We speak to Catherine Johnson who wrote the book for the ABBA-inspired musical and screenplay for the movie adaptation.  

How were you first approached to work on the musical?

Catherine Johnson who wrote the book for Mamma Mia! the musical

Catherine Johnson. 

I asked my agent to find me a job, any job. He set up a meeting for me with a producer he knew, Judy Craymer, who was looking to write a new musical based on the songs by ABBA. It sounded fun and I went along without any expectations.

When I met Judy for the first time it was instant chemistry; she was so passionate about this project which had been in her mind for a good few years already.

We talked about the songs and the emotions that came up from them. I suggested a mother/daughter story; I was a mother so it was always present in my mind. But it wasn’t until the end of the meeting that I thought, what if the daughter is getting married and she doesn’t know who her dad is and there are three possibles. I said this to Judy and she said, sit back down and that was it. Mamma Mia! was literally born that day, sat at that table and that part of the story has never changed from that day.

Stevie Doc(Sophie) & Mazz Murray (Donna) in Mamma Mia!

Source: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Catherine came up with the mother/daughter storyline in Mamma Mia! performed here by Stevie Doc (Sophie) & Mazz Murray (Donna). 

Was there a song that you particularly resonated with?

Not at that point. I took all the lyrics home to work with but I decided not to listen to the songs. When I read Slipping Through My Fingers for the first time I had a rush of excitement because I knew that would be the mother/daughter song at the heart of the story. That, and The Winner Takes it All, which was Judy’s stand-out, were the emotional core of the story. 

You didn’t think the musical would be a success at first did you?

No! It wasn’t just my insecurities, the team were telling us not to get our hopes up as that was a time when ABBA had kind of fallen out of fashion. The show wasn’t booked into the Prince Edward Theatre for a long time but we hung on and stayed.

Stevie Doc as Sophie (front centre) with the cast of Mamma Mia!

Source: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Mamma Mia! recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special performance. The musical has been seen by more than 70 million people worldwide in 16 different languages. 

Do you remember when you realised that it was going to be big?

It was the first time I saw the show in front of an audience. They were an intrinsic factor in the Mamma Mia! spirit bringing so much joy, laughter and understanding. I still needed to be told by Judy that actually this isn’t going to go away and we are going to open other productions. That’s when I first began to feel that maybe this is going to be big. But it probably took 25 years before I was able to stand back and think, wow, this really is something.

Mamma Mia! was literally born that day, sat at that table and that part of the story has never changed from that day.

As you reflect on the 25th anniversary of Mamma Mia! how do you feel about its success?

It’s incredibly flattering that something you have done on a tiny scale, in a room with a laptop and CD player has had the reach that it has. I’m very proud of what Mamma Mia! represents in the world. It’s a show with a message, a show about women and family and because it has been going for so long it can no longer be dismissed as something that isn’t important. Anything that makes people feel joyous has to be really important.

Stephen Beckett as Bill & Nicola-Dawn Brook as Rosie in Mamma Mia!

Source: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

The musical originally opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1999 and transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre in 2004 where it saw the highest attendance (a record) of 10,760 people seeing the show in a week. It has been at the Novello Theatre since 2012. 

What is it about the story that has stood the test of time?

Our basic human instincts and emotions don’t change. We still fall in love, have our hearts broken, bring up family and we still have regrets and want happy endings. Because it’s so much about the human condition it can date in some ways but the overall concept doesn’t date.

Which character do you feel most connection with?

I very much veer towards Rosie. I wanted a character who is slightly more than just the sidekick but is so completely comfortable in herself. I feel I’m one of life’s sidekicks rather than the leading lady. 

It’s in such good shape for a 25-year-old musical and that is down to the people who are keeping it as fresh as they are.

How was your experience on the film different to the musical?

The wonderful thing was that by that time, I had been working with Judy and Phyllida (Mamma Mia! director) for ten years so we had such a laugh doing it.

When it came to developing the script, I loved the freedom it gave me. For example, I always think about Dancing Queen. In the show, it’s in the bedroom and is very intimate and about the three friends and their conversations. In the movie we begin there and then we take it out. I loved writing this part and thinking about the island coming together and shaking off all the patriarchy. By the end it’s a glorious celebration of women.

The cast of Mamma Mia! the musical

Source: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

Mamma Mia! has premiered in more than 440 major cities across the world - faster than any other musical in history. 

Can you still watch the show?

I was there for the 25th performance and I have already seen it twice this year. When I first started to go and see it regularly I would be thinking about whether the audience are enjoying it. But now I don’t feel as protective because I can see that it’s in such good shape for a 25-year-old musical and that is down to the people who are keeping it as fresh as they are.

Has it got another 25 years in it?

I would love to think it has. Judy and I have promised ourselves that if we are still here in 25 years we’ll totter on stage in our walking frames.

What’s your favourite moment of the show?

Slipping Through My Fingers. I bawled my eyes out during rehearsals when this song was performed because I had been in London for a few weeks and was missing my children. Whenever I see the show, there’s nearly always a mother and daughter nearby and I love seeing the mum turn to her daughter and give her that look during the song.

Tickets for Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre in London are available for performances until March 2025 with discounts for groups of 10+. Go to mamma-mia.com/#london