| Abba member Bjorn Ulvaeus
London, June 13 (Reuters): British playwright Catherine Johnson remembers her “eureka moment” as though it were yesterday.
It was a flash of inspiration which turned her life around — and did wonders for her bank balance.
She came up with a plot line for the musical Mamma Mia, which weaves in 22 of Abba’s greatest hits. The show has now grossed more than $500 million from Las Vegas to Tokyo.
It opened in London in April 1999 on the 25th anniversary of Abba winning the Eurovision song contest and shows no signs of running out of steam.
“I keep wondering when I am going to feel blase about it but I don’t at all. I still get such a thrill when I come up to London and see a Mamma Mia poster on the bus,” the 45-year-old playwright said. For hers was not an overnight success.
After as she says “frittering my life away until I was 30”, she wrote a play and won a competition to have it produced. From there, the plays flowed.
But the big breakthrough came when producer Judy Craymer contacted Johnson and asked if she would like to write a musical based on the Swedish supergroup’s hits. “There was this eureka moment,” she said of the meeting.
“We got to the hand-shaking stage and ‘Call me when you get ideas’. I had this horrible moment thinking if I walk out of this room, that’s it.
“Just as I got up, I thought of something and said ‘how does the idea of a girl with three dads appeal'’ Judy said, ‘Sit back down’ and that was it.”
The musical tells the story of a single mother who lives on a Greek island with her daughter, who is getting married. Reading her mother’s diary, she finds that any one of her mother’s three lovers could be her father. All get invited to the wedding.
The success of Mamma Mia has not become a burden to Johnson. Unfazed by her mounting wealth, she said: “It is not like I am Andrew Lloyd Webber where people are waiting for my next big musical.”
“I still can potter along and do my work in my own way,” she said. Her latest play — Little Baby Nothing about teenage rites of passage — is being staged at the tiny Bush theatre in west London. She does not expect it to transfer to London’s theatre heartland.Johnson, like fellow single mother J.K. Rowling, was penning in penury before hitting her jackpot. Now she feels sympathy for the creator of Harry Potter.
“I always feel really sorry for her,” she said. “It’s ridiculous — she’s got all that money but you think she hasn’t got any artistic freedom. She is stuck with bloody Harry Potter....”