular, and ‘The Producers’ hadn’t exactly beaten a path for us. It was David who was very onto the fact that ‘Mamma Mia!’ had such a big presence internationally.”

    Thanks to astute marketing, that paid off with a $444 million overseas gross, including a record-busting $132 million in the U.K. alone. With its frugal budget, “Mamma Mia!” has become U’s most profitable movie since “The Mummy.”

    “It always felt as though there was an upside, particularly in the international market,” Langley says. “The question was whether it would translate for the U.S. There was debate about whether people liked musicals, whether they liked Abba, and how to bring the conception outside of the proscenium.”

    Langley made sure the rookie creative trio was surrounded by a topnotch crew. “It was a calculated risk. The payoff was that they could understand and capture the ‘Mamma Mia!’ spirit in a way that other people wouldn’t have been able to.”

    “The ‘ “Mamma Mia!” factor’ is that everyone in the audience feels they could get up there and join in,” explains exec producer Mark Huffam.

    But that’s a devilishly hard trick to replicate in the cinema. They achieved it through loose and unpretentious choreography, a certain karaoke quality to the singing (“They are pop songs, not recitatives,” Craymer says) and a general atmosphere of what she calls “intentional goofiness.” That informality disguised a lot of hard work. The “Voulez Vous” setpiece alone took three days and 90 setups.

    “We always told the studio this is going to be the opposite of your normal, slick Broadway musical,” Craymer explains.

    “I convinced myself we were making a Bollywood movie. That helped me sleep at night,” Langley says with a laugh. “Bollywood movies have a wonderful, celebratory, melodramatic feel to them.”

    Ten weeks on the 007 soundstage in Pinewood was followed by four weeks on location in Greece to open up the story for the cinema. Some songs were changed, and the relationship between Donna (Meryl Streep) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan) was elaborated.

    But Craymer insisted on keeping the stage show’s stomping finale, in which the cast dons glittery spandex and camps along to “Waterloo.” “It’s very much a theater conceit, but I knew people who loved the stage show would be disappointed if it was left out.”

    Langley recalls the first test-screening in Santa Monica. “Women coming out were just giddy. It was like a fairground ride: They just wanted to get straight back on.”

    Repeat viewing is, of course, the key to the extraordinarily long legs of the “Mamma Mia!” franchise. “Years ago, you would only do a film if the show was coming to the end of its life. But in fact this wasn’t the end of a life; they do sit symbiotically together,” Craymer says.

    And what about a sequel? “There’s a real desire to at least explore the possibility,” Langley answers. “Integrity is probably a funny word to use in conjunction with ‘Mamma Mia!,’ but I would want to create something as authentic and true to the brand as the first one was.”

    Craymer agrees but isn’t in any rush. “We haven’t got specific plans. We would have to go through a serious creative process,” she says. “After all, the first creative process took 10 years.”

    Tour trappings

    While the movie “Mamma Mia!” has enjoyed super-trouper success, it won’t be catching up with the live show anytime soon. The stage musical has grossed a stunning $2 billion in its various global venues, both resident and touring. More than 32 million people have seen the show in more than 200 cities.

    The recession has taken a big bite out of the road, but “Mamma Mia!” is holding up better than most, surely because its familiar brand and its escapist, party atmosphere are a good tonic for anyone whose 401(k) is looking like it could use some money, money, money.

    And even though the long-lived U.S. tour is now reaching smaller, split-week markets like Paducah, Ky. (where Abba songs remain a subversive act); Davenport, Iowa; and frigid Duluth, Minn., the tuner remains a huge grosser, routinely pulling down in excess of $1 million per week and peppering its hinterland stands with return visits to major markets. Presenters view the show as a hugely desirable encore option in big markets like Chicago, where it did capacity business in 2008 on its fifth visit. In April. The U.S. tour will play another stand at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.

    As its booking agents have frequently noted over the years, “Mamma Mia!” is one of the very few tuners that tend to do bigger business on a third or fourth engagement in a market, especially now that the movie has boosted familiarity with the title.

    For the past decade, “Mamma Mia!” has brought in a hefty percentage of the total road gross. Between 2002 to 2005 or so, for example, 75% or more of the weekly U.S. road grosses came from just three shows: “The Producers,” “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” At that point, if one included the Las Vegas company, there were four U.S. versions of “Mamma Mia!” And as presenters admitted at the time, “Mamma Mia!” helped sell a lot of season tickets to other shows.

    Many people forget that “Mamma Mia!” pursued an unusual road strategy in the U.S., conducting an extensive, brand-building North American tour well in advance of its Broadway engagement — a boffo Chi stand in the summer of 2001 was the final push before the Broadway opening.

    By generating such audience awareness in advance of the Main Stem bow during the 2001-02 season, the show insulated itself against any possible critical backlash and ensured the strong Broadway viability that continues to this day.

    And so it has gone — from Toronto to Tucson and Broadway to Bloomington. Talk about the girl with golden hair.

  2. Samuel Inglles Says:

    How Mamma Mia’s Judy Craymer became the £90m dancing queenBy Daily Mail Reporter
    Last updated at 11:50 PM on 03rd April 2009
    Comments (0) Add to My Stories She was just a middle-aged Abba fan with a dream – but Judy Craymer defied the odds to turn her favourite group’s songs into a musical. Now she’s a £90m dancing queen
    Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer

    When Mamma Mia! impresario Judy Craymer’s classmates were dancing around to Abba’s Money, Money, Money, she was mucking out ponies, her sights set on the bright lights of the international show-jumping circuit. A horse-mad teenager, she had little thought for Lycra, glitter or disco hits.
    So who would have thought, 35 years later, she’d be sitting in a swanky West End office festooned with photographs of her larking about with the Mamma Mia! gang, with enough squillions in the bank to make Fred the Shred’s mind-boggling pension seem like peanuts.
    The first production of Mamma Mia! the musical opened a decade ago at the Prince Edward Theatre. ‘It was just after the Easter weekend,’ says Judy, who produced the show. ‘Everyone said it wasn’t a great time to open because people were away. But Soho literally came to a standstill – the traffic stopped, barriers were up, Abba fans were in the street.

    ‘It was, “Oh, my God. All these people are turning out to watch people arrive for my first night.”

    ‘Benny and Björn [Andersson and Ulvaeus, the men behind Abba] had people running alongside their car like a presidential cavalcade sweeping down the streets because fans were trying to leap all over their car.
    ‘That night there was such a huge, lovely feeling from the audience. After the party, which was done on a shoestring at a restaurant in Soho, we all went back to the Covent Garden Hotel until 5am. I just remember a great feeling of relief.’
    More so a few weeks later, when Judy’s first royalty cheque arrived. ‘I had to get the car repaired, which was going to cost £1,500. I remember opening the envelope and thinking, “Wow, there’ll be change.” The cheque was for £10,000. I thought, “Oh my God. It’s working.” Right up to the wire I’d been worrying whether the investors were going to make their money back.’
    When I meet Judy, she strolls into her West End office with a bottle of Evian in one hand and a Joseph carrier bag in another. Judy likes to shop. She’s just bought a New York apartment overlooking Central Park. She likes clothes too. Today, the look is expensive but trendy, a pair of soft black leather trousers, a white shirt and plimsolls, which I’m guessing aren’t Dunlop green flash.

    More…Here comes the judge: Amanda Holden lets rip at her Britain’s Got Talent co-stars

    Judy is a ballsy blonde with a big laugh and big hands. Today, she’s wearing two identical gold rings, only one is set with precious stones. This seems appropriate somehow. A decade ago, Judy, now 51, barely had two brass farthings to rub together having sold her flat to bankroll her vision of a Mamma Mia! musical. Many of her contemporaries thought she was barking mad.
    ‘People always said Abba’s passé, finished, but I knew those songs had a theatricality, and my dream was to make musical theatre. But there were some buttock-clenching moments,’ she says. ‘It’s been said that, for a long time, the story of Mamma Mia! was the story of Judy Craymer and two blokes with beards who kept saying no.’
    The two blokes with beards are Abba’s Benny and Björn, who retained tight artistic control over both the musical and the songs. Judy had met them while working with Sir Tim Rice on the musical Chess long after abandoning her showjumping ambitions. She nagged them for a decade to let her do something with their songs, having fallen in love with their anthem The Winner Takes It All.
    Two blokes with beards who kept saying no: Abba’s Benny and Björn retained tight artistic control over the musical and the songs

    Within nine months of the West End first night, such was the phenomenal success of Mamma Mia! that Hollywood studios began to express an interest in a movie. Judy insisted that the Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd were involved, despite the fact that between the three of them, their experience of working on a major film added up to zilch.
    Before Mamma Mia! the musical, Johnson was a little known writer and single mother of two, living in Bristol and struggling to pay the bills. A fellow writer, who’d decided Mamma Mia! wasn’t his ‘cup of tea’, recommended her to Judy.
    ‘We met and really got on, although she had no huge track record,’ says Judy. ‘And she got Mamma Mia!. A lot of people hadn’t. After three hours of meeting over an egg sandwich she came up with the mother and daughter storyline.’
    Lloyd was a hugely respected director with a formidable reputation in opera and theatre. ‘When we met,’ she says, ‘we got on really well – I think she dashed out and bought Abba Gold that day.

    She’d just had her 40th birthday and I was about to have mine. At the end of the meeting I said, “When will you let me know?” She said, “Before you’re 40” – and she did. That was the beginning of the three of us.’
    The triumvirate of Tanya (Christine Baranski), Donna (Meryl Streep) and Rosie (Julie Walters) resonated with cinema-goers as much as the songs

    Mamma Mia! is, of course, the story of the fifty-something female triumvirate of Donna (Meryl Streep), Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) that resonated with cinema-goers as much as the songs. ‘We were a bit minxy in a way. We wanted Meryl, and we slightly jumped the gun by phoning her agent before the studio agreed.

    I was so used to doing everything myself, I kind of forgot I had a major studio to report to. She’d seen the musical on Broadway and when she was contacted by her agent, she screamed, “I am Mamma Mia!”
    ‘Phyllida and I travelled to New York to meet her. When she walked into the room, I let out this schoolgirlish scream of “ahhh” and Meryl went “ahhh”. We were thinking we were going to be put through our paces, but she sat down and said, “Do you want me,you really want me?” She always wanted to work on something that was going to take more than 100 per cent of her energies, and Mamma Mia! was that project.
    Amanda Siegfried in Mamma Mia! ‘We became part of a kind of family’, says Judy

    ‘We became part of a kind of family. Meryl loved to go out for a Martini with us, and I remember her shedding a tear on her final day. On the last day of shooting credits, we finished at 10pm and went out for a last Martini. We had quite a few and woke up fully clothed the next day.’
    As Mamma Mia! reaches its 10th anniversary, Judy is said to have £90million in the bank. ‘I wish,’ she says, but refuses to be drawn on exactly how much she’s made. She says she never went into showbusiness to get rich: ‘It was about the excitement, the thrill. You don’t go into theatre to earn big money.’
    I wonder what’s next. ‘Isn’t this enough?’ she asks, flashing that oversized gold ring. Plenty. But still? ‘The thing I’ve noticed working with fifty-something women, is the more you do the younger you become. Should I relax now and go to live in Monte Carlo? Oh, God, no. Obviously, the answer to everything is to keep going.’

    Just like Meryl Streep, who is 60 this year and seems to be making more films than ever. But, as Judy says, ‘Meryl is a complete dynamo.

    Explore more:People: Judy Craymer

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