Meanwhile...Our Online Magazine
In this issue, we celebrate two important anniversaries.
- The 20th anniversary of the North American Premiere of Mamma Mia! Why is it important and why should Toronto be proud of its role in the rollout of this popular musical. Our intrepid reporter shares the never-before-told behind-the-scenes story of how Mamma Mia! came to Toronto. Also, Steffi and Lisa (S’n’L) speak to some of the original stars of Mamma Mia! to give you the on-the-ground perspective. And, we profile Salvatore Scozzari, who starred as Pepper, to learn about the life of a working journeyman actor.
- The 27th anniversary of the opening of the Princess of Wales Theatre. We take you on a private video tour of this magnificent building, we share a timeline of every show that has played there, and we offer you a contest of trivia about the POW.
Next week, S’n’L check in with one of the stars of Hamilton - Warren Egypt Franklin, who stars as Lafayette in the company that was in Toronto before Covid-19 shut down all our theatres. Warren will talk about how he and some of his fellow cast members have been spending their hiatus from performing. Warren will also answer some of your questions. Please submit them in advance to CheckInFromAway@mirvish.com. The deadline: noon Wednesday May 27.
CHECK IN FROM AWAY - EPISODE #4
S’n’L check in with Louise Pitre, Tina Maddigan and Adam Brazier about the rehearsals and opening night of Mamma Mia!
By Antonio Tan
In this issue of Meanwhile we look back at our original Canadian production of Mamma Mia!
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have flown by, but it was on May 23, 2000, that Mamma Mia! – a new musical based on the songs of ABBA – had its North American premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The show opened barely a month after our production of Disney’s The Lion King, which was playing to packed houses one block west at the Princess of Wales Theatre. It was an exciting era for Toronto – when the city had two of the hottest shows in the world, at the start of their global journey.
When The Lion King opened in Toronto, it was the fourth place in the world (and only the second in North America) where you could see it. Already a smash hit on Broadway, in London and in Tokyo and acclaimed by critics to be an artistic success, it was more or less a guarantee that it would also be a hit in Toronto.
Mamma Mia! was a bit different.
It was a new musical coming out of London, and although it was a hit in the West End where it began in 1999, it was a huge gamble for the producers bringing it to North America.
Here was a British show with an Italian title with a story set on a Greek island integrating the songs of a Swedish supergroup from the 1970s. The fear was that this may be confusing for potential audiences who knew nothing more about the show than its smorgasbord of backgrounds.
More important, there was also concern that ABBA’s popularity and appeal in the U.S. were nowhere near the stratospheric levels they were in Europe. Although the group had some top 10 singles and albums in the U.S., they had only scored one #1 hit with “Dancing Queen.” In fact, ABBA was more popular in Canada than stateside. (Fun fact: the last stop on the group’s final North American tour ever was a sold-out concert at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.)
Mamma Mia! began previews at London’s Prince Edward Theatre on March 23, 1999 with almost no advance publicity. Although its director Phyllida Lloyd was well-respected, she had never directed a commercial musical before. Serious theatre and opera were what she was known for. The book and story were by little-known playwright Catherine Johnson, whose previous work had all been in fringe theatre. The show’s lead producer, Judy Craymer, had worked in London theatre for many years as a stage manager and company manager and was very well-liked and respected; but she had never produced a big musical before. Finally, while ABBA was a very popular group, it had disbanded almost two decades prior. It would be fair to say that not many people expected the show to succeed.
Some producers believe it’s always better to begin this way – keep expectations low so that the audience is surprised and delighted when they see the show. Also, the excitement of early discovery deputizes the first audiences to become apostles for the show. And that’s exactly what happened with Mamma Mia!
After the very first performance the buzz about this new “jukebox musical” (and it was really the first of the genre) was phenomenal. Word spread faster than it would normally do for a show that was eagerly anticipated.
Always on the lookout for shows to program at our theatres, David Mirvish quickly hopped on a plane to London to attend one of the first previews. The audience reaction was unlike anything he had seen at a musical in many years. It was like he was at a concert, with audiences dancing in their seats and even in the aisles at the end of the show. He was even more impressed with how cleverly the songs had been integrated into a story that was moving, even poignant, and that examined the generational divide between the free love generation of the 60s and 70s and their offspring in the 90s.
When the show opened on April 6, 1999 – 25 years to the day when ABBA won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with their song “Waterloo” – the critics loved it, too. This was it – this was going to be the next global smash, and David Mirvish knew he had to get in on the ground floor and bring the show to his audience in Toronto.
Any successful show in its first outing has to develop a plan to take it elsewhere. For those that begin in London, the next step is always Broadway. With productions in both London and New York, the global success of a show is almost always guaranteed.
With Mamma Mia! Broadway was thought to perhaps be problematic. For one, ABBA was never as popular in the United States as they were in Europe, Australia and Canada. For another, when Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the two “Bs” in ABBA and also its composers) had brought their musical Chess (which spawned such hits as “I Know Him So Well” and “One Night in Bangkok”) to Broadway from London, it was a flop, playing for only two months (whereas in London, it ran for three years). Would they want to risk this with Mamma Mia?
Knowing this, David Mirvish suggested they test the waters in Toronto. After all, Toronto, in sensibility and culture, is halfway between the U.K. and the U.S. He said to them: “If the show is a huge hit in Toronto, Broadway will scream and yell for it. Let them beg for it.”
And so a plan was made: A North American touring production would open at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre with a 26-week engagement, followed by a limited tour of key American markets including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. Broadway’s fate would be decided on the success – or failure – of this tour.
All of Mirvish Productions’ resources were unleashed. Sets and costumes were built in Canada. The show was also cast here, with the original North American touring cast ending up being an (almost) all-Canadian affair.
Louise Pitre (Fantine in the original Canadian production of Les Misérables, and most recently Piaf in Piaf/Dietrich at the CAA Theatre) and newcomer Tina Maddigan headed up the company as Donna Sheridan and her daughter, Sophie Sheridan. Mary Ellen Mahoney (Irene in our production of Crazy for You) and Stratford and Shaw Festival vet Gabrielle Jones played Donna’s friends and former bandmates, Tanya and Rosie. Gary P. Lynch (the lone American in the cast), David Mucci (Hank in Crazy for You, Willy Conklin in Ragtime’s original Toronto and Broadway casts, and now Mirvish Productions’ Managing Director) and Lee Macdougall (Nick in Come From Away, original Broadway cast and pre-Broadway run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre) played the three possible dads: Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin and Harry Bright. Adam Brazier (The Woman in White and Into the Woods on Broadway, former artistic director of Theatre 20, and now artistic director of the Confederation Centre for the Arts in PEI) played Sophie’s fiancée, Sky, while Nicolas Dromard (Mary Poppins and Jersey Boys on Broadway) and Salvatore Scozzari (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond; also featured in today’s Staff Spotlight) played his friends Eddie and Pepper.
The full British creative team assembled in Toronto to rehearse and also make some changes to the show that would be first tried in Toronto and – if they worked – would then be put into the London production. Among the changes: the character of Bill Austin, played by David Mucci, became Australian. As well, automation was added so that the set’s taverna walls would move on their own (in London stage hands moved the walls). And, due to audience demand in London, the “megamix” curtain call finale would include perhaps the most famous ABBA song ever, which the creative team had not found a way to incorporate into the story – “Waterloo”.
And as the lyrics go in Waterloo: “the history book on the shelf / is always repeating itself.”
Sure enough, history did repeat itself in Toronto. As soon as preview performances began on May 11, 2000, the reaction was the same as it had been in London, if not bigger.
By opening night on a rainy Tuesday evening on May 23, 2000, the buzz was palpable, fueled by the presence of Benny and Björn attending the opening night, and heightened by the surprise appearance of Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad (lead vocalist and one of the “A”s in ABBA), seeing the show for the first time. (Agnetha Fältskog, the other lead vocalist and “A” in ABBA, had by then become intensely private. She would not see the show until many years later.)
The reviews the next morning matched the reaction of the previous night. Like London, the critics loved Mamma Mia!, with the CBC going so far as to proclaim it , “The most fun I’ve had at a theatre in years!”
From the very first performance, not one seat had gone unsold. It was clear Toronto couldn’t resist Mamma Mia! In fact, it couldn’t get enough of it. It was obvious the show needed to stay in Toronto.
But there were obstacles.
1) The production was set to go on tour in just over five months. It was too late to cancel the tour or reschedule it. The solution: find a new cast to continue the production in Toronto while the original cast went on tour. As well, build a new set that would go with the original cast, while the original set stayed at the Royal Alex and welcomed its new cast. This had never been attempted before, but the demand for tickets in Toronto was insatiable.
2) The Royal Alexandra Theatre was the centerpiece of the Mirvish Subscription Season, and other productions were lined up for the theatre. The Princess of Wales down the street wasn’t an option with The Lion King set to run for a few years there. What to do? The solution: move the remaining subscription shows to the Pantages (now called the Ed Mirvish), Elgin and Winter Garden theatres. Now the Royal Alex would be free for more Mamma Mia!
And thank god the stars aligned – Mamma Mia! ended up running for nearly five years in Toronto, ending its record-breaking run as the longest running show in Royal Alex history on May 22, 2005.
(I say “nearly 5 years” because there was a brief hiatus in the summer of 2003, when another coronavirus – SARS – scared away audiences for a few months. Instead of shutting down or letting the theatre be virtually empty for a few months, the entire production and Toronto cast were packed up and sent west for the summer to play at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where the run sold out well before the first performance.)
Subsequent notable cast members throughout the years included Camilla Scott, Kim Huffman and Blythe Wilson as Donna. David W. Keeley played Sam Carmichael in the second company. (David W. Keeley was recruited to reprise his performance in the original Broadway production along with Louise Pitre and Tina Maddigan, also recreating their Toronto performances. Tamara Bernier and Richard Binsley, as well from the second company, were sent to the Broadway production to reprise their Toronto performances as Tanya and Harry Bright a few years later.)
As I write this on May 22, 2020, it’s been exactly 15 years to the day since the Toronto production closed. Since then, the show has returned to Toronto on three different occasions, the last time in August 2018 when the international touring production – with an all-Brit cast – played a sold-out two-week engagement at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
At that point, I hadn’t seen the show in many years. But when that overture began, suddenly I was 17 again. (This is not a reference to the lyric in “Dancing Queen.” I was actually 17 when I saw the show in 2000. You can do the math to learn my age now.) Seeing the show again was almost like watching it for the first time. Mamma Mia! isn’t high art, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It is a tender story of family told through the songs of one of the greatest pop groups of all time. The show does what all great musicals do: brings joy through story, song and dance.
And on that note, I say...
Thank you for the musical.
Check future Meanwhile issues for more theatre and showbiz DID YOU KNOW? trivia by Antonio Tan.
Some of the Mamma Mia! cast shared photos with us. Check out the gallery below.
The Princess of Wales Theatre has been closed since March 13. But today -- May 26 -- it celebrates its 27th birthday. So we snuck in and used an iPhone to record what it’s like during the shutdown.
After watching the video, click here for a timeline of all of the shows that have played the theatre.
And make sure you play our trivia contest, which is solely about the theatre.
How well do you know the Princess of Wales Theatre? For instance, did you know that the theatre’s staff call it the POW? Play the contest and you could win a $100 Mirvish Gift Card.
In the fall of 1999, Salvatore Scozzari auditioned for a new musical that was to make its North American premiere in Toronto. Not much was known about the show except that it had been a huge hit in London and featured the songs of ABBA.
The role that Salvatore auditioned for was not really in his wheelhouse, at least not on the surface. The role was that of a 19-year-old guy of Caribbean descent. Salvatore was in his thirties and of Italian descent.
But the director of the show, the multi-award-winning Phyllida Lloyd, and her casting team kept calling him back.
“After the third audition, they told me that in many ways I really wasn’t right for the part, but that I had qualities that others who looked right didn’t have,” recalls Salvatore.
It took six auditions before Salvatore was actually offered the part. The lengthy and uncertain audition process had been worth it because the show was Mamma Mia!, which became a blockbuster in North America from its very first performance at the Royal Alexandra Theatre; and the part was of the feisty Pepper, which Salvatore played for two years in Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston.
All during the audition process, Salvatore was working as a phone agent for TicketKing, the boutique agency that exclusively handles all ticket sales for Mirvish Productions.
“I started working at TicketKing in 1994,” says Salvatore. “It is the perfect job for someone like me because it allows me to talk with customers about something I am passionate about and know a lot about. And it also allows me to come and go depending on my schedule. I can work for two months and then leave for three months so that I can do a show. And if I need to book an afternoon off for an audition or for a commercial shoot, it isn’t a problem.”
The life of professional actors is never straightforward. They were the original gig economy workers, long before companies like Uber were even a thought in their founder’s head.
“Unless you book a show like Mamma Mia!” Salvatore explains, “being an actor involves a lot of stop and go. Very few shows can run as long as Mamma Mia!, so you are always working for two or three months. Then there’s a break of two months until the next show. But you still have to earn a living during the downtime. That’s where TicketKing comes in.”
Among Salvatore’s earliest memories is being at a wedding banquet. He was four-and-a-half and he was dancing alone to Chubby Checker’s The Twist. Suddenly a circle of people formed around him, cheering him on.
A few years later, his mother taught him to do the tango and the polka. A few more years later, he met a girl at a club. They danced the entire night together. The next day she invited him to her aunt’s dance studio. He joined and took classes there. This led to being in amateur theatrical productions, which led to someone suggesting he study at Sheridan College’s famed Musical Theatre Programme.
Upon graduation, Sal crashed an audition for the Stratford Festival. It was his first professional audition. He got the job, performing in Guys and Dolls, Macbeth and Julius Caesar.
“Although dancing and performing were always second nature to me, it was all a fluke,” Salvatore says. “I never intended to be a professional actor, but throughout my teens and twenties somehow I was always pointed to the right direction. It was as if it were only a matter of time before the world told me this is what you were meant to do.”
Salvatore’s story is typical of how many people become professional actors.
“When I was 25, I was working as a sales person for a meat company supplying the restaurant industry. I was really good at my job, but it was just a job. I didn’t want to be 50 and have regrets about not seriously pursuing theatre when I was younger.
“I’m now 57 and I can honestly say it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been very happy and lucky in my career.
“Mamma Mia! has been a highlight. The rehearsal process was an amazing experience. Phyllida was such an inspirational director. Instead of having us recreate the work of the original British cast of the London show, she allowed us to mold our own characters.
“I got to work with her and Catherine Johnson, the writer, in making Pepper my own. For instance, I speak Italian so they allowed me to write a few lines for Pepper to say to Donna. The premise is that Donna’s taverna employs young people who come to Greece to work for a summer. They come from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds. So our cast was very diverse. Which made the show more rooted in our own community, because Toronto is such a diverse place.
“And I got to work with Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus. In our production, they decided to add their first international hit, "Waterloo", to the show. They came to rehearsals with the original reel-to-reel tapes of the vocal and music tracks to show us how they layered vocals upon vocals to create that distinct sound that Abba is famous for.”
Salvatore has performed across Canada and the United States. For three years he played opposite Donny Osmond in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat as Naphtali, Jacob’s sixth son. As well, he starred as Mr. Braithwaite in the Canadian premiere production of Billy Elliot at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.
“I never wanted to be the star of the show. My dream was always to be a dancer in the chorus of a big musical. That’s come true many times. I love the idea of a chorus or ensemble, a group of performers who have to work together as one. I love that about theatre.”
Salvatore’s career is far from over. “But I’m not 25 anymore. When I turned 50 I knew I couldn’t dance and sing eight times a week in a show. Nowadays, it’s plays I perform in, not musicals. They offer their own challenges and rewards.”
And, of course, TicketKing is always there for Salvatore, as it is for the many other phone agents who also work there while pursuing professional theatre careers.
“We pride ourselves on being upfront and honest. Of course, we see all the shows that play at the Mirvish theatres, so we can knowledgeably answer customers' questions. Sometimes, before a show has played here, we may not be able to say much. But having been both an audience member and a performer on stage, we do have experience to offer customers. I find that people really appreciate that.
“That’s what makes TicketKing special. When people call they aren’t talking to someone in a phone room thousands of miles away who might as well be selling them cutlery. They are talking to someone who knows the theatre inside and out, and who is part of a dedicated team of professionals whose lives revolve around the theatre.”
And after almost a lifetime of theatre, what are some of Salvatore’s favourite shows that have played the Mirvish theatres?
“Once, because it had some amazing performances and its story and songs were so heartfelt and honest.
“War Horse, which was so beautiful and had an ensemble who were perfection.
“The production of Annie that came from London a few years ago. It had a chorus of dancers whose precision, energy and attitude were amazing.
“The Lincoln Centre Production of The King and I. I was sitting in the last row of the dress circle and even there I could feel the energy emanating from the stage. Wow!
“And most recently, Us/Them because of the performers’ passion and commitment. It all looked so easy, but I know how hard they worked to make it is so.”
Next time you’re calling TicketKing and you get Salvatore on the line, make sure you say hi.