The Life of Judy Craymer, Creator of Mamma Mia

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When Judy Craymer was a child she was convinced that her
future career would involve horses in some way. Brought
up in a middle class home in North London, she had a horse
of her own and spent her teenage years going to horse shows
every weekend and riding horses for other owners.
She also got her first taste of the theatre while growing
up. Her parents, a solicitor and a nurse, were keen theatre
goers and would often take her and her younger brother to
see shows in the West End. She says: ‘I am forever grateful
to them for that. It was a huge treat. The first musical I saw
was  Oliver. And it was a big experience going to the
Haymarket and seeing  The Merchant of Venice with Sir
Ralph Richardson. We would also take picnics to the open
air opera in Holland Park.’
The visits to the West End evidently made a big impres-
sion because at the age of 18 Craymer suddenly changed her
mind about pursuing a career with horses and decided that
she wanted to go to drama school instead. She says: ‘One of
my horses became very ill and I just thought that’s it, I am
going to the Guildhall School of Music.’

Right from the start, however, she knew that she did not
want to become an actress, preferring to work behind the
scenes. She got a place to study stage management and loved
it. She says: ‘I was just in love with what I was doing there. I
got completely involved with everything and it became my
social life as much as studying.’
After graduating she got a job as an assistant stage
manager at the Haymarket theatre in Leicester. Several jobs
in stage management followed, until at the age of 22 she
landed a job in London as assistant stage manager for the
original production of the musical Cats.
A year later she became assistant to theatre producer Tim
Rice. While she was there she met Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny
Andersson, two of the members of the Swedish pop group
Abba. The group had just disbanded and the two of them
were writing the music for Rice’s musical Chess.
It was a pivotal moment. Craymer says: ‘I was never a
huge Abba fan as a teenager, but after meeting Bjorn and

Benny I became hooked. I thought bloody hell, these were
the men who wrote “Dancing Queen”.’
After five years she left her job with Rice to work in the
film industry as a director’s assistant, working on films such
as White Mischief and Madame Souzatska. But her new-found
interest in Abba refused to go away. Now in her mid-30s,
she started spending hours on end sitting on the floor of her
flat listening to old Abba records. Eventually she decided
she wanted to make a film that told a story using their songs
and she started making tapes of how the songs would fit
together.
Craymer had stayed in touch with Ulvaeus because he
kept a horse at his house in England which she would occa-
sionally exercise for him. So one day she plucked up the
courage to mention her idea of making a film based on their
music. He and Andersson were encouraging, albeit rather
bemused. Craymer says: ‘They patted me on the head and
said see you next year.’
In the end, however, turning her idea into a realistic project
took rather longer than a year. In fact Craymer continued to
think about how to turn her Abba project into reality for the
next 10 years while taking jobs in the film and television
industry. When it seemed as though pursuing her Abba idea
was leading nowhere, she tried to turn her attention to other

ideas. She says: ‘I had lots of other ideas. I was working very
hard trying to find projects.’
But her Abba dream refused to go away. She kept coming
back to it and finally in 1995 she had her big idea. She
suddenly realised her idea would work much better as a
musical than a film. Rejuvenated, she went back to talk to
Ulvaeus and Andersson. They told her that if she could come
up with a good story then they would consider giving her
the rights to use their songs.
Encouraged by their response, Craymer gave up her job,
found someone to write the script with and got to work. The
two of them decided that the musical should tell the story of
a mother and a daughter.
She found little support from her friends however. She
says: ‘Everyone thought I was crazy. They said that Abba
was so passé, and that I should get over it. No one could
understand.’
She started to gather people around her to help but as the
project gained momentum the tension started to mount.
Craymer says: ‘I still didn’t have the rights to the songs and I
knew that at any moment Bjorn and Benny could jump ship.
It was a white knuckle ride because by then I’d started
having to pay people. It kept me so focused. Also I knew
that they had not had a particularly good experience working
on the musical Chess, and that if my project was going to
have backstage squabbles and unhappy people they would
just walk away.’

Craymer also had to start spending her own money on
lawyers’ fees, flying overseas for meetings and hiring a crea-
tive team to work on the project. By 1997 she had run up a
£20,000 overdraft and had to sell her flat. She says: ‘I think I
just numbed myself to it.’
But her persistence eventually paid off. By the end of
1997 she had finally secured Ulvaeus and Andersson’s
agreement to use their songs and set up her own company
with them to hold the rights to the show. After a year of

negotiations and meetings she also managed to persuade
Abba’s record producer Polygram to finance half the
£3-million cost of putting the show on in London – and
even got them to advance her £300,000 to workshop the
show, which was to be called Mamma Mia. Ulvaeus and
Andersson helped persuade a Swedish bank to invest the
rest of the money they needed.
Mamma Mia finally opened in London’s West End in April
1999 and the show was an instant success, selling out every
night for weeks in advance. And that was just the start.
Mamma Mia has since grossed over a billion US dollars at the
box office, has opened in more than 120 major cities and has
been seen by 24 million people worldwide.
In 2005 Craymer’s company Littlestar, in which she has a
50 per cent share, had a turnover of over £23 million. All the
creative team involved in the show have become million-
aires. In 2008 Mamma Mia was made into a film starring
Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. To date the stage version
of the musical and the film have together grossed more than
$2.5 billion US dollars worldwide, making Judy Craymer
one of the richest women in the country with a personal
fortune of £75 million. Craymer says: ‘I still can’t really quite
believe it. I never knew we had such a hit on our hands. I
just wanted to make it work.’

Now aged 51, she thinks the secret of her success has been
her sheer determination not to give up. ‘You have to make
people believe in what you are doing. I was so passionate
about it that when someone at one of the meetings suggested
we put the show off I just shouted “No you can’t do this, it
has to happen.”’
She thinks that although someone might have several ideas
for projects, the key to being successful is to choose just one of
them and then to focus on it completely. She says: ‘You have
to concentrate on something to achieve something. This has
taken every fibre of my focus and concentration for a number
of years. Mamma Mia is my life. It is a complete obsession.’

The rewards have been immense, and not just in financial
terms. She says: ‘One of my ambitions was never having to
work for somebody else again, I wanted the freedom to
create projects on my own and not to have to go cap in hand
to people. And that is what I have got.’

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