By BRIDGET MORGAN, Senior PR & Communications Manager
Donna Sheridan is a remarkable character in the world of musical theater. She is an imperfect middle-aged woman whose past and present are occasionally littered with the consequences of messy decisions—she is strong and decisive, flawed and human.
Her musical peers might include indomitable divas like Dolly Levi, Mame or even Marian of The Music Man. And yet while Dolly shares Donna’s furious independence, Dolly is a driven woman who understands her power to affect her world, where Donna chooses to isolate herself on a literal island. Where Mame and Donna both choose to live outside of society’s expectations, Mame lives passionately for love, whatever form it may take, where Donna lives passionately for her daughter. And where Marian and Donna find little use for men, Marian’s convictions are—and always have been—as rigid as iron where Donna’s are tentative, a reaction to pain and rejection at the hands of both her lover and her mother.
And yet Donna holds infinite appeal for audiences that transcends the simple appeal of ABBA’s catchy pop beats. Donna and her friends are characters that women can identify with and see themselves in. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the creative forces behind Mamma Mia! are women.
Mamma Mia! was developed in concept by producer Judy Craymer, who was so committed to the creation of this show that she sold her home to turn the idea into reality. After years of searching for the right collaborators, in 1995 she finally joined forces with playwright Catherine Johnson, who had never written a musical before, and Phyllida Lloyd, who had never directed one, just as Craymer had never produced one.
Johnson was very purposeful in the way she developed Donna’s character. The characters who most compelled her were “people like me, living real, messy lives,” she has said. “I did absolutely want to write about the single mother who wasn’t a wretched kind of—you know, at that time there was a lot of press about single mothers being a drain on the state etc. etc. So I wanted to write about a working single mother who had got her life together and the relationship she had with her daughter who she absolutely adored but fought with.”
Original director Phyllida Lloyd has built her career on a similar foundation—the desire for the stories onstage to reflect the reality of women everywhere. Lloyd is a fierce advocate for women in the arts and has complained “about the dearth of great roles for women over a certain age, and also how job opportunities are much narrower for women who are of unconventional size, shape, accent, ethnic origin, whatever.”
At every turn, Lloyd, Johnson and Craymer defended their vision of this story, even when Hollywood came knocking.
Craymer refused to sell the rights, allowing the production of the film to proceed only with her as the executive producer. And true to Hollywood fashion, right to the bitter end, it was a fight with the studio to defend the vision of a story about “real older women who are overweight, over-stressed, drunk and needing each other,” Johnson said.
And the result? A character so authentically flawed and vulnerable that despite the fantastical and sometimes silly nature of the plot, her story both moves audiences to tears and brings them to their feet in dance.
As The New York Times said after the Broadway opening, “the show still creates the beguiling illusion that you could jump onstage and start singing and fit right in… Every character in the show, as presented here, could pass for normal at a suburban cookout.”
Donna is the everywoman we all know ourselves to be.
We make mistakes. We guard our hearts. We are devoted friends. We love our children. And once in a while (maybe more often than not, for some of us…) we like to link arms with our besties and sing at the top of our lungs.