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Why Meryl Streep took up Mamma Mia

Arthur J Pais | July 16, 2008 15:05 IST


Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried in Mamma Mia
The brooding and intriguing Dark Knight will surely light up the box-office over the weekend in America, Canada [Images] and many other countries. But if the reaction in the United Kingdom, Greece and Sweden is any indication, millions could be dancing in the aisles watching Mamma Mia! the Movie, when Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep will sing and dance to some of ABBA's most endearing, chart-busting numbers.
 
For nearly a decade, starting in London [Images] and then in over 50 cities worldwide -- including San Francisco, Toronto, Amsterdam, Seoul, Berlin and Stockholm -- people have been paying about $80 per ticket to see the stage musical Mamma Mia! Now, for $10 (in New York and London and less in other cities), people can watch the film.
 
Like the stage show that inspired it, the film may not be a hot favourite of the critics. The musical has grossed an astounding $2 billion worldwide. The film has been made by the same producer, writer and director (Phyllida Lloyd) of the Broadway and London versions of the stage show and features such heart-warming ABBA songs like Dancing Queen, Money, Money, Money, Take a Chance on Me, SOS, Thank You for the Music and The Winner Takes It All.
If the reception for the film in a handful of European cities is any indication -- it grossed $25 million over the weekend -- it could go on to become even more successful than the Oscar winning Chicago, which earned $250 million worldwide and even more in DVD sales and rentals.
 
Peter Bradshaw, the critic for London's The Observer, was frank enough to admit that he could not resist the film version. 'By the end, I was bludgeoned into submission by the energy and exuberance and came near to embracing the camp frolics and calculated pseudo-artlessness,' he wrote. 'There's no irony here, no sense of condescension on the part of director Phyllida Lloyd or her cast.'
 
Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is living with her American mother Donna (Meryl Streep) on a Greek island, is going to be married soon and she wants her father to give her away. But she doesn't know who her father is. It could be any of three of Donna's past suitors (played by Pierce Brosnan [Images], Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard).
 
Sophie, without letting her mother know, invites the three men. And they arrive on the island, without the knowledge of each other's coming, thinking that they have been invited by Donna.
 
Sophie thinks she will somehow find her real father but she realises it will not be an easy task.
 
'Over 24 chaotic, magical hours, new love will bloom,' says Phyllida Lloyd in the production notes, 'and old romances will be rekindled on this lush island full of possibilities.'
 
Though the stage musical became a huge hit in England [Images] over nine years ago and in America seven years ago, and productions began springing up across the world, Lloyd and her collaborations were not in a hurry to make a film out of it. They wanted to develop a good screenplay and draw top acting talents. But there was no doubt in Lloyd about the movie version.
 
She says she knew Mamma Mia! 'was always a movie.'
 
'It is set on location on a magical Greek island,' she continues. 'in many ways, it was bursting to get off the stage and into the cinema halls. It has just leapt out.'
 
Catherine Johnson, the author of the stage musical, who also worked on the movie script, says she was aware right from the start the challenge of creating a new version.
 
In the movie version, the song Dancing Queen sequence moves from the bedroom stage set up to the harbour front, she points out. 'We were able to start in one small place (in the stage version) and take some the scene to a much larger and colourful location.'
The number starts in Donna's bedroom, opens out into the courtyard, progresses through the village through an olive grove, and down the steps leading to the harbour. Part of the song was shot at Pinewood studio in London, and rest in the beach resorts in little visited Greek villages.
 
Streep, who played the boss from hell in The Devil Wears Prada over a year ago, could have another hit if the buzz for the film leads to an excellent word of mouth.
 
'She was always at the top of our wish list, and she encapsulates the spirit and energy and has the powerhouse qualities that character requires,' Jane Craymer, one of the producers of the stage show and the movie, says.
 
Streep had been wooed for musical adaptations including Evita, the trade publication Variety reports, but Mamma Mia! is her first full-pledged musical. She has sung in films including  Postcards From the Edge and last year's arthouse hit, Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion.
 
Craymer and Lloyd had known that Streep, one of the most respected of dramatic actresses in America, had loved the stage show so much that she had written a letter to the cast. She also said in the letter 'how she had wanted to get up on stage and feel what it was to be part of Mamma Mia!'
 
'Like school girls, we kept the letter,' Craymer says in the production notes for the film.
 
'We dreamt of asking Meryl to play Donna (the bride's mother),' said Lloyd. 'We knew she sang, we knew she wanted to a musical. She combines everything that is required. She is one of those unique actors who can laugh the world's laughs and cry the world's tears.'
 
Streep has said she was drawn to the production and her role because of its 'humanity, its spirit, and, of course the music.'
 
'The songs are timeless,' she explains. 'they just enter your body. When I came to learn them, I found I knew every single line. They have amazing hooks and great melodies.' She also says that she was drawn by the emotional core of the story and the relationship between daughter and mother, and the friendship between the women. 
 
Streep says it was a prideful thing for her to remember throughout the shoot that women -- Lloyd, Craymer and Johnson -- had created the stage hit and now they were doing the film too. She also knew that she had to do a lot of physical things and that meant she had to take extra gym classes to keep herself in the fittest conditions. One of her big challenges, she says, was to scale the side of a 40-foot building and sing the title song while balancing on a rooftop
 
'I was told that I was going to climb the goat house while singing Mamma Mia,' she remembers. She thought that a goat house,  whatever it could be, would not be very big. 'The goat house turned out to be this sheer wall,' she says. 'I was basically doing a Spider Man stunt, and I got into shape quickly. It was the first week, and I said, Whew, I better do my exercises every night.'
 
She also had to perform a series of stunts while performing the number Dancing Queen.
 
Streep has also said while she enjoyed the dancing sequences in the film, she is waiting to see how her children will react to it. 'I am really doing this to embarrass my 20-something-year-old children," Streep confesses. 'The dancing part will mortify them. They have to move to Alaska or some place like that. Just the overalls alone are gonna do it for them.'
 
Streep is convinced that the musical movie will touch the audiences worldwide because of its sweet sentimentality. Her thoughts are shared by director Lloyd and producer Craymer.
 
'The musical celebrates mothers and daughters,' Lloyd says, 'and fathers, true loves lost and new ones found, and the romantic possibilities of what can happen on one magical Greek island where love is in the air and music and dancing around. Who can resist such a story, and the music?'

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