Bright, sparkling lights and beautiful costumes. Perfectly coiled hair with dazzling smiles, and stunning moves, twirling and prancing and beaming in time with the music. Captivated spectators, roaring applause ripping through the stage. Delight and wonder and magic and amazement. Break a leg, take a bow, be captivating and be stunning.
Wires and cables. Props of all sorts, scattered all over the place. Rows and rows of clothing and shoes and accessories.
Prompts and time sheets and scores, and huge dusty crates and big black boxes. Ropes, and more cables and more wires, hanging from the ceiling, coiled on the floor, over crates and around tables. Order among the chaos. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. And it’s beautiful.
Welcome to the battlefield control station. Where in front, there’s all that glitz and glamour going on, backstage here, is where the gritty, blood and sweat stuff takes place. Here’s where the brains behind the system dwell, clipboards in their hands, communication headsets on, and big ideas all over the place, where everything is a constant buzzing of non-stop activity.
I’m no stranger to behind-the-scenes work. I’ve toiled for hours on end in my own backstage, although I’m mostly trapped in a dreary room, table (mostly) neat and tidy, save for a few pens and notebooks and a laptop. But in the business of musicals and theater with the likes of the hugely successful and widely received Mamma Mia, nothing is dreary or mundane.
If you don’t know, or haven’t watched a performance of Mamma Mia, you might have been living under the same rock as I am. At the very least though, I hope you’ve heard of the extremely well-loved ABBA song of the same title, that the entire play was written around, which goes a little something like:
“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you?”
The musical takes us to the Greek Island of Kalokairi, where Sophie, a young 20 year old bride, is about to get married. However on her wedding day, trouble arrives in the form of 3 distinguished gentlemen, each thinking that he is her father. This shocks Donna, her mother, who had no idea that Sophie had invited each of these ex lovers of hers.
The entire story weaves through other famous ABBA hits as well, including “Super Trouper”, “Lay All Your Love on Me”, “Dancing Queen”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “Thank You for the Music”, “Money, Money, Money”, “The Winner Takes It All”, “Voulez Vous”, “SOS”. The result is a wonderfully vibrant and energetic musical that has captivated the world, played in more than 40 countries in all 6 continents, seen by over 54 million people worldwide and set the record for premiering in more cities faster than any other musical in history.
On our guided tour around this amazing world that lies just behind that stage, Nick Evans, the Resident Producer, shows us around the area, and tells us more about how work is done, and how the place is run.
Nick shows us some of the little props strewn around, that would otherwise seem insignificant. Each prop, in actuality, plays an extremely important role in the show. These chairs for example, are a major part of the set makeup, used during big scenes like the wedding. “Everything,” he says, “lies in the details”.
These are little invitation cards from which Sophie reads out loud from. And if you look closely, there are (I think made up?) addresses for where that person might be from, together with Greek stamps on them. There are even real cheques, complete with names and all.
This is an outfit that Donna wears during the performance.
Part of the challenge for the stage performers is dancing in dresses, and high platform boots like these. Rehearsals are done in a hall in London on flat ground, so it’s gonna be significantly from the real performances.
Some of the dresses that are worn by the cast, wedding dresses namely. These wedding dresses can be a real challenge for the cast to dance in, as well.
Every single role of the crew running the show is intricately linked together, each person providing support to the other. For instance, Nick tells us, the play is not just made up of the main characters and the ensemble, but also the “swings”.
In Mamma Mia, there are 4 of these “swings”, each of whom are standby actors/actresses for the main crew, and are expected to know the role of every character that he or she is called up to instantly act as replacement if an emergency crops up, WITHOUT any rehearsal whatsoever. How awesomely talented is that??
There are also the people in production, such as the sound team who control all aspects of sound on stage, the stage managers who prepare the props and get everything and everyone in order, the musical team who produce the music, the lighting team who take care of all the lights in the show, and more.
And then there’s also Nick’s role in the show. And the Director, with much sensitivity and respect for his crew, says this about his role:
I guess what my job is about really, is in the first part, trying to make sure that the actors bring a new life to the show, they bring their character to the show, they create a version of the show that belongs to them, and the big mistake would be to say, as a director, ‘do it like that’, or ‘say it like that’.
Of course a Musical can’t really be called a Musical without any music. And down here is where the band plays. Complete with the guitars and basses and drums and other key musical instruments, this is where the magic is made.
If you’ve ever been to a musical performance or concerts, you might know what a mind blowing experience it is, not to be listening to music that was pre-recorded and simply broadcasted over speakers, but actual, live music from a great band. Done well, it’s an immensely powerful and almost spiritual experience. Because that’s what it touches – your soul.
And now here we are on the stage itself, with the Assistant Choreographer, Jamie Wilkin. Hugely enthusiastic and passionate about his craft, Jamie’s excitement is contagious and soon, the entire group springs to life as he gets us participating in a dance routine which consists of leaps and jumps, and shaking booties. It’s an energetic routine from one of the dance finales of MMM, and is marvellously entertaining ESPECIALLY when the title music is on.
…And, it’s also just enough to give us a little teaser of what it might feel like to actually be performing on stage in front of a live audience 🙂
In front of the most iconic set of Mamma Mia.
And feeling very honoured to take a group photo with these two wonderfully talented individuals 🙂
Just as we were ending, a few of the actors arrived. I managed to peep in between the curtains to catch in a few shots, a cheeky smile and a friendly wave 🙂
The backstage is a massive world of its own, somewhat resembling a gigantic garage sale. Everything is contained in here, from the most complex, technical equipment like stage lights and microphones and stage control systems, down to the most creative, glittery and colourful costumes and props. Fellow OCD’ers beware. You will NOT feel very comfortable at all in here 🙂
Everything that you see on stage, in the front, is a result of the meticulous, relentless planning and coordination work that takes place backstage. But more than anything, it’s a result of the unbridled passion and unwavering dedication that these backstage crew have for their craft.
Perhaps it’s time we pause, and for every applause and praise that we dish out so generously to that which we can see, take a moment, and give a silent nod of appreciation to those that we don’t see.
Ling is an advocate of imperfection, a lover of cats and flowers, a collector of leather notebooks, and a pursuer of many passions For a collection of her personal love letters, visit http://lingslovelythings.com or drop her one yourself at [email protected]