“It’s a rock concert for people who don’t go to rock concerts anymore.”
Kevin Casey is the Music Director of the touring production of Mamma Mia!, currently ensconced at the National Theatre for a week-long engagement which will end on Sunday. Casey spoke to me last week from Philadelphia, where I was expecting that he would talk about how much fun audiences have at the musical that has been running on Broadway since 2001. (Currently it is the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history.) It’s in its 15th year in London and has sold more than 54 million tickets in 35 countries around the world. But what surprised me was learning how much fun the Music Director is having on the tour: “This one’s going to be tough to beat.”
“I’m a novice interviewee, I’m not a pro at this,” Casey told me, explaining that usually it’s the actors that journalists want to talk with. We began by talking about his background. I was interested in how somebody ends up with a gig like this. Does he consider himself a theatre person, or is he a musician who found theatre work? Casey explained that he began as a musician, but he’s been doing theatre tours since 2001.
Born in Jacksonville, FL, while his father was in the Navy, Casey lived on bases for his first eight years. When his dad retired, the family settled in Huntington Beach, CA. His mom got him going to piano lessons as a child. His brother and sister eventually lost interest and quit, but he continued to study music. He performed in the show choir and as an accompanist in high school. His parents were not musicians, but “music fans,” and they took him to a lot of musicals. When his parents saw A Chorus Line, they were so enthused that they saw the show again the next night and took the kids with them.
It was while employed at an arts high school that Casey first worked on a musical. After ten years there, he booked his first job as a keyboard player for a tour of the Gershwin show Crazy for You. “I sort of fell into it.” The tour played one-night stands in small towns, but “it was a lot of fun. It’s a great show. And the smaller the town you play, the more excited they are to have you there.” Audience enthusiasm notwithstanding, he’s not sure that he’d want to go back to a schedule that rigorous.
More tours followed. Casey played keyboard and was assistant conductor for a tour of Titanic. (“I really liked it, but, unfortunately, audiences didn’t share my enthusiasm.”) His first tour as Music Director was Miss Saigon, which went from 2002 to 2005 and included a stop here at the Warner Theatre. He’s done Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Oliver!, Spamalot, Tommy (in Japan), and, for the two years previous to Mamma Mia!, he did the musical version of Shrek, which he described as sort of “band camp,” since kids would come down to the pit and ask about the instruments the orchestra was using. And then along came Mamma Mia!
One of the unusual things about this tour, Casey told me, is that the entire team started on the show together. Mamma Mia!, for the first time since it began touring nationally, had been off the road for a year before this tour began in Orlando last August. So “we all learned it together. That was really nice.” Offers have gone out for next year, and there will inevitably be turnover and a “mixture of old and new” as this tour continues, but “I plan to stay with it.”
There are six in the band, two on keyboard (including Casey, who plays in addition to conducting), two on guitar, one on bass, and one on drums. “There’s six in the band, but we play so loud, it will sound like seven.” If six sounds like a bigger sound than ABBA, which consisted of four, Casey points out that ABBA, when it toured, used a lot of backup musicians to create a fuller sound in concert.
Which brings us to the “A” word: ABBA. “I’m a legitimate ABBA fan now. I wasn’t a fan until I got this job. I was aware of them when they were around, but I was into the Beatles and the Beach Boys, then I got into punk. I dismissed ABBA as something that my Mom liked. When this job first became a possibility, I was skeptical. But once I started reading about them and learning and listening to the records, I became a fan. It’s really extraordinary for a non-English-speaking band to break out like they did. I’m not sure if that’s been repeated before or since. They are beloved by the audience, the audience really responds to the show. And it’s a lot of fun. I love playing the show. The combination of the music and the story really resonates with people. I’m not sure exactly why, or that anybody knows, or they would repeat it.”
With some projects, “you have a novel, a historical event, something to research. Not with this. With this, all there is is them.” Casey told me that he hadn’t seen the show or its movie version prior to being approached about playing for the tour. The night before he got the job offer, he watched the film, and the next night he saw the show on Broadway. “I like it better on stage,” he told me. The next step was collecting the eight albums ABBA had recorded and turning rehearsals into “ABBA school.” Pointing out that a lot of the members of the team were even younger than he, “as little as I knew, they knew less.” So Casey decided that it was important to begin with the albums he had collected, the source material. “I played them the albums first. The theatre arrangements are a little different.”
As much as Casey has enjoyed previous tours, “Mamma Mia! is the clear winner.” (Spamalot “is up there, too,” he added.) “On some tours, where you do two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays, it can feel like drudgery. This one never does. You feel, ‘Alright, let’s go!’ The pressure is that it has to be as good as the last time they saw it. Some in the audience will have seen the show five or six times.”
Of course, there are a lot of people who aren’t thrilled with certain trends in musical theatre, the proliferation of adaptations of popular films, for instance, and of the “jukebox musical,” which takes the song catalogue of a popular singer, musical group, or songwriter and either constructs a story around the best-known songs or presents them as a sort of theatre-concert hybrid. Casey said that he had shared this attitude. “Like I said, I kind of turned up my nose at jukebox musicals until I did one.” He admitted that Mamma Mia! is “not full of deep thoughts,” but argued that “it has its place. After doing it and seeing how happy it makes people, I feel that that is valuable. It’s not in the same artistic category as Fiddler of the Roof, but I don’t dismiss it like I once would have. There’s room for both.”
I mentioned that I haven’t seen Mamma Mia!, either the stage or film version, but I’ve heard the story described enough that it reminded me of a musical I did see in 1979, Carmelina, which played at The Kennedy Center on its way to flopping on Broadway. It was based on the movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, and, during our conversation, as I described its plot, Casey went on Wikipedia and verified that the film was also the source material for Mamma Mia! Casey pointed out the advantage that the version using the pre-existing ABBA songs had over an original score, even one penned by a heavyweight team such as Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane (who, together or separately, were responsible for such monster hits as My Fair Lady, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). “When they took the same story and put music to it that wasn’t familiar, it didn’t do so well.”
We ended by talking about what Casey would like to do in the future. “Once you get on the road, it’s almost hard to get off. All my contacts are tour-related.” That said, are there any of the greats that he would love to conduct? “Top of the heap is West Side Story. That’s still untouchable,” and is a show he’s never done. He loves A Chorus Line. He loves The Secret Garden, both it and Into the Woods are scores that he has “played but never toured.” He said that Les Miz would be fun to tour with, though he feared that it would feel “long and dreary compared to Mamma Mia! Fiddler would be great to do for two weeks, but I don’t know if I’d want to do it for a year.”
The alchemy involved in theatrical success can be mystifying, the formula can be elusive. The longest-running American musical on Broadway is the revival of Chicago, whose original production was eclipsed by a singular sensation (A Chorus Line) that opened the same year and Chicago didn’t do that well the first time around. Familiarity is a component, but, with Shrek, Casey told me, the audience didn’t necessarily know it as a musical, so they “didn’t know what they were getting into.” His happiest experiences have been with Spamalot and Mamma Mia! The audiences “show up, ready to enjoy it.”
Post-script: After our phone conversation, Casey contacted me and thanked me “for the Mamma Mia! origin information,” saying that he had bought Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell on Amazon and the cast recording of Carmelina on I-Tunes, the latter of which “will be my bus music on the trip from here to DC.”
Meanwhile, I’m getting ready to experience Mamma Mia! for the first time when I see the show at the National. I understand that you can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life…