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The bride wore green: legit's wedding of the decade delivers multiple berths.

LONDON

Only five years out of the box and "Mamma Mia!" already has its eye on the $1 billion mark.

Capitalized originally neat' 3 million [pounds sterling] ($5.54 million), the Abba-scored musical has grossed more than $750 million worldwide since opening April 6, 1999, on the West End. It is touted as the world's No. 1 show, with more productions (11) playing simultaneously around the world than any other.

"We never imagined that we were working on a hit," says Phyllida Lloyd, the show's helmer, who had never before directed a commercial musical (and hasn't done another since).

"We treated it very humbly. We were absolutely ferocious about trying to mine the material as a drama and treat it very seriously and not remotely cynically; none of us thought this is going to be a gravy train."

What resulted, to extend the transport metaphor, was a runaway express. The 11 productions worldwide are generating ticket sales in excess of $8 million a week, with mix more stagings on the fast track to open in the next 18 months.

The London original at the Prince Edward Theater has grossed more than $184.7 million, while Broadway's Winter Garden incarnation has routinely taken more than $900,000 a week: Its New York cume is nearing $150 million.

The scenario is being repeated the world over. The Toronto preem in May 2000 was originally booked for 26 weeks at the Royal Alexandra Theater; where it is still playing. It has been seen by more than 2.1 million people to a gross so far of about $112.5 million.

From Japan to South Korea, Melbourne to Hamburg, the show has routinely sold out. "There's nowhere it hasn't worked," says producer Judy Craymer, almost quietly, so as not to tempt fate. But in an age when some musicals (think "Rent" or "The Producers") do far better in some markets than others, the very words "Mamma Mia!" guarantee a theatrical stampede: Seldom has such a lyric as "money money money" seemed so apt.

And yet, the tale of the show's build-out honors the careful handling of a creative team that made a series of smart choices, while capitalizing on good timing.

"I genuinely think we worked very hard to make the show a success," says choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who has been involved in other hits ("Bombay Dreams," "Song and Dance") but nothing on the order of "Mamma Mia!"

"We, as a team, all came (in) to our top form and made it something special when it could so easily have gone the wrong way. It could have gone down the slippery-slidey road of just being a revival show, when Phyllida and (book writer) Catherine Johnson made it something much more rigorous."

Still, it took numerous goes at the opening number (which Van Laast rechoreographed four times), and a change in tone during previews to something a bit larkier, before "Mamma Mia!" achieved a guileless abandon which has characterized the musical ever since.

At the same time, Craymer speaks in financial terms of the musical kind of creeping into the Prince Edward, where "Mamma Mia!" was expected to keep the prime West End playhouse warm until Garth Drabinsky transferred "Ragtime" to London (In the end, "Ragtime" arrived later at the Piccadilly).

"There wasn't any huge expectation," Craymer says of her show--until frenzied audiences starting leaping to their feet, pushing the box office take to as much as $923,000 a day. Within 27 weeks, the London venture had broke even and Broadway, an originally unthinkable prospect, was by then in view.

Toronto, says Lloyd, was invaluable as an interim position. "We wanted to develop some understanding of what the show meant in North America. Judy and Bjorn (Ulvaeus)--Bjorn particularly--were very apprehensive, and rightly so, about how vulnerable we could be made to feel on Broadway. We were unclear about how the humor of the piece would work."

The answer: lucratively, thank you Now in its third year, the New York production paid back a capitalization just under the $10 million mark within 29 weeks, regularly breaking its own box office record Opening the month after 9/11, "Mamma Mia!" unexpectedly found itself the tonic New York sorely needed Says Craymer: "We were kind of restorative, in a sense."

What remains? A truly global rollout to include, in the short term, Stuttgart (July) and Madrid (November), with an international English-lingo tour to open in Dublin (September) China is a longer-term prospect, while South Africa looms, too.

"There's a whole generation of people that will end up knowing those songs as musical number's and not as individual pop songs," says Craymer.

Imagine: an entire world speaking "Mamma Mia!"
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Title Annotation:Mamma Mia! 5th Anniversary
Author:Wolf, Matt
Publication:Variety
Date:Apr 5, 2004
Words:783
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