In the early 1980s, Judy Craymer got an assignment that would turn out to be life-changing. Then 25 or so and fresh off a job as a stage manager on the London production of Cats, Craymer was asked to pick up ABBA member Björn Ulvaeus from the airport for a meeting with lyricist Tim Rice. Craymer, who had grown up in London seeing ABBA on Top of the Pops, struck up a friendship with the Swedish pop star and his songwriting partner, Benny Andersson. Eventually she would pitch the duo, who own the rights to ABBAs songs, an idea for their music that would become wildly profitable: the Mamma Mia! stage musical, which has grossed more than $2 billion since it opened on the West End in 1999 and spawned a 2008 film adaptation and a new film sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
“Mamma Mia! makes people comfortable in their own skin,” Craymer said, explaining the appeal of her feel-good franchise while sipping a gin and tonic on a Beverly Hills hotel roof in June. Craymer, who shares producing credit on the new film with Gary Goetzman, is the keeper of the Mamma Mia flame and the seriess resident Swede whisperer. She was visiting Los Angeles as writer-director Ol Parker put the finishing touches on the second film, which arrives in theaters this weekend amid a wave of positive reviews. “[Mamma Mia!] makes people feel kind of happy for two hours,” Craymer said. “Theres a certain amount of looney tunes, and theres emotion, and theres a bit of a wink, and . . . you just feel that youve got a picnic on the beach, or that youre walking along in your canvas shoes and having an alfresco time, really.”
In an era when Hollywood reveres the kind of meticulous world-building that goes into superhero and fantasy franchises, Craymer has been a key force behind the world of Mamma Mia!, set on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi with its azure waters, exuberant musical numbers, and whimsical deployment of Hollywood legends. Surely providing an excuse for Meryl Streep to wear overalls and Cher to sing “Fernando” is as much a contribution to popular culture as minting new Jedis and caped crusaders.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, Craymer said, the Godfather II of this franchise, in the sense that it goes back in time to fill in the story of the originals protagonist, Streeps free-wheeling Donna, with flashbacks of Young Donna, freshly graduated from Oxford and played by Lily James. All of the main original cast members return, including Streep in a brief but poignant musical sequence—“She was never going to be singing 10 songs and swinging off roofs,” Craymer said, of Streep. “Thats not what she wanted to do. Shed done that . . . but she wanted to be involved.” Cher joins the ensemble in the role of Streeps mother, in a bit of chronologically head-scratching casting that somehow makes sense on the timeless island of Kalokairi. No one ages there, really; they just twirl more confidently in their caftans.
A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel, and it was Craymer who finally convinced a reluctant Andersson and Ulvaeus to finally allow one. “They always veer on the side of caution,” Craymer said. “Maybe its a Swedish-ness. Its also kind of a comeback that we always have—No, Judy, that wont work. Yes it will, I say. Thats how we get to where we get, always.” It was also Craymer who pushed for one of the signature moments in the first film, where Streep, wearing a lamé jumpsuit, screams, “Do ya want another one?,” before launching into an end credits performance of “Waterloo” with her castmates. “I remember really fighting for that moment,” Craymer said. “Because everyone said, No, Judy, youre used to theater, and theater is different. My instinct was that whatever happened in the stage show had to happen in the movie theaters. Besides all the fabulousness of the cast and the songs, that is the moment when the audience get their treat to join in.”
On the second film, there was no question such a scene would be included—and theres also a musical number performed on a flotilla of ships, which Craymer refers to as her “Dunkirk moment.” Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, who started tracking Mamma Mia! as a potential film project when she was still a production executive at New Line Cinema, said that Craymer “keeps the guard rails around” Mamma Mia!s highly specific tone.
“Like Cher says, Judys got glitter in her veins,” Langley said. “Shes tenacious. She really does know what excites the fans. Its not as simple as the incredible music. Its a multi-generational story. Its primarily female, but its not limited to that. Its completely uncynical.” When Langley greenlit Parkers script in January of 2017, she told Craymer and Goetzman that she wanted the movie for the summer of 2018, a quick timeline for such an ambitious production. The budget was up, from $52 million for the original film to $75 million this time, a difference Craymer calls “kind of comfortable, but nothing silly.” One territory where Craymer believes the film may find an enthusiastic new audience is China— the original did not play in the nascent Chinese-theatrical marketplace in 2008, but in the years since, Mamma Mia! became the first western musical to be produced in Chinese, with a Chinese cast, and developed a fan base there.
Craymer, 60, graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and worked for British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh, who became a mentor. She has shepherded other, non-ABBA projects as well, including a Spice Girls jukebox musical with Jennifer Saunders that never took off. And she devotes much of her time to raising show horses and race horses, particularly her German Hanoverian dressage-champion stallion, Hector, to whom she was eager to return to after the Mamma Mia! sequel promotion.
“Hes like a typical kind of bloke,” Craymer said, of Hector. “Hes like, When youre not here I dont really miss you, and now that youre here, I want all your attention.” But Mamma Mia! has been the central project in Craymers career, and over the years she has held onto it tightly—including when Harvey Weinstein tried to buy the film rights in the early aughts. “I was trying to hold on to my kingdom,” Craymer said, explaining why she rebuffed the now-disgraced producer, who was then at the peak of his powers in Hollywood. “There were a lot of pitches, and then finally a phone call where he said, I want you to know I do have a modicum of charm. And I think that we should meet and discuss this. And I went and met him . . . and I just was like, God, I just knew what would happen.”
In hearing Craymer talk about the Donna character in Mamma Mia!, a woman who blazes her own path in life, its hard not to see parallels to the producer herself. “She was independent, she was feisty, and she didnt rely on any of those guys,” Craymer said, of Donna. “She did it on her own, and I think thats an important message—not being on your own, but that you can make something good.”
As Craymer talked, she waved a wrist covered in glittering, expensive-looking bracelets, including one which appeared to be a white leather band with Mamma Mia! spelled out in diamonds. “Do you want one?” she asked, when complimented on it. “Its not real. Cher just called me and said her band was broken, and she needed a new band. I laughed because theyre not real. Here . . .” she said, handing over a plastic-wrapped promotional Mamma Mia! bracelet. “Anyone can have one. Theyre fun, arent they?”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.