Plenty of emotion backstage as 'Mamma Mia!' nears the end

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — The end is near. Every day it's a little closer: The day the disco beat goes silent on Broadway.

On Sept. 12, the 14-year run of "Mamma Mia!" ends, marking the final dance party for the ABBA-fueled, feel-good musical and eighth longest-running show in Broadway history.

Few are feeling the bittersweet emotions as hard as actress Judy McLane, the show's super trouper. She's been in it for some 11 years, the last three years playing the heroine, Donna.

"I'm not sure what life will be like after 'Mamma Mia!'" she says in her dressing room. "I'm sure that I'm going to have to have a grieving period. I don't doubt it."

"Mamma Mia!" has endured plenty during its long life — wars, hurricanes, the 2008 financial meltdown, the move to a smaller theater and critics, who never warmed to the show's high-energy sweetness.

A hit in London, it opened in New York just a few weeks after the 2001 terror attacks and there was anxiety. But New Yorkers turned out to be like everyone else. The show featuring more than 20 classic ABBA hits, including "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo," has been a smash in dozens of countries, including South Korea, Italy, Denmark, South Africa and Spain.

"When everybody says, 'Why does this show work?' I say, 'It's an antidepressant,'" says McLane. "Don't take Zoloft. Come see our show."

Over the years, couples backstage have formed, married and had kids. The wardrobe supervisor was able to send her child to college thanks to the stability of the job.

The cast and crew have marked the time with baby showers, birthdays and parties. During the Olympics, they host their own competitions backstage, and every year there's a door decorating contest with a celebrity judge.

"This show is not like any other show I've ever done. It's more of a family than I've very had in any other show," says McLane. "It's the day-to-day stuff that I'm going to miss."

McLane's dressing room at the Broadhurst Theatre features a humming espresso machine, family photos and a letter board sign with the slogan "Love what is ahead by loving what has come before." Over her mirror are three photos she took in Africa of a hippo, a red-winged blue-billed crane and lion.

Before every performance she helps hand out little cards with one-word inspirational messages to everyone backstage. "It's my way as a leader of this company to touch base with everybody," she says.

McLane initially came to the show in 2004 at a low point personally. She had to miss her first rehearsal because she was needed downtown at divorce court. But the musical helped her buy her ex-husband out of her apartment and spread her wings.

"Because of this job I started a new life," she says, choking up. "Honestly, I'm so grateful for it for that reason. I got back on my feet and found out who I was again."

She started as the character Tanya, a wealthy friend of the heroine, and played her for 7 1/2 years. Three years ago, she took over the principle role of Donna. Altogether, she's done over 4,000 shows.

"I have always prided myself on going out there and making every night feel like it's the first show," she says. "I have become a better actress because of it."

Nina Lannan, the show's general manager, attributes the show's success to the joy it gives audiences, a killer soundtrack, its embrace of second chances and its setting on a Greek island.

"I think the most successful musicals always take an audience member out of their daily world and into a kind of fantasy place," she says. "'Phantom' is definitely a fantasy place. 'Wicked' is that. 'The Lion King' certainly is that. To a certain extent, 'Mamma Mia!' is that, too."

After the show closes, McLane has plans for a long-overdue vacation. She also wants to reconnect with friends and family. "I need to go out and have dinner at 8 o'clock and have a glass of red wine," she says, laughing.

The punishing Broadway schedule has taken its toll. McLane gets weekly physical therapy, goes to pilates classes and stretches after every show. She's also discovered the power of a 20-minute nap. "I'm a napper. I didn't know I was one," she says.

Though she doesn't have her next job lined up yet, McLane is hoping to put together a CD of new songs and standards: "I'm looking forward to being able to sing other music for a little bit."

But first she and the cast are preparing for the final "Mamma Mia!" show, a mostly private affair for alumnus that promises to be an emotional roller coaster.

"I can't even imagine the energy that's going to be in this theater," she says. "I don't know how we're all going to handle it without our heads popping off."




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