Judy Kramer (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 31, 2019)
Judy Kramer is the big eyed, pretty blonde in the corner of the restaurant already waiting for me. She manages to look unassuming in a bright purple ostrich feather jacket. She is the super producer creator of Mamma Mia the stage show and the movies. She has been described as “the greatest impressario of the 21stcentury.” In the year to the end of last March, Kramer, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba shared dividends of £1.3 million.
She is unexpectedly accessible. Girly even, with chats of costume departments advising her to rub pencil on zips so they don’t stick. And then we talk about bras and horses. Not what you’d expect from the woman called “the greatest impresario of the 21st century.” Mamma Mia has been seen by 60 million people worldwide in 50 productions in 16 languages and has grossed over 2 billion dollars at the box office. It has achieved the status as fifth longest running musical in West End history and then there were the two wonderful Mamma Mia movies – the first one repositioning Meryl Streep as a musical comedy star.
On April 6th 2019 it will be the 20th Anniversary of Mamma Mia.
Kramer, who’s now 61, risked everything to make the musical happen. She worked as Tim Rice’s assistant on the musical Chess Premiere in 1986 when she met Ulvaeus and Andersson and spent many years trying to convince them their song lyrics had all the drama, the loss, the love, the tragedy and the triumph of a hit musical. She saw it. No one else did. Pretty steely.
Doesn’t she think she should be called an Impressaria? “I see what you mean but in this day and age an actress is an actor. Perhaps I should start signing things Judy Kramer, Impressaria. There’s something very Victorian about it.”
Did she have a master plan for making the two Swedish people with beards into increased legendary status? “There was no actual master plan, although, there was a plan to get a show on, to help the craft of writers, make people come to it and hope that it runs a while so you can pay your investors.” She has in fact produced 50 productions of Mamma Mia. It went global, it grossed 2 billion and then spawned 2 big studio movies.
“I can analyse it by saying it was organic and had a certain amount of serendipity.”
The stage show alone really has grossed 2 billion? She shrugs. “That’s the kind of figure that’s used when you’re putting comparables into market research.”
There is no comparable. She knows that? “Well the 2 billion is shared and that’s the gross. But the movies have taken another billion. The first one took over 6 million at the box office and the second one 400 million.”
It was only released in July 2018 and the DVD in November 2018 on so the figures should now be higher.
“People always said it will never play Broadway, there will never be a film but it ran on Broadway for 12 years. Not a master plan. It became its own little industry. Well, a big industry.”
And Kramer became not just a producer but a CEO, or as I like to sing to the tune of Super Trooper, a super producer. Does she remember the defining moment where she met Ulvaes and Andersson?
“I met them in the early 80s when I was working on Chess. I guess I’ve known them half my life. I met them in 1982. They had stopped being Abba and I was working for Tim Rice as his production assistant. One of my first jobs was to collect Bjorn from the airport. I was booking orchestras and working for all three of them and that’s when I fell in love with the songs. But they’d moved away from Abba. They were doing something else. I’d worked on several musicals (Cats, Rocky Horror, My Fair Lady), all quite traditional. And there’s the thing with musicals. We often get the story right but not the music and the music right but not the story.
“After Chess finished, I stayed in touch with Benny and Bjorn, mainly Bjorn because he moved to England and was living in Henley. Somehow, I or his wife Lena had persuaded him to buy a horse so I went to see the horse and him quite often. I’d drive to Henley, ride the horse and stay with the family. It was always in the background. The lyrics would be the source material. The idea was to tell a story using those songs as if it was an original musical. As if it was a Rogers and Hammerstein.”
She shared her vision. The particular song Winner Takes It All she imagined it at the helm of the musical. The anchor. “On Broadway they call it “the 11 o’clock number”. I call it the Don’t Cry For Me Argentina moment because every musical has the big kind of end ballad that the actor or actress sings and I always felt that that song had the power. I love the lyrics and I’ve always felt that Abba songs have a female consciousness running throughout. Bjorn had written those lyrics for Agneta and Frida and they were very much a look inside a woman’s head. Winner Takes it All was the one I’d always wanted to sing to a boyfriend or to myself. It has the high emotional drama, the rollercoaster. It’s a big romantic split so I used to listen to it over and over because it ends up making me feel good. It hits you.”
And that’s what an Abba song does. It makes you feel triumphant over bitterness. It gives you riches out of desperation. All those opposite emotions in a few minutes.
“And that’s what I thought. Like an opera. I could hear how it would translate to musical theatre, to the stage. Somebody giving it their all, taking a big breath and going out with that song. And, of course, Meryl does that in the movie.”
Mamma Mia reached another level once Meryl Streep signed on to the movie. “When her character sings that song to Piers Brosnan before her daughter’s wedding he said the hairs on the back of his neck went up. Of course, they were on a clifftop in Greece. Meryl was always our first choice.”
Was it hard to get her involved? “No, and that surprised Phyllida Lloyd who directed the stage show and the first movie. Early on we decided we weren’t going to be casting 35-year olds (to play a mother of a young woman). This character is a real woman with history and substance. I had seen Meryl in New York doing Mother Courage and I saw something in her portraying this woman with a tough life. She had a kind of a fight so I went to Meryl’s agent slightly under the radar because at the time the studio had to approve casting and they were “shouldn’t we go for the younger generation…?”” And just like that without any proclamations of feminism, without any complaints of older women don’t get cast in lead roles, just like that it was done. And Meryl’s career changed forever. Without Mamma Mia, there’d be no musical Meryl, no little number in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns, there’d be no Meryl in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It added a whole new dimension to Streep’s already over accomplished career. (Streep had sung at the end of Postcards From The Edge in 1990, but before Mamma Mia she was not known as a singer and now no one can stop her.) And without Streep, there may not have been the numbers at the box office and a movie franchise that’s already in talks about a third movie.
When the first Mamma Mia was made ten years ago, it was exactly that time where you would so often see a male lead in his fifties and wonder how could his wife be 25 and the mother of teenagers?
“Meryl had seen the show and she immediately said ‘yes I’m interested.’ When Meryl said yes we had T shirts made that said We Were There Before Meryl.”
It was a female triumvurant. A female producer, director, writer.
“It was unusual at the time although I think it’s no longer so unusual.” (Actually, it is. In the recently announced Golden Globes, everyone in the Best Director category is male.)
“It’s about roles for strong women in two generations. That’s the genius of the story. Great roles for women.”
Catherine Johnson wrote it and Phyllida Lloyd directed it. They were all in it from the beginning.
“When the three of us got together in the 90s we were the original architects. Then we went to Meryl and Meryl liked the fact that we had not produced a hundred movies but we knew the essence of Mamma Mia and the architecture. And that was part of growing the legacy of these 3 women, creating the roles for women and we also became great friends.”
However, they weren’t involved in the second movie Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, which was written by Ol Parker with Richard Curtis as advisor. It was also directed by Ol Parker.
“You had to think outside the box for a second movie and we’d all moved into different areas of our lives. A bit like a family where you’re all completely in each other’s pockets for years as we were, then you grow apart for different things, different relationships. There was a time where we’d open a show anywhere in the world and see each other at the parties. I talked to both of them of course about doing another film and they were up for the ideas being thrown around but it never worked which is a shame because it would have been great to keep the family together so to speak.”
She says this with just a hint of nostalgia. “The lead singer found another band. I phoned Richard Curtis. It needed someone who could distance themselves and actually not be caught up in the past. In a way, everything does feedback very much to the original characters but I don’t think anyone would have been brave enough to kill off Meryl if they were on the inside track.”
In Mamma Mia Here We Go Again it weaves from past to present. Streep’s character has died so only appears in the past sequences and the showstopper is Streep’s mother being played by Cher. It remains a feminist film. The head of the board of Universal Pictures is Donna Langley. “Another great woman who was part of the first film and is now the chairman of Universal. Rare that a woman runs a studio. We remain friends.”
We order food, Swedish herrings in deference to Abba. It was 10 years between the first and second film. Fans on social media are demanding a third movie now. There’s plenty of Abba songs to be rediscovered but as of yet it’s not been signed off.
“Even Piers said, “we can’t leave it another 10 years.” Although there is something about the 10 years that makes it like a good wine, matured and Cher is a very good actress, a very powerful one and she came on board especially.”
Quite a coup. “Ah. Cher was – to have two of the biggest legends that are only a few years apart in age to play mother and daughter…. I think Meryl found it hilarious and so did Cher so that was a good start. And Cher had always liked Mamma Mia. I heard she went to the theatre on Broadway.”
Perhaps she wanted to play the Streep part first time round? “I think she thought she could be that role and she is that role. She is the woman who’s done it on her own and has all those ingredients. She is the ultimate rock chick but that could so easily have had a different path.”
“I had approached Cher for the first film in 2006 before we cast Christine Baranski. Phyllida and I flew to Malibu to meet Cher to talk about her playing Tanya. At the time, she was a little sad not to have Cher but agrees she was much better to play Ruby, Streep’s mother. “It wasn’t the right time for her then. She said to me when we were filming “Things worked out didn’t they?” She loves playing Ruby and she loves singing Fernando and she got to choose Andy Garcia.”
Really? She cast her own love interest? “We had a list and she definitely had approval and was very pleased with him. We’ve never had a problem with casting really. Pierce, all you had to say to him was Abba, Greek island and Meryl Streep and he was in and Andy Garcia heard duet and Cher. It’s empowering, Cher as the grandmother and gets Andy Garcia.
“Cher’s look in the movie is more fairy godmother than grandmother. The platinum wig, the sequins, the make-up were all her decisions. it took her character to a whole other level. I always wanted Cher. Ol Parker wrote it with her in mind. We had to have her, we had to raise the bar and we were delving into the back story of Donna Sheridan, who had to have a mother somewhere. She had done everything the opposite to her mother. She brought her daughter up on an island giving her safety and security whereas her own mother was probably slightly wayward. She would definitely have been at Studio 54 in the white dress suit with sparkling champagne. Cher’s great concern was that she didn’t want to be seen as a bad mother. No one says her character is bad, just not very hands on.”
Now Kramer and Cher have become good friends with. I wonder if the purple ostrich jacket might even have been inspired by Cher?
“Great friendships have always been formed on the back of this movie. In the film world, you make friends but you may not see them all the time. When everyone comes back it was like a big wedding weekend. I’ve become firm friends with Christine Baranski.
When Cher first arrived on set, I think she felt nervous. She hadn’t done a film for a while but she tells the story about Ron Meyer who was her agent and now works at Universal and I’d called him and said any chance we can get Cher playing Meryl’s mother and I wondered how he pitched that to her. She said “he called and said, ‘Mamma Mia 2, you’re doing it’ and hung up”. So, she turned up and felt straight away the Mamma Mia factor. She came in when were shooting at Shepperton in the studio. It was a big party brewing and it was also the week we had Meryl. You know how Cher’s feisty. Well she’s fragile as well. Not in a physical way. I can relate to that because people always think I’m not shy because I do what I do. But I’m actually permanently going into rooms full of people and feeling shy.”
Kramer lives in London, has horses in Warwickshire and an apartment in New York but will visit Cher in California. Cher was so inspired by her Mamma Mia experience she did an album Dancing Queen and gives Kramer a thank you. Kramer shrugs it off. “She just got inspired.” Still, it was Kramer who did the inspiring.
We finish our herrings. Kramer is open yet discreet and that’s very charming. She’s soft and easy company, yet a risk taker. Later that night I’m at a showbizzy party where I meet a man who helmed Polydor Records, Abba’s record company in the 80s and 90s. He knew Kramer. He told me she risked everything to make Mamma Mia – her home and everything in it and it took her years. He tells me at the time she was involved with Olympic medallist Alan Pascoe.
Of course, there have been various men in her life but the only man now is Hector the horse. She grew up loving horses, and show-jumping, although now she favours dressage mistakenly thinking it might have been easier.
“I’ve always had horses. I’ve got nine now. As a teen I worked as a groom. I met a horsey crowd but when I was 22 started working in theatre and now the horses have come back.”
She rolls with some big international riders, one of them being Nick Skelton (Olympic medallist in Rio).
“And I became an Ambassador for British show jumping. I became friendly with Nick Skelton and we discussed buying show jumpers but they are very expensive now. But I did want to get back involved with horses. I was one of the first people to buy a racehorse from his son Dan and now I have four National Hunt racehorses. I love seeing them. I’m always tempted to ride them but it would be a risk. They are an area of my life which has got nothing to do with being a showbiz impressaria. I became fascinated by the racing world. It’s not what people think – that it’s about betting and horses that go very fast. It’s the psychology of the training. I love that world.”
Her other horses include a retired mare called Rock Chick Supremo who had a fractured bone and was about to be put down but she’s now a brood mare. “She sits in a field and gets pregnant. These horses are looked after like it’s a Four Seasons spa. They have chiropractors, osteopaths, they are massaged all the time.
I wanted to get back into riding again. I thought dressage would be safe but I realise now it’s not…I bought a beautiful grey stallion, called Hector. I thought he can almost teach me, but in my first year of having him (in 2016) he bucked me off and I broke many bones down my right side. He thought he was being playful with me and I was probably being too friendly with him. Stallions are like men. Also, I’ve learnt never to wear perfume around him. It frightens him. He didn’t mean any harm. Anyway, I’m under his thumb.”
She gets out her phone and shows me a picture of the beautiful horse, almost white with giant, soulful yet naughty eyes.
“There’s a Warwickshire life, a London life and a New York life.” She enjoys having all these lives. One as an escape from the other and now there’s a new life in fashion. Elizabeth Emmanuel made her the outfit for the Mamma Mia Here We Go Again premiere. A white silk suit with embroidery. A Prince Charming outfit. He could have worn it on his horse. Emmanuel has also made some exquisite fairytale military jackets (very on trend) as well as tons of white silk designs.
“She’s had a tough time.” Emmanuel was planning a fashion comeback but her backer dropped out so Kramer has been putting some money into her business. “My life is very full now. I love what’s happened with Mamma Mia. Generations of people have come to see it. I know Abba have never reformed as a band but because of the musicals they’ve never really gone away. Whole generations have been involved in the Mamma Mia family.”
Of course, it would be easy to think that everything Kramer turned her hand to was vastly successful but the Spice Girls musical written by Jennifer Saunders had a very short run and people didn’t warm to the Spice Girls songs as they did Abba. This year the Spice Girls are reuniting for a world tour. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.
“It was kind of a rough time for me.”
What was it about the Spice musical that seemed different to Mamma Mia? Did she know from the start it wasn’t going to be successful?
“No, you try your best, you don’t know, or maybe I knew too much. In the beginning I had a certain level of naivety that got me through. I believed there was something there. Obviously, the Spice Girls had a huge fan base but it wasn’t the story of them. It was another mother and daughter story really.”
Is mother/daughter her thing? Is she the Impressaria with an extremely close or difficult relationship with her mother that she drew on?
“No, I loved my mum very much. She passed in 2002. I was probably closer to my dad. She didn’t see the films but she’d have been there for every show and my dad as well. Catherine Johnson came up with the mother/daughter idea for Mamma Mia and she is a single mum and now in fact she’s a grandmother.”
Our conversation recoils back to Cher who Kramer thinks is a pioneer. Certainly difficult to have a daughter who ends up a son.
“She’s had some tough times but she is a pioneer. In the 60s on television doing her show. She won’t stop until the wheels fall off. She feels like a young person. When we were planning the premiere of Mamma Mia I told her that the big premiere was in London and there might be a screening in Germany and she said ‘what about New York?’ I said I’m not sure about New York. It’s a big global event so we probably won’t go to New York the next day. She said, ‘what’s the problem? The old people won’t make it?’
In all the different Kramer lives, a permanent man doesn’t seem to feature. “Men are the coolest people but we don’t necessarily want to live with them. That definitely applies to me.”
Does she want to live with Hector? Does she want to move into his paddock? “I do in a sense, although I think he’d rather move into mine. That’s how I feel about him.”
While we’re at lunch the nominations for the Golden Globes come in. Mamma Mia is not on the shortlist. She pauses wondering what to think about it. Last time round Streep was nominated. It’s a given that good box office doesn’t guarantee awards. She thinks for a while. “I’m sad for Lily James. I wanted her to get a nomination. We were in the Vanity Fair top ten and actually I’m fine. it means I don’t have to worry about going to the event and not winning.”
She knows getting the award is a process and not necessarily anything to do with talent.