It's the moment you've all been waiting for. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's spring musical "Mamma Mia!" is set to take the stage. In this iconic show set to ABBA hit songs, young Sophie secretly invites her three potential fathers to her wedding on a Greek island and all hilarity breaks loose.
With a cast producing artistic director John Miller-Stephany calls "to-die-for," the show hasn't even debuted and has already extended its run because of demand. We sat down with a few of the "to-die-for" stars — Sarah Daniels, April Nixon and Peter Simon Hilton — to talk all things disco and beyond.
Opening night for "Mamma Mia!" is Friday, March 16. For tickets and more information, click here.
Describe your character in your own words and how you best relate to them.
April Nixon: I play Tanya, who has married millionaire after millionaire after millionaire, and she's a little bougie. My background for her is that she comes from a well-off family so she's used to the best of things and will not settle for less. She keeps the other two girls on their toes at all times. She's fun-loving, silly, supportive and she loves to move, to dance, to have a good time. She's like me in a lot of ways. I'm extremely neat and clean, though. Tanya has maids, so she doesn't have to worry about that.
Sarah Daniels: So I play Sophie. She's 20, which is pretty young to be getting married. I think her whole life has been kind of a whirlwind. Her mom is a single mom who owns a business, so she's essentially raised herself, I think, but has also helped her mom run her business. Sophie is a hard worker, but in the back of her head, she's always been wondering who her dad is. She and Donna are super close, but I feel like she doesn't open up to her in that way. I think that makes Sophie open up more, which you see when the potential dads arrive and she immediately wants to be friends.
She wants this big, extravagant wedding, which is the exact opposite of what I want. I'm actually getting married in the fall to someone named Sky — yes, for real — and I just want it to be done and to file taxes together. For Sophie, I think she just so badly wants to be walked down the aisle by her father that she plans this big extravaganza so that that can happen. She's very carefree, but very smart. She's very spontaneous and needs to get what she wants, but not in a hurtful way. That, I think, is where her age shows.
Peter Simon Hilton: I play Harry Bright, who's English, so I guess I've got that in common with him. But really, Harry is a sort of investment banker and is someone who's earned a lot of money in his life. He has a partner and they have all the accoutrement a banker would acquire — big house, fast car — but he's escaped all of that on the invitation of Sophie and with the prospect of meeting with Donna.
The Greek island and Donna remind him of his youth before he put all that aside and buckled down. I think he's felt very insular in his life and perhaps misses being much more free, so he's come to this island and just wants to have a good time. He doesn't really have an agenda except that he wants to get away for this small moment in time. He doesn't want to get away forever, he doesn't want to change his life, he just wants a week to relieve a little bit of his youth. Of course, he then finds himself in this situation where there's quite a bit of stress going on, but he just sort of rides that wave and stays buoyant, always cheering everybody up.
Do you remember the first time you saw "Mamma Mia!" and how it made you feel?
PSH: I first saw it on Broadway because I had a friend in it. I'd not gone to see it when it first opened because I probably had a cynical attitude toward it, thinking it was just a sort of jukebox musical designed to make a lot of money. But when I went to see it, I just had such a good time and everybody else had such a good time and I felt that for some reason unknown to anybody — because nobody seems to be able to reproduce it — the equation of this particular musical is incredibly successful. Then when I was in the show, and I've done it twice before, I've never had so much fun, just pure energetic fun. The audiences love it and they won't let you have a bad time on stage. It's so infectious. I love it.
SD: I have to confess, I've never seen the musical live. The first time I was exposed to it was when I was called back for rehearsals and I didn't know what I was getting into. I looked up clips of the show and I remember thinking, even though the book isn't Pulitzer Prize-winning, it's a very touching story, especially when you start to really see the relationship between Sophie and Donna. It's a fun concept with really fun music.
PSH: Something I would add is that it also has four lead women. There are not many theater pieces where the top four leads are women, and I think it's really important. I think that might be part of its success, especially when you don't have many pieces where you see yourselves reflected on the stage unless you're a white male. The men here are sidekicks and it's great, it's great for theater and it's great for audiences.
AN: Like Sarah, I had never seen the Broadway show, although I actually turned down the audicion twice because the only ABBA song I knew was "Dancing Queen" that I'd skated to growing up. I had a girlfriend in the show who asked why I wasn't interested, and when I told her I didn't feel like it was for me, she said I'd be a great Tanya. I didn't know who that was, so I watched the movie. A lot of people made fun of the movie, but I loved the music and it looked like so much fun, so I auditioned. … Now as I get into the script, the women have the funniest lines and you can tell they've been friends for a really long time. I love their relationships and how Donna finds herself through her daughter, through us, through her past. This music, this show just makes you want to leap.
So from your first experience with this story to now being in the throes of it, has your perspective of this story or these characters shifted at all?
SD: Mine has shifted massively. If you watch the film, Sophie is giggly and bubbly, and she is absolutely not that way when you read the script. She's smart, she's well-spoken, she's a go-getter; she's not an airhead, she's quite grounded. My first impression was that she was whimsical and sings a lot of ballads, but she's not. She's youthful, but she's a woman. I learned very quickly that was the wrong way to approach the role, and it was a huge jump.
PSH: From my perspective, I'm always cognisant of the fact that it was originally written by British people. Some of the phraseology, even when it's translated to an American script, there's still a lot of Britishisms and humor. But now there's only one English character, and he gets the very stereotypical sensibility of what an American audience wants to see from a British uptight guy. It's not really in the original, but now there's something about him that makes you want to play him sort of tight-lipped, but I don't think he is. I think he's actually quite a fun guy. I mean, he must have been. You get that from hearing him sing about his youth before he made the decision to put that all aside. Yes, he made the decision, but I don't think that's who he is.
AN: I think when Tanya first arrives, for her, too, it's an escape from the marriages and divorces, a chance to reunite with her girlfriends, let her hair down and not worry about who's going to take care of her now. This journey and watching Donna's dilemma and having this young man follow her around as sort of the forbidden fruit, she finally lets herself go and let's herself just be. She gets to that point of feeling like what happens on the Greek island stays on the Greek island. My journey in this piece is one to freedom.
Going back to the idea of this show being pure fun, what do you think this experience can be for a community?
AN: Everyone here is so excited about this show. I watch the news 24 hours a day, even when I'm learning my music, and when all this is what's on the news, people don't want to watch it, but they're excited to come have a good time.
SD: I think it's what we need. Theater's always been an escape for actors, for audience members, to go and spend a few hours watching not your life. This kind of escape is even better because, like we said, it is pure fun. You don't have to think a lot, just show up and enjoy it.
PSH: We've kind of joked that it can seem like a flimsy story, but it's also quite a tight show. It is well-constructed and that becomes very obvious when compared with various shows of its ilk, and they just sort of fall apart. This one is actually watertight, and I don't know what it is, but I think that helps us all to be secure in the fact that, yes, we're going to have a good time.
Is there a moment or song that holds a sort of special magic for you?
PSH: For me, "The Winner Takes It All" always gets me, but I think that might be from my childhood. Actually, my first album was "Arrival" that I bought in 1977. It was probably under a pound then, and it had a helicopter on the front. I remember when "Winner Takes It All" came out in the 1980s, and I think I read somewhere that that song is the fulcrum upon which the original creators based the whole show, recognizing that it was a true musical theater song with a background and emotional drive to it. It's quite powerful and always takes me back.
AN: Mine is "Dancing Queen." I skated to that song in 1977 when I was 7 years old, and I love it and it makes me happy.
SD: I was born in the '80s and didn't really make it into the ABBA age, but my first taste was in fifth grade when my teacher loved "Dancing Queen" and played it constantly. We would just dance in the classroom to it all the time.
But coming into the show, my favorite is "Name of the Game" because it's a time where Sophie is very vulnerable. It's all dance music, but they were great lyricists. I have no idea how they did it.
PSH: The music is actually quite complex. If you talk to Andrew Cooke, our musical director, the first thing he would say is that when you listen to it, it may sound like bubble gum, but it's really complex and very deep and actually quite difficult to perform because of that. We might think of ABBA in giant flares and dancing to disco, but their music really is extraordinary.
AN: I love "Chiquitita," too. That's such a beautiful song, even though I couldn't say the word at first. These songs really tell a story.
What details can you give us on costumes and choreography?
PSH: I can't say much about mine because I haven't had my fittings yet and haven't seen them, but I'm so excited.
AN: I love my costumes. I've only seen two of them — the silver boots are coming home with me — and the others I've only seen the renderings and I can't wait.
SD: Oh, the costumes are super fun. Sometimes when you put on a costume, it informs the character. I almost had a panic attack when I saw bikinis, but after the fittings, I had this moment of, duh, we're supposed to be on an island. Of course Sophie wouldn't be wearing long sleeves and pants. Getting into the costumes really helped us set these scenes and get into characters. I love them all.
PSH: That's what's interesting about the construct of costumes, I think people don't realize that it's not just how they look, but how they operate as well. One has to sometimes do some rather extraordinary things in your costume and it has to have an authenticity about it. That's always the first question as an actor: Can I do in my costume what I've been rehearsing all this time?
AN: Our last costumes, the big ones, when we put them on the other day, we realized there are all these moves we have to change now. And I'm a dancer first, I've been dancing my whole life. I marry the music with my steps, whereas a singer would mary the steps to the music. I can't learn the music without moving.
SD: It's been exciting and terrifying for me because I end up dancing with a lot of the ensemble and they are amazing. I was a professional ballerina until I was 14, so I get frustrated when I get things wrong, but that technique still carries through. I didn't get to dance much the last time I did this show, so this is just so fun. And our choreographer Joe Chvala is great.
PSH: I would term myself more as a "mover" than a dancer. I think Harry and all the dads have less responsibility when it comes to dancing, which is probably a good thing, however, we still have to abide by the choreography. Joe is fantastic to work with; he's patient and he has a very clear idea about the feeling and emotion he wants.
AN: The hardest thing with the Dynamos is the microphones. We have to keep changing hands and I have to remember we're actually singing into the mics!
SD: What's interesting about this piece is that a lot of people have done it, but it always feels like the first time. It's a new perspective, new dancing, new relationships — all of it is new.