The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] The 'Mamma Mia!' journey after 20 years in Korea

By Park Ga-young

Published : April 15, 2023 - 16:01

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Associate choreographer Leah-Sue Morland participates in a rehearsal session for Associate choreographer Leah-Sue Morland participates in a rehearsal session for "Mamma Mia!" (Seensee Company)

When the "Mamma Mia!" musical's associate producer, Paul Garrington, and associate choreographer Leah-Sue Morland first came to Korea, it did not occur to them that the trip would foster a connection that would last more than 20 years.

Garrington vividly remembers his first visit to Korea in 2002, when his company was putting on a production in Japan. They were still exploring possible production opportunities in Korea, where the musical industry was in a very early stage.

Garrington and the producer were invited to an empty theater by Seensee CEO Park Myung-sung to listen to a group of theater performers singing three Abba songs.

“They sang with such heart ... (and) emotion that made me and the producer cry and from that moment on we fell in love with the Korean company and Korean producers and decided that we would continue the idea of ... producing here,” he said.

In January 2004, the local production was finally unveiled to Korean audiences and in 2023, "Mamma Mia!" returned for the 12th time to run until June 25 at Chungmu Art Center.

Whenever there was a production in Korea, both Garrington and Morland would spend two months in the country prior to the opening of the show, preparing performers.

When asked about how the show has changed over such a long time, the associate producer, hailing from the UK, said that the show has probably changed a lot and also not changed at all.

It has changed because “we're always trying to keep the show evolving so that it always looks fresh and doesn't look like a 25-year-old show,” he said, adding that “if there are changes that have evolved, it's probably to do with the artists and what they bring to these roles.”

Associate producer Paul Garrington participates in a rehearsal session for Associate producer Paul Garrington participates in a rehearsal session for "Mamma Mia!" (Seensee Company)

According to Garrington, observing Choi Jung-won's portrayal of Donna for over a decade has been captivating due to her growth as an artist and how she has incorporated her personal experiences into the role. Garrington stated, "Watching her evolve as an artist and witnessing the changes in her life and how she brings her experiences into her part has been fascinating."

Morland, who discovered she was pregnant on her first visit to Korea (her son is now 19 years old), said she also found that the performers have gained more technical skills and experiences through other shows, and that they now benefit from better training and more facilities.

This means that the process has become more challenging for them.

“South Korea’s musical industry has become a hugely important, crowded market and the competition to get the best people, who now have a lot of choices, is intense,” Garrington noted. “It's absolutely on the level with the West End, so that challenges us to raise our game as well,” he added.

What has not changed is that “Mamma Mia!” is a long-running show that appeals to a more diverse audience with its mother-daughter story and powerful music.

Set on a Greek island, musical "Mamma Mia!" revolves around Sophie, a bride-to-be who invites three men to her wedding, believing that one of them is her father. Without informing her mother, Donna, Sophie's plan leads to a rekindling of old emotions and memories as the three men arrive. The show features the famous songs of Swedish pop group ABBA.

Armed with the music and story, Morland said that the musical maintains its momentum throughout the show and there are never any moments where the audience might not be engaged. “This show just keeps driving up to end on positivity and it invites the audience to be able to celebrate that at the end,” she said.