Meryl Streep could have had a bigger role in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Producer Judy Craymer on how the sequel came to life – and what might have caused the death of Donna Sheridan
When Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again became the smash hit of last summer, there were calls for it to become the next Fast and Furious. With its feel-good tunes, spandex-wearing cast and uplifting message, the mood was ripe for a musical franchise.
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The keys to unlock the franchise lie with producer Judy Craymer, the mastermind behind the original Mamma Mia! stage musical and two successful films starring the likes of Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters and... Cher! "We could just keep going," she jokes.
But it took a decade to release a sequel to 2008's Mamma Mia! and there are currently no plans for a third. Craymer isn't denying it could happen: "if we did, we'd have to do it much quicker than ten years because we'd all be quite old. And who would it be? Is it Ruby and Fernando's story?"
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The Ruby in question is the mother of Meryl Streep's Donna Sheridan, played by Cher, alongside Andy Garcia as her long lost lover, Fernando. Their storyline cued up one of the sequel's finest moments and the Believe singer's presence helped to paper over fan disappointment at the death of Streep's Donna between the two films.
The Oscar winner does crop up in the denouement of Here We Go Again – but her character's passing is never explained to fans. Did Craymer and the crew ever decide upon her cause of death?
"It was never in the backstory.
"We always imagined it's something that we all know, probably too close to us – something that hits families, like a breast cancer or something. She didn't fall off the boat or anything."
Craymer adds that Streep "took it well that she was dead" but had "a slight lump in her throat" when she arrived on set to film her two songs. "She felt it as a mother, she felt it as somebody who had created that character in the first film. But she loved the film – if you were at the premiere, she was probably the first on her feet clapping."
It took the best part of a decade to conceive a plot for a sequel – a mesh of two different timelines that Craymer compares to The Godfather II – with various iterations that might have seen Streep in a bigger role.
"When there were other ideas of what the film could be, yes. But you never knew – when you're producing you go, 'well, that if we go all the way down this journey and she doesn't want to do it?' We couldn't replace her with somebody else so when you're doing a second film you're trying to keep all your options open."
Instead, Craymer and writer-director Ol Parker hit upon a formula that saw Streep's character Donna as a young, carefree graduate on a Greek adventure, played by Downton Abbey and Cinderella actress Lily James who won rave reviews for her energetic and enigmatic performance.
"She had this free spirit about her that is Donna Sheridan and she really embodied and encompassed that," recalls Craymer. "Also she'd seen Mamma Mia! the show about eight times with her mum and dad.
"And then there was a lovely coincidence with her that only a few months before we saw her it had been her mother's birthday and she'd stood up on the table and sung The Winner Takes It All, probably after a few, and using I think in pure Dynamo style a beer bottle as a microphone. It was like, yeah, it's meant to be."
Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus also cameo in the film (Bjorn plays a stuffy Oxford professor in opening number When I Kissed the Teacher while Benny crops up in a memorable Waterloo remake) but Craymer admits "in my dreams Agnetha and Frida would pop up as Greek grannies somewhere".
With the backdrop of Here We Go Again's success, the Abba quartet have been back in the studio in recent months. "I haven't actually heard the new songs which is outrageous, really," says Craymer, "but they have recorded two new songs with the girls.
"It's in the future and something they're excited about."
In the meantime, we'll have our fingers crossed for the next film in the Mamma Mia Cinematic Universe.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 26th November, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment