One of Broadway’s most popular musicals, Mamma Mia! provides a heart-warming story and fun music. In this Feature Q & A, music director Kevin Casey discusses the musical’s legacy, the rise of the juke box musical, and his role as music director.
Were you an ABBA fan before working on this musical?
I have become a late in life ABBA fan from doing this musical.
What do you think makes Mamma Mia! so popular? Is it the music or the story?
I think it’s a combination. The music is a big part of it; it somehow strikes a cord with people. But, without the story, we’d just be an ABBA tribute band, and there are lots of those. The characters are all just regular people having normal problems. There’s something about the two, even though I think the music is the main force. If you took the same story and wrote unfamiliar music, I’m not sure it would be quite as popular.
The musical is termed a juke box musical? What makes a musical fall into this category?
It’s a musical where they have taken preexisting music and put a story around as opposed to writing an original score. Typically it is taken from one artist, although there are musicals such as Rock of Ages, which has taken music from an era rather than an artist.
Many people look at the juke box musical as being lesser quality than a book musical. What is your response to that thought?
Before I did Mamma Mia!, I would have looked a juke box musical with disdain – not being a real musical, but I have changed my mind after doing this show. It makes people happy, which is worthwhile. It’s great to do. I think there’s room for a juke box musical. Not everything has to be Into the Woods. There’s room for pure entertainment as well as something thoughtful.
Do you think that Mamma Mia! started the recent trend of popular juke box musicals?
I think that the popularity of Mamma Mia! maybe convinced people to try their own. Jersey Boys obviously came in the wake of Mamma Mia! and has been quite successful, other have not, or cultivated the status or longevity of Mamma Mia!. It definitely started a trend.
Does the show have the staying power on the road as a show like Wicked or The Phantom of the Opera?
Yes, I think so. It is falling into that category as a Wicked, Phantom or Les Mis that people will go to each time it comes to town. There’s something about it that makes people come back and see it again. Most cities we go to, the show has been there five or six times, and people still come. This has been touring since 1999 and keeps going.
As a music director do you work with the cast after the tour has started?
We tend to start wandering away from where we started. I try to reel it back in. It’s a continual process throughout the tour. I also work with the understudies, who generally don’t get much time to go on, so they need rehearsal time to stay current.
As the conductor do you cue the cast onstage as well as the orchestra?
Both, I am the middle man. I work with the cast by cueing them and keeping them with the orchestra. A lot of the background vocals are sung from offstage, and they have monitors backstage so those singers can stay with the band.
How did you become a music director?
I played piano. In high school, I played in show choir, and I studied composition and conducting in college. I really learned what I do now from playing for other conductors. Eventually, I answered an ad for a tour that needed a piano player, and I did that. That led to another tour, Titanic, where I was assistant conductor. That led to the next tour where I became a music director.
Part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta series, Mamma Mia! runs through September 28, 2014. For tickets and more information, please visit the Fox Theatre’s website or Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta’s website.